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Opinion: Why Biden’s presidency will be defined by the Georgia vote in January

Rory McNab says Georgia is key to setting the tone of Biden’s administration but he will be up against the might of McConnell.

Rory McNab

JOSEPH R. BIDEN will become the 46th President of the United States on 20 January 2021 – assuming that the numerous legal challenges launched in desperation by the Trump campaign fail to overturn the election results.

However, the fate of Biden’s first two years in office is set to be decided some two weeks prior to his inauguration.

On 5 January the state of Georgia will return to the polls for a ‘runoff election’ after a special Senate election to replace the retiring Republican Senator Johnny Isakson failed to provide a conclusive winner.

Due to the necessity of staging this special Senate election, Georgia was the only state to have both of its Senate seats up for grabs on election night.

And, in a blow to Republicans, the state’s main Senate race will now also head to a runoff after the Republican incumbent, David Perdue, finished below the 50%+1 threshold of votes required by Georgia law to win outright. 

A delicate Senate

With results having been returned from all other Senate races across the country, the Republicans currently hold a majority in the US upper-house, holding 50 seats to the Democrats’ 48.

These runoff elections in Georgia have therefore suddenly taken on an unanticipated national significance; they are set to decide the balance of the 100-person Senate for the first two years of Biden’s presidency.

biden The Biden-Harris administration faces many challenges, not least the possibility of a divided House. Source: Carolyn Kaster

Should Georgia’s two Democratic candidates, Jon Ossoff and Raphael Warnock, succeed in securing both seats in early January, the Democrats will win control of the Senate – despite the floor of the upper house being split 50-50.

Within the Senate, if any vote returns a stale-mate then the Vice-President is able to cast the deciding vote. Thus, in the case of any tied Senate votes, as could be expected to happen fairly frequently in a split house, Vice-President-elect, Kamala Harris, would provide the Democrats with a functioning majority.

The importance of winning both seats is therefore crucial for Biden to deliver on many of his campaign’s promises. Failure to do so could see the newly-elected President’s first two years in office mired by political deadlock.

A Biden administration in gridlock?

Democrats know that, with a Republican-controlled Senate, it would be nearly impossible for many of the more progressive policies contained in Biden’s ‘Build Back Better’ manifesto to gain any traction – particularly the $1.7 trillion plan to reshape American climate policy. 

Indeed, Biden himself is all too aware from his time as Barack Obama’s Vice-President of the political dysfunction that can result from a Democratic presidential administration operating alongside an adversarial Republican Senate.

President Obama’s final two years in office were effectively ground to a legislative halt thanks to the efforts of Republican Senate leader, Mitch McConnell. McConnell used his party’s majority, gained in 2014, to create a legislative blockade for the Democratic president.

Through the use of the filibuster and strict partisan voting, McConnell successfully sought to leverage the Republican majority to suppress as many Democratic policies passing through the house as possible. 

republican-senators-offer-remarks-following-the-gop-luncheon United States Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell Source: SIPA USA/PA Images

A remarkably pertinent example of McConnell’s strategy came in early 2016 when Justice Antonin Scalia passed away, leaving a vacancy on the Supreme Court. McConnell strenuously objected to President Obama choosing a nominee and questioned the ethical validity of an outgoing President seeking to fill a Supreme Court seat during an election year.

The Senate leader refused to act on the nomination, stymieing Obama’s efforts, and ultimately enabling President Trump to choose the nominee to fill the vacancy instead. McConnell’s attitude here is in notable contrast to his approach to recent events.

Following Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s passing, he sought to hastily push through Amy Coney Barrett’s nomination to fill the vacant seat on the Supreme Court, despite the presidential election being mere weeks away.

However, Biden’s reputation as an astute bipartisan negotiator, coupled with his personal friendship with McConnell from years spent working together in the Senate, has raised hopes that his administration may end up having a more functional relationship with a Republican-controlled Senate than did Obama’s.

The McConnell wall

Many Democrats remain sceptical, however. Democratic Senator for Connecticut, Chris Murphy, told Politico recently that he expects McConnell to act so obstructively that there could be “a constitutional crisis pretty immediately”.

Given this uncertainty, the spectre of having to operate within the stifling parameters of a Republican-led Senate hangs heavily over the Democrats. 

Yet, prior to the election, it seemed almost inconceivable to many in Biden’s camp that ultimate control of the Senate would end up being decided by a runoff election in Georgia.

Over the past few months, hopes had grown among Democrats that they would be able to comfortably attain a Senate majority. However, as results began to emerge on election night, it rapidly became apparent that any such overhaul was likely off the table.

The stronger than anticipated turn-out for Republicans thwarted the election hopes of several aspirant Democratic senators. As in 2016, the polls had failed to fully portray reality, creating a misguided impression of the electoral landscape.

Targeted Republican seats in Montana, Maine and South Carolina which had seemed within reach for Democrats, ended up returning strong leads for their Republican incumbents.

All of this has led to Georgia becoming the centre of the Democrats’ focus; the place where the tone and legislative scope of Biden’s presidency will be decided.

Pending the results of Georgia’s post-election audit, which is not expected to have any significant impact on Biden’s 14,000 vote lead in the state’s presidential election results, Georgia has returned a majority for a Democratic presidential candidate for the first time since 1992.

Though an undoubted scalp for Democrats, there are fears that such favourable results are unlikely to await either of their senatorial candidates, Jon Ossoff or Raphael Warnock in the runoff.

Warnock, a Baptist Reverend with a strong history of advocacy for public healthcare reform, is the more precariously placed of the two. The fact that he managed to force a runoff is perhaps more attributable to the Republican vote being split between two broadly popular Republican candidates, rather than from the strength of his own performance.

election-2020-georgia-senate Democratic candidate for Senate Jon Ossoff, left and Republican candidate for Senate Sen. David Perdue in Atlanta. Source: AP/PA Images

To have any hope of gaining the Senate seat held by Republican Kelly Loeffler, Warnock will have to significantly improve on his disappointing vote-share of 33% in last week’s election.

However, it is in the other race where Democrats may be more optimistic.

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Republican incumbent David Perdue’s failure to secure more the minimum 50%+1 vote threshold was a bitter disappointment for the Republican. Despite his Democrat contender, Jon Ossoff, polling favourably before the election, Perdue’s camp had been confident that he incumbent would retain his seat.

georgia-senate Stacey Abrams, former candidate for Georgia governor, speaks at campaign event for Rev. Raphael Warnock. Source: SIPA USA/PA Images

Ossoff, having forced a runoff, now seems well placed to challenge and his 48% vote share provides a solid platform to improve on. It is not inconceivable that, come January, following extensive campaigning, Ossoff could emerge the victor.

What’s more, both candidates’ chances of securing election will invariably end up relying heavily on Stacey Abrams, a Georgian political activist whose work proved central to Biden’s victory in the state. 

Following a failed gubernatorial race in 2018, marred by allegations of Republican voter suppression, Abrams has since sought to help register hundreds of thousands of urban black voters in Georgia.

It was the votes of these people in typically under-represented areas, of Atlanta in particular, that gave Biden his slender victory, and it is their votes that could prove crucial in January.

While the Democrats’ immediate focus may be on assembling a transition plan for the presidency, it will not be long before all eyes turn to Georgia.

The following two months will see a renewed frenzy of campaign activity from both Republicans and Democrats across the narrowly divided Southern state. Both sides are all too aware that the runoff elections provide the chance to shape the trajectory of Biden’s presidency before it even begins.

Rory McNab is a journalist, editor and writer living in Dublin whose work focuses on politics, pop culture and satire.  

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