Democrats really did it. They flipped the Senate. Now the party has control of both chambers of Congress and the presidency for the first time since 2009.
This victory is due to hard work from Georgia organizers who have been battling voter suppression for decades—and Trump’s wild conspiracy theories about election fraud for the past few months.
Democrats should view this victory as a mandate to save democracy. But in order to do so, they’ll need to get their own house in order on process and power, especially in the Senate.
Attacking democracy loses elections
Runoffs always have lower turnout than general elections, but we can see that Democratic turnout remained strong while Republican turnout fell off more significantly across Georgia. On the one hand, Trump was not on the ballot, which surely depressed turnout for Republicans, but turnout was also down in an area where Trump had recently campaigned.
More importantly for democracy, Republicans’ strategy of declaring all out war on the election results—including Sen. Kelly Loeffler’s promise to challenge today’s Electoral College certification—didn’t work. In fact, it may have backfired by undermining confidence in voting among their base.
It’s not enough to celebrate this win. Democrats should also make it clear that Republicans played with fire and voters burned them as a result. If that becomes conventional wisdom—and some conservatives are already heading there—Republicans may be less likely to embrace their worst anti-democratic instincts in the future.
Save democracy for a generation
Democrats campaigned on a few national-level priorities in Georgia, including civil rights and COVID relief, including $2k relief checks. More broadly, Stacey Abrams and a constellation of Georgia groups have built a multi-racial coalition of voters who have repeatedly overcome Republican voter suppression to scrape out serious victories in a newly purple state.
Now Democrats have a potentially small window to actually govern. In 2009, they swept into office with a filibuster-proof majority of sixty senators. But Democrats lost their super-majority after Massachusetts Senator Ted Kennedy passed away and was replaced by Republican Scott Brown.
Still, Democrats were able to secure major victories in that Congress, including a Recovery Act and Obamacare. But they neglected to secure power and process victories, setting the stage for the pendulum to swing back to Republicans in 2010: they took over state legislatures, gerrymandered Congressional districts and started passing a new slate of voter suppression laws.
Today, fighting for democratic power isn’t about making things easier for Democrats. It’s about making our democracy work for everyone so we can have meaningful, competitive elections—and so the Republican party can no longer govern with only minority support from voters.
A democratic reform agenda includes a new Voting Rights Act, an end to partisan gerrymandering, and appointing younger progressives to the courts. It also includes admitting Washington, DC as a new state. (A bare majority of Puerto Rico voters also supported statehood in a non-binding referendum in 2020, so momentum there may be growing, too.)
But little of that will happen without serious reform of how the Senate operates. And unlike 2009, Democrats won’t have a super-majority. They’ll have 50 senators, with Vice President Kamala Harris casting tie-breaking votes.
Filibuster or Bust
Democrats’ first order of business in the Senate will be setting the chamber’s rules. Without a filibuster-proof majority, they will need to dramatically weaken or eliminate the filibuster itself to pass legislation.
This will be no easy task. Conservative Democrats, notably Joe Manchin, are deeply skeptical about eliminating the filibuster. And even progressive champions like Bernie Sanders have been resistant to eliminating it entirely.
Democrats may need to consider steps such as exempting certain forms of legislation from the filibuster itself, including legislation on voting rights. They can also go back to the so-called talking filibuster, which would force senators to actually hold the floor and speak when filibustering. Sen. Sanders will also be the chair of the Senate Budget Committee and he’s spoken about the possibly of passing major legislation via the Senate’s budget reconciliation process.
No matter what Democrats decide to do, they need to set themselves up to move quickly and clearly after Biden is sworn in. The Iron Law of Institutions would tell us they won’t do it—that senators would preserve their individual power to block legislation via filibuster at the expense of watching another 2 years of Republican obstruction prevent them from governing.
But the Trump era may have changed their minds. When Democrats thought they were headed to clearer majority, moderates and deal makers like Sen. Chris Coons of Delaware were expressing more openness to process reforms, even adding seats to the Supreme Court. They should embrace those instincts. Republicans have shown us that they’re no longer interested in compromise. If Democrats don’t fix their process problems in the Senate, they won’t be able to deliver on their popular mandate and they’ll risk losing the House and the Senate again in 2022.
Further, the House can keep passing bold, popular legislation and Democratic senators will no longer be able to point to Mitch McConnell as their major roadblock to progress. If conservative Democrats in the Senate want to hold up legislation, they’ll risk getting roasted in the press and demobilizing their own voters, too.
These legislative rules are very important, but voters absolutely do not care about them. Process is tedious. Voters want results. Now it’s time to deliver.