On Saturday night, news outlets declared the Nevada senatorial race for incumbent Catherine Cortez Masto, a victory ensuring that the Democrats will retain control of the Senate. The House remains unsettled, but even if the Republicans win that chamber, they will have so narrow a margin as to be unable to achieve much (or, more accurately, to do much damage).
The Senate victory is a gratifying achievement: Democrats went into the election with no margin to spare in the Senate, standing dead-even at 50-50 with the GOP. Holding on to those 50, in defiance of historical patterns where incumbent parties lose ground in midterms and in the face of headwinds in the economy and an unpopular president, will enable Joe Biden to continue to perform basic tasks of governance, including senior staffing and judicial nominations. Fifty Senate seats are a blessing—but, to borrow the language of the film Wolf of Wall Street, those are still rookie numbers. Fifty is fine, but 51 would be much finer, and that’s a very achievable goal if Raphael Warnock wins reelection in the Georgia runoff next month. After Cortez Masto’s win, there were more than a few comments on social media, including one from Bloomberg Opinion editor Tim O’Brien, that Georgia was just “gravy.” O’Brien followed it up with a tweet saying, “Essential gravy.” This was formulation is better than the just plain old “gravy.” A Georgia victory would be an added treat but it is also very much needed.
But Georgia is not just gravy: There are ample reasons why improving on the bare-minimum majority of 50 Senate seats (plus the tiebreaker vote from Vice President Kamala Harris) is worth fighting hard for. For one thing, the Democratic caucus in the Senate has some very old members: Dianne Feinstein is 89 and Bernie Sanders (an independent who caucuses with the Democrats) is 81. It would be a terrible thing if health issues made it impossible for either of them to carry out their duties, creating a period when Democrats no longer had control of the Senate. Fifty-one seats would give the party a needed cushion.
If Warnock is reelected, Democrats will get another form of cushion, in having less to worry about in 2024. That will also be a tough election, where Democrat incumbents will face challenges in GOP-leaning states like Montana and West Virginia. The Democrats might keep those seats, but with 51 they’d have a little bit more breathing room if they fell short in one state.
A win in Georgia would also give them a much-needed cushion against possible defections by Joe Manchin and Kyrsten Sinema, conservative-leaning Democrats who have repeatedly sabotaged their party’s agenda. As Richard Yeselson of Dissent magazine stresses, “Georgia [is] still important. Allows Dems to lose Manchin or Sinema on any given confirmation vote. Also: If Warnock loses, McConnell incentivized to make strong pitches to Manchin and/or Sinema to switch parties. Would they do it? Don’t know, but it’s happened before, more than once.”
Even if Manchin and Sinema aren’t tempted by defection, a Warnock reelection would have the salutary effect of diminishing their power. Manchin would no longer have a veto on the Democratic agenda. Sinema would likely become more cautious too, especially since fellow Arizona Senator Mark Kelly was reelected with nearly 52 percent of the vote. The reelection of an Arizona senator who ran as an orthodox Democrat, combined with the fact that she will face primary voters in 2024, should concentrate Sinema’s mind on her own political future. There would be good reason for her to become more wary about bucking the party line. The Democrats would therefore have a larger caucus and one that would—at least in theory—be more ideologically disciplined.
As Slate writer Mark Joseph Stern notes, 51 Senate seats also means Joe Biden can push through many more judges. “If Warnock wins the Georgia runoff,” Stern points out, “Schumer can pick up the pace of judicial confirmations. No more Senate Judiciary Committee deadlocks that force Democrats to waste time on floor votes for discharge petitions. 51-49 would be huge.”
Judges are crucial, because Donald Trump absolutely stacked the federal judiciary with right-wing ideologues, making nearly as many appointments in one term as predecessors like Bill Clinton and Barack Obama did in two. This cohort of right-wing judges is already working to undermine the ability of Democrats to govern on issues like student debt relief, mask mandates, immigration, and the Voting Rights Act. As Politico observes, “envelope-pushing rulings” from Trump-appointed judges “have fueled questions about whether Trump’s judicial picks are more conservative or more partisan than those of previous Republican presidents and whether decades of unorthodox decrees from those judicial picks lie ahead.”
Countering the hegemony of GOP judges is one of the biggest tasks faced by the Democrats. As Mark Joseph Stern writes, “Trump got 234 federal judges confirmed. Absolutely no reason why Biden can’t meet or exceed that number. The vacancies are only growing.” A reelected Senator Warnock is essential for this task.
The final reason for wanting Warnock to win the 51st Democratic seat is Warnock himself. He’s been a fine candidate and senator. He’s a Black man who ran in a state that was once the heart of the slave South. He’s been an unapologetic progressive, showing that left-of-center politics can win in formerly Republican-dominated states. His opponent, Herschel Walker, is both politically wretched as an unvarnished Trumpist and personally unfit for any public office (given his history of violence toward women and his hypocritical opposition to reproductive freedom after paying for multiple abortions). Warnock’s reelection would be more than icing on the cake. It would be vindication of the Democratic Party’s essential mission in the Trump era: to rejuvenate American democracy by electing honorable public officials.
Correction: A previous version of this article incorrectly identified Bloomberg Opinion editor Tim O’Brien. It has been updated to reflect his correct position and more accurately summarize his tweet thread.