Election Results – Likely GOP Senate Majority; Reduced Dem House Majority

Senate Republicans are favored to maintain control of the U.S. Senate in the next Congress – all they have to do is successfully defend one of two seats in a pair of runoff elections in Georgia. But Democrats have lost seats in the House, narrowing their majority to an as-yet-unknown but tight margin.

Senate. Democrats went into Tuesday holding only 47 Senate seats, but fairly confident that they would retake the Senate majority, hopefully getting a total of 52 to 54 seats to allow them to make sweeping changes like eliminating the legislative filibuster. Instead, they get just a one seat gain, with two pickups (Colorado and Arizona) offset by one loss (Alabama) – but three races are not yet called.

In Georgia, an open primary with no less than 20 candidates on the ballot saw between temporary appointee Kelly Loeffler (R) get 26 percent of the vote, five other Republicans combine for 23.4 percent of the vote,  and three Democrats is predictably going to a runoff, with the two Republicans combining for 46 percent of the vote and Democrat Raphael Warnock get 23.9 percent of the vote. Loeffler and Warnock will face each other in a January 5 two-way runoff election.

In the other Senate race in the Peach State, incumbent David Perdue (R) is currently running 98,412 votes ahead of perennial challenger Jon Ossoff (D),but because of a Libertarian and some write-ins, Perdue’s total is 8,157 votes less than 50.00 percent of votes cast, (he got 49.83 percent so far, to Ossoff’s 47.83 percent), so this race looks like it will go to a January 5 runoff as well.

And in North Carolina, incumbent Thom Tillis (R) currently holds a 96,689-vote lead over challenger Cal Cunningham (D), No one is quite sure how many mail-in and provisional ballots remain to be counted, but it could be less than 100,000 which would cinch the race for Tillis. (Alaska is still counting as well, very slowly, so the newswires haven’t called the race for incumbent Dan Sullivan (R), but he is leading his challenger by a 2 to 1 margin).

Inaccurate polls made some seats seem closer than they would up being. Transportation-HUD Appropriations chairman Susan Collins (R-ME) didn’t lead a public poll all year but won easily (currently up eight points over challenger Sara Gideon (D), whose campaign spent an astounding $200 per vote received). Jaime Harrison (D), the challenger to Senate Judiciary chairman Lindsey Graham (R-SC), raised $100 million by claiming that internal polls had him within reach of victory, but Graham wound up beating him by ten points. Ditto for John Cornyn (R-TX) and Steve Daines (R-MT), who also beat their opponents by ten points each, and even moreso for Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY), who defeated his challenger by over 20 points despite being vastly outspent.

On the Democratic side, Sen. Gary Peters (D-MI) narrowly prevailed over challenger John James (R), currently leading by about 84,000 votes out of 5.4 million cast. And two other Democrats, incumbent Tina Smith (D-MN) and Ben Ray Lujan (D-NM) taking a D-held open seat, each saw relatively narrow victories in the 5 to 6 point range.

Summary: it seems very likely that Senate control will hinge on the two Georgia runoffs on January 5. If Republicans hold both seats, the 117th Congress will have a Senate of 52 Republicans, and 48 Democrats or like-minded independents. If Democrats should somehow pick up both seats, then the 50-50 Senate would be under Republican control (Vice President Pence breaking ties) from January 6 to 20, then under Democratic control (Vice President Harris breaking ties) starting at noon on the 20th.

It is going to be a good two months to own TV and radio stations in Atlanta. Expect tremendous amounts of money to be raised and spent by the national parties on both runoffs. The GOP message will probably be a national one, all about Majority Leader Chuck Schumer and Senate Budget chairman Bernie Sanders working with Nancy Pelosi to enact all kinds of lefty things if Perdue and Loeffler lose. But with Donald Trump not on the ballot, and (it looks like) on his way out of office, no one is quite sure what kind of messaging Democrats should use, or how Trump’s absence will affect turnout. (There are some smart people who think that the absence of Trump will mean fewer Democrats turn out, then some other smart people think that without Trump, Republican turnout will be depressed. No one knows for sure.)

The runoffs may affect when the next Congress begins. Under the 20th Amendment, new Congresses begin at noon on January 3, unless Congress “shall by law appoint a different day.” January 3, 2021 will be a Sunday, so Congress was already expected to pass a law in the lame-duck session choosing a different Opening Day. And 2 U.S.C. §15 declares that a joint session of Congress shall be held at 1 p.m. on January 6 to count the votes of the Electoral College, but Congress has passed laws changing that date in 1985, 1989, 1997, 2009, and 2013 to sync with weekdays and Opening Day. The electoral count has been moved to as early as January 4 and as late as January 9.

(Even if Perdue wins, he will temporarily be out of a job from noon on January 3 to whenever his race is settled, but Loeffler won’t, because her letter of appointment says that she serves “until the vacancy therein caused by the resignation of John H. Isakson is filled by election as provided by law” and Isakson’s term isn’t up until 2022.)

House. Democrats went into the elections holding 233 seats (including the vacancy caused by the death of John Lewis (D-GA) in a safe seat, to 202 seats held by Republicans or Libertarians (including four vacancies). While the polls had led Democrats to think they would gain from five to fifteen seats, it now appears they will lose at least a half-dozen seats.

Democrats were guaranteed to pick up two districts in North Carolina that were recently redrawn by a court to make them much more D-leaning, and they won both of those by 25-plus points each. And they picked up a third seat in the Atlanta suburbs where Rep. Rob Woodall (R-GA) retired rather than fight demography. But that, so far, it is.

Offsetting those three pickups, Democrats have lost two incumbents in South Florida (freshmen Donna Shalala and Debbie Mucarsel-Powell), freshman Rep. Abby Finkenauer in Iowa, Agriculture Committee chairman Collin Peterson in Minnesota, Rep. Kendra Horn in Oklahoma, and Rep. Joe Cunningham in South Carolina. And they lost a vacant seat in New Mexico.

Peterson had been barely hanging on in a reddening district for several cycles, and the New Mexico seat was, by far, the lowest population density of any Dem-held seat, so neither should come as a huge surprise. But the other five Democratic incumbents who went down had themselves flipped districts from red to blue two years ago (the SC and OK pickups were a huge surprise in 2018).

About 36 races haven’t been called yet, but Republicans currently lead in about two-thirds of those. Democratic incumbents Gil Cisneros (D-CA), T.J. Cox (D-CA), Harley Rouda (D-CA), Lauren Underwood (D-IL), Anthony Brindisi (D-NY), Max Rose (D-NY), Thomas Suozzi (D-NY) currently trail their opponents, but counting is much slower this year in most of those areas than in a normal year. Even Jeff Van Drew (R-NJ), who was elected as a Democrat and switched to the GOP after the House decided to impeach President Trump, managed to survive and win re-election this week, and history has rarely been kind to party-switchers seeking re-election.

Disappointment over the results was vented in an all-hands Democratic Caucus conference call yesterday afternoon, which apparently turned into the usual circular firing squad – see this account for details.

Looking ahead: say, for the sake of argument, that Democrats wind up losing a net of ten seats. They would take office in January 2021 holding a 223 to 212 majority. The magic number in the House for a majority on any issue, if everyone shows up to vote, is 218. Democrats would only be able to withstand six defectors on any party-line vote, no more. This is an awfully narrow majority for trying to enact major change. Recall that just five weeks ago, there were 18 Democratic “no” votes on the latest attempt at COVID relief. (When Barack Obama took office in January 2009, Democrats held 256 seats in the House, allowing them to lose up to 38 of their members on any given vote.)

House Republicans have had recent experience with ultra-small majorities – their number in the 106th Congress (1999-2001) was just 223, and that dropped to just 221 in the 107th Congress (2001-2003). Those were the days when House Majority Whip Tom DeLay (R-TX) earned his nickname of “The Hammer” trying to limit defections on key votes.

A Democratic majority in the House, no matter how small, coupled with a Democratic President, is a powerful advantage – but if the House lacks the votes to pass bills putting President Biden’s agenda forward, Mitch McConnell won’t even have to bother obstructing the House.

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