international analysis and commentary

The new Congress and US politics

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In his 35 years of service as a Senator from Delaware (plus eight years as US Vice President and President of Senate), Joe Biden has been widely known as a moderate policymaker, able to compromise and work across the aisle. Using European ideological lenses, he could be considered as a “reformist” and the words “little progress is better than no progress” could be used to define his activity as a centrist, pragmatic figure. All these qualities will certainly help his mandate as US President since the Senate control will likely be decided by the outcome of the two Georgia run-off races in January.

Senator Joe Biden with his wife, Jill, and children, from left, Robert Hunter, Joseph III, and Ashley, after declaring his candidacy for president, in 1987.

 

Before the November 3rd vote, Republicans held a 53-47 majority in the Senate. Several opinion polls forecasted a scenario with Democrats crucially re-taking control of the upper House. But the Democratic Party gained only one new seat in the Senate and would need two more for a 50-50 split. Then, with Joe Biden in the White House, Kamala Harris as vice president would cast tie-breaking votes in the upper chamber. A narrowly-divided Senate, regardless of who is in control, means that the President will need cross-party cooperation in many cases to move any significant legislation forward.

Democrats knew that they were going to lose the Alabama seat that was surprisingly won by Doug Jones in the 2017 special election (the first Democrat to represent the State in the US Senate in 21 years), but they had targeted several other seats: They were confident in defeating moderate Republican Susan Collins in Maine; opinion polls were positive about the ousting of Steve Daines in Montana; and some liberals were even dreaming of beating Republican majority leader Mitch McConnell in Kentucky. None of this happened. Cal Cunningham came closer to defeating incumbent Thom Tillis in North Carolina, but he lost by one percentage point. The only two Democratic wins were in Arizona and in Colorado. In the first race, former astronaut Mark Kelly prevailed over incumbent Senator Martha McSally; in the latter, John Hickenlooper had an easy task in taking the Colorado seat from incumbent Republican Corey Gardner who unexpectedly won the seat six years ago.

The control of the Senate thus depends on Georgia’s two run-off races, as no candidate in either contest has reached the required 50% threshold to win outright. Both races were very close: incumbent Republican Davide Perdue fell short of a few thousands votes from the simple majority and will again face former investigative journalist Jon Osoff, who trailed him by just 1.7 percentage points.

The other contest was held following Republican Johnny Isakson’s resignation due to deteriorating health. Georgia’s state rules provide that a primary election does not occur; instead, all candidates, regardless of party, are placed on the same “final” ballot. If no candidate receives more than 50% of the vote, the top two finishers advance to a run-off election. Eight Democrats were on the ballot versus five Republicans, plus several other candidates from third parties. The Democratic Party largely consolidated around the name of Raphael Warnock, and pressured other Democratic candidates to drop out to avoid vote splitting. The GOP left more freedom to its candidates and did not significantly influence voters over their choices. As expected, top Democrat Rapahel Warnock and “Trumpist” Republican Kelly Loeffler made it through to the run-off to be held on January 5, 2021.

All eyes will be on Georgia for the next two months. There will be record spending, unprecedented campaigning and probably a lot of mudslinging in these races. A Democratic sweep of both Georgia races is the only path left for Democrats to gain the majority. Georgia has been a Republican stronghold for years, but the changing electorate has given Democrats hope and both races are widely open. For instance, summing up to Warnock all votes given to other Democrats and to Loeffler all votes cast for Republicans, the race gets very close to a 50-50 consensus split.

Increasingly determinant is the large base of minority voters, especially African Americans, who traditionally lean toward Democrats. Biden was able to keep and mobilize them to vote and also to increase his white vote share, which is where Hillary Clinton and other Democratic Congressional candidates have been lacking in the past five years. Biden’s 2020 success in the State was remarkable, as not even Barack Obama was able to win there in his two runs for President.

Jon Ossoff with his supporters

 

Georgia symbolizes the current demographic trends of the country: white people represent only 52% of all voters and the metropolitan area of Atlanta has become the cornerstone of the African American middle class. Democratic-affiliated organizations, such as Stacey Abrams’s “Fair Fight”, Lauren Groh-Wargo’s “ProGeorgia”, and “New Georgia Project” led by Nsé Ufot did astonishing work against voter suppression and were able to register hundreds of thousands of new voters (in 2020 registered voters totalled more than 7.6 million people).

Georgia has been a land of success for the Democratic Party in this election cycle: Democrats also picked up the 7th District in the Congressional election and retained all previous ones. This model of collaboration between the national and the local party and the key work of the above-mentioned grassroots organizations have been central and certainly will help in the upcoming crucial Senate run-off.

Regarding the House of Representatives, Democrats retained their majority, but now have a smaller margin. With about ten races still undecided, they only picked up three Congressional seats which were previously held by Republicans, while the GOP conquered nine seats that were occupied by Democratic representatives. Among others, the Republican Party was able to win a district in Michigan, one in Minnesota and it also prevailed in the 48th California District.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi will certainly be able to work proficiently with the new administration, however Democrats were projected to score gains and this final outcome certainly leaves many dissatisfied.