The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

The difference that 51 votes makes for Democrats in the Georgia runoff

Sen. Raphael G. Warnock (D-Ga.) at a campaign stop at Georgia Tech in Atlanta on Monday. (Demetrius Freeman/The Washington Post)
6 min

The 2022 Senate runoff in Georgia has been a sleepier affair than the one from two years ago. This time, control of the Senate isn’t in the balance, with Democrats already having secured their 50th vote.

Still, this election is important for a whole host of reasons — we ran down some of them last week. Now that it’s runoff day in the race between Sen. Raphael G. Warnock (D-Ga.) and Republican Herschel Walker, let’s dive in deeper.

Why, practically speaking, a bigger majority matters

Democrats have the bare 50-vote majority they need to control the Senate, thanks to Vice President Harris’s tiebreaker. But adding a 51st seat matters when it comes to pushing through legislation and, particularly over the next two years, judges.

Committees currently have equal numbers of Democrats and Republicans, but a 51st vote would probably allow Democrats to have actual (albeit slight) Democratic majorities. Those committees have been able to advance legislation and nominations, but Republicans have been able to gum up the works to some degree thanks to tie votes and the procedural hurdles that come with them.

Press Enter to skip to end of carousel
Georgia Senate runoff
The latest
Sen. Raphael G. Warnock (D) has officially defeated Republican challenger Herschel Walker in the Georgia Senate runoff, giving Democrats a 51-49 majority in the Senate. Read our takeaways from the runoff election.


End of carousel

Where this could be especially important over the next two years: judges. Republicans will control the House, which will make passing big-ticket legislation more difficult. But only the Senate votes on judges and other confirmations. And while Democrats generally have been able to confirm President Biden’s picks, taking tie votes off the table would grease the skids.

You can bet confirming judges will be a huge priority, given split control of Congress and how much President Donald Trump and then-Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) were able to recast the judiciary during the last administration. Biden has had limited success in reversing that thus far. (While Biden’s overall number of judges confirmed is similar to Trump’s, Trump replaced many more judges who had been nominated by the other party, particularly at the highest levels.)

This also matters in cases where Democrats struggle to get votes even from their own members. For the past two years, they have had to cater to Senate moderates Joe Manchin III (D-W.Va.) and Kyrsten Sinema (D-Ariz.). Having 51 votes would mean Democrats could lose one of those two on most votes and could put forward more progressive judges.

Sen. Raphael G. Warnock (D) won Georgia’s Dec. 6 runoff election against Republican challenger Herschel Walker. (Video: Blair Guild/The Washington Post)

Again, the legislative benefit of that is reduced thanks to the GOP controlling the House and effectively holding veto power over the Democratic agenda. But, as Bloomberg’s Jonathan Bernstein notes, it could matter for Democrats’ ability to conduct oversight investigations — which they no longer control in the House.

The future of Senate control

Around election time, people often talk about each party’s math for getting to a majority — as if extra seats beyond that threshold are somewhat inconsequential. But the size of that majority matters, even beyond a party’s immediate ability to pass things.

For one, it’s an insurance policy against the unthinkable — the possibility that vacancies or party switches could flip the majority. That has happened before, most recently in 2001. The reason that it hasn’t happened more often is mostly because the Senate isn’t usually this closely divided. But vacancies and seat flips do happen — a lot. In fact, since World War II, about 70 percent of Congresses have featured some kind of shift in partisan balance of the Senate between elections.

Where could that matter over the next two years? Well, 13 Democratic senators and senators-elect serve in states with GOP governors, and those governors could appoint a Republican to replace them in 11 cases. (Several states restrict the appointment to a member of the outgoing senator’s party, but most don’t.) Four of the ones who could be replaced by a Republican are in their 70s or older.

Then there are the implications for future elections. The fact that Democrats held the Senate this year owes in part to those wins in Georgia two years ago. That meant the party needed only to hold its ground, rather than gain two seats. The Senate map in 2024 is tough for Democrats, and having an extra seat as a buffer would improve their odds of keeping the majority.

The stakes for winning Senate seats are particularly large, given that the winner doesn’t have to face reelection for six years. That’s a seat in the bank for the next two elections.

The future of the GOP

The fact that Georgia holds runoffs was inconvenient for the GOP in 2020. Republicans took more votes in both races on Election Day but then lost them in the runoffs.

Fast-forward to 2022, and the fact that Georgia holds runoffs could be pretty inconvenient for Trump. It’s already abundantly clear that Trump-backed candidates cost the GOP winnable seats (look at the chart here) and quite possibly the Senate majority. That has forced a bit of a reckoning in the GOP, after three bad elections under Trump.

Imagine that, four weeks later, we see another loss for a Trump-backed and objectively very flawed candidate in Walker. It would only reinforce what Trump has wrought, even as Trump just launched his campaign to return to the White House in 2024.

Thus far, Trump-backed and -aligned candidates have lost in Nevada and New Hampshire, even as the GOP won the governor’s race in both. And his candidates also unperformed their fellow statewide Republicans in Arizona and Ohio.

Georgia would be a particularly big setback, though, given that every other GOP statewide candidate there won on Election Day — and by an average of more than seven points. Many of them did so after turning aside Trump-backed primary challenges with ease, giving the rest of the ticket more of an establishment flavor that voters seemed to appreciate. But in the Senate race, the party felt compelled to embrace Trump’s choice of a former football star with loads of baggage.

On Tuesday, we could learn that his decision very plausibly cost the GOP another Senate seat — and all the advantages that come with it.

The 2022 Midterm Elections

Georgia runoff election: Sen. Raphael G. Warnock (D) won re-election in the Georgia Senate runoff, defeating Republican challenger Herschel Walker and giving Democrats a 51st seat in the Senate for the 118th Congress. Get live updates here and runoff results by county.

Divided government: Republicans narrowly won back control of the House, while Democrats will keep control of the Senate, creating a split Congress.

What the results mean for 2024: A Republican Party red wave seems to be a ripple after Republicans fell short in the Senate and narrowly won control in the House. Donald Trump announced his 2024 presidential campaign shortly after the midterms. Here are the top 10 2024 presidential candidates for the Republicans and Democrats.