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Why Warnock's seat means so much to Senate Democrats

Sen. Raphael Warnock speaks during an election night watch party on Tuesday in Atlanta.
Win McNamee
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Sen. Raphael Warnock speaks during an election night watch party on Tuesday in Atlanta.

Updated December 7, 2022 at 7:01 PM ET

Incumbent Sen. Raphael Warnock's win in the Georgia Senate runoff could have far-reaching consequences legislatively and politically for Democrats.

"The truth is it's not a 1% difference," Senate Democratic leader Chuck Schumer of New York said earlier this week. "It's a world of difference."

Warnock's victory over former NFL and University of Georgia star Herschel Walker came after a shortened four-week runoff following a hotly contested election. Neither candidate got more than 50%, which pushed the race to a runoff.

Between the general election and the runoff, this race was the most expensive of the 2022 election cycle with some $425 million spent between the campaigns and outside groups supporting them.

Even though the result only expands the Democratic majority by one, from 50-50 to 51-49, party leadership and interest groups spent the kind of money they did because they clearly saw it as critically important.

Warnock's win now gives Democrats firm control of the Senate and makes life easier for them in a number of ways. It gives them a cushion in trying to pass bills, assured committee control and eliminates procedural hurdles to carry on the business of the Senate.

After the runoff, Schumer said the win already had a buoying effect for Senate Democrats. "It gives us just a lift," he told reporters. "Enthusiasm, unity, encouragement."

Here's how else that two-seat majority could make a big difference for Democrats in the Senate:

Avoiding power-sharing negotiations

For Schumer, Warnock's triumph means he does not have to again negotiate a power-sharing arrangement with Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell.

In 2020, Schumer and McConnell settled on an agreement to share power in the evenly split chamber after an early stalemate that stalled the confirmation of President Biden's cabinet nominees.

At the time, McConnell insisted that Democrats maintain the Senate filibuster requiring 60 members — instead of a simple majority — to end debate on the floor before moving to vote.

Thanks to a recent win by incumbent Sen. Raphael Warnock, Democrats now control the Senate by a 51-49 margin — one more vote than they've had since 2020.
Chip Somodevilla / Getty Images
Getty Images
Thanks to Warnock's win on Tuesday, Democrats now control the Senate by a 51-49 margin — one more vote than they've had since 2020.

McConnell only dropped his demand after moderate Democrats Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona and Joe Manchin of West Virginia said they wouldn't vote to undercut the filibuster, leaving Schumer short of 51 votes needed to kill the minority party protection.

Without McConnell's capitulation, the chamber would have been paralyzed, with Senate Democrats unable to take full control despite being in the majority.

Schumer told reporters Wednesday that he plans to extend an olive branch moving forward.

"There are a good number of Republicans in the Senate and the House who are not MAGA Republicans – who know that, if the Republican Party follows the hard right and the extreme members in their caucuses, that they'll continue to lose ground," he said "It is my intention to reach out to them and say 'How we can how can we work in a bipartisan way?' "

No one-senator "veto" power

Democrats now have enough wiggle room to lose one vote in their caucus and still move bills through the chamber without issue.

Not only will Vice President Harris not likely have to be called in for as many tie-breaking votes, the extra seat has also changed how they factor Manchin into their political calculus.

The West Virginia moderate often held his party hostage in the early years of Biden's term, leveraging Democrats' narrow majority to trim some of the president's legislative priorities on votes that needed complete Democratic unity to pass. Manchin often cites not being comfortable voting against the will of his constituents.

"I have always said, 'If I can't go back home and explain it, I can't vote for it,' " Manchin wrote in a 2021 statement explaining his opposition to Biden's Build Back Better Act as it was initially pitched.

Though the bill eventually passed that November, Manchin forced negotiations that reduced its size, scope and cost.

Decisive committee makeup

Because the current power-sharing agreement equally splits the Senate committees, tied votes must undergo an additional vote on the Senate floor to move ahead with bills or nominees.

But Warnock's win means Democrats will likely have an extra seat on every committee, clearing an open path to passage when senators ubiquitously break on party lines.

"With 51, we can go bolder and quicker — to show Americans what Democrats stand for," said Schumer.

Still, the next two years in Congress will likely look different than the last two. Republicans have captured the House majority and with it, waned Democrats' potential to pass major legislation.

As such, the party will likely seek to confirm as many judges as it can before 2024, and a 51st seat makes that easier too. A rules change introduced in 2013 by the former Democratic Majority Leader Harry Reid allows just a simple majority for these confirmations.

"We are so proud of our record with judges," Schumer said after the runoff. "It's one of the most significant things – maybe the most significant – thing we've done."

Democrats have focused on putting more women and people of color on the bench.

"They're not just corporate lawyers or prosecutors. They're public aid immigration lawyers and consumer advocates and legal aid people, public defenders," he said. "So the bench is looking more like America now."

Speaking ahead of Warnock's election, Biden plainly forecasted what a 51st seat would mean for his party. "It's always better with 51," he said, mostly weighing the potential for committee compositions.

But the committees aside, Warnock's win offers Democrats a clear path for action for the final years of Biden's term.

"It's just simply better," the president later continued. "The bigger the numbers, the better."

And every one of those seats is going to matter if Democrats have any hope of holding onto the Senate beyond 2024. The party faces a difficult landscape to hold onto control of the chamber in two years with incumbent Senate Democrats up for reelection in places like West Virginia, Montana and Ohio, all Republican-leaning states.

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Juma Sei
Juma Sei is a 2022-2023 Kroc Fellow at NPR. He is a Sierra Leonean-American from Portland, Oregon, and a 2022 graduate of Yale College.