The Democrats needed a best-case scenario in order to keep the United States Senate. That turned out to be exactly what they got.
Senate seats defended in Nevada and Arizona, and a flip of a Republican-held seat in Pennsylvania, clinched the Senate for the Democrats, as the 2022 midterm elections saw less of a red wave and more of a red ripple from Republicans.
At the same time, the House of Representatives looked increasingly likely to flip to the GOP Monday, albeit with a much weaker majority than many pollsters, pundits, and even Democrats themselves had projected before last Tuesday. We may not know the full outcome for another week or two, as ballots are counted in California, but Democrats running for swing seats in Arizona lost ground over the weekend as ballot counting continued.
With the prospect of split control of Congress, and incredibly thin margins in both chambers, what happens next?
How the Democrats won the Senate, and what that means
By retaining Senate control, Democrats will have the ability to confirm President Joe Biden’s judicial and executive branch nominees for two more years. Judicial nominees are particularly important: Former President Donald Trump had 234 nominees to the federal bench confirmed during his four years in office, and in his first two years, Biden successfully got 84 federal judges confirmed, including Associate Supreme Court Justice Ketanji Brown Jackson.
Nevada Sen. Catherine Cortez Masto successfully defended her U.S. Senate seat against former state Attorney General Adam Laxalt, networks projected Saturday, giving Democrats another narrow win in one of the country’s most closely-watched Senate races, and guaranteeing they’ll stay in the majority for two more years.
Republicans including Trump and Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina have falsely claimed—again—that Cortez Masto’s win was wholly due to election fraud. Trump specifically said Clark County, home to Las Vegas and three-fourths of the state’s voters, has a “corrupt voting system” and “needs more time to cheat.”
But the reason Clark County takes so long to count its ballots is so it can verify voter fraud doesn’t happen, as state law requires counties to check the signatures on mail ballot envelopes. “We have heard [Trump’s] outrageous claims, but he is obviously still misinformed about the law and our election processes that ensure the integrity of elections,” Clark County officials said in a statement Thursday.
Cortez Masto’s win follows Sen. Mark Kelly’s victory in Arizona over Peter Thiel-backed far-right venture capitalist Blake Masters. Networks called Kelly’s victory Friday night, as coming vote drops from conservative parts of Maricopa County would not be enough for Masters to overtake Kelly.
Masters has yet to concede, and as in Nevada, Trump baselessly claimed there was election fraud in Maricopa County.
“They stole the Electron [sic] from Blake Masters,” Trump posted on his social media site Truth Social Friday. “Do Election over again!”
In Pennsylvania, Lt. Gov. John Fetterman handily defeated celebrity doctor Mehmet Oz, flipping incumbent Republican Pat Toomey’s seat. And several Democratic incumbents who had been targeted by Republicans in Arizona, Colorado, and New Hampshire won—guaranteeing that no matter what happens in next month’s runoff in Georgia between Sen. Raphael Warnock and Republican challenger Herschel Walker, the Democrats will have 50 votes in the Senate and a tiebreaker in Vice President Kamala Harris.
What about Georgia?
Now that the Democrats have clinched Arizona, they’re guaranteed to keep the Senate next year. But as Georgia gears up for a runoff between Sen. Raphael Warnock and Republican Herschel Walker next month, the state is still vital to Senate Democrats’ hopes for the next two years and beyond.
Democrats will continue to have control because of Vice President Harris’ ability to cast a tie-breaking vote. In her first two years in office, Harris cast 26 tie-breaking votes, which is more than all of the other vice presidents since Dan Quayle combined.
But for the past two years, the everyday function of the Senate has been organized through a power-sharing agreement between Sens. Chuck Schumer and Mitch McConnell, which has placed an equal number of Democrats and Republicans on each committee. This creates an extra step for Democrats by requiring that tied committee votes be voted on by the full Senate.
There are more practical reasons to want a 51st senator as well. Sens. Ben Ray Luján of New Mexico and Pat Leahy of Vermont were both hospitalized this year, Fetterman suffered a stroke days before winning his primary in May, and California Sen. Dianne Feinstein turns 90 in June. In the current Congress alone, six people elected to the House in 2020 have died and nearly a dozen others resigned before their term expired.
And in 2024, Democrats are staring down a deeply unfriendly Senate map, the same one that saw them actually losing seats during the blue wave of 2018.
If Warnock wins a full six-year term, that would serve as reinforcement for what is sure to be a dicey situation in 2024, when the Democrats have to defend three seats in states Trump won in 2020 and another four in states he won in 2016. Warnock is viewed as a slight favorite in the Dec. 6 runoff. Walker finished more than 35,000 votes behind Warnock in the first round, while other statewide Republican nominees like Gov. Brian Kemp and Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger won their races outright.
But one thing even a 51st Senator won’t be able to do: Kill the filibuster. Though Fetterman opposes the filibuster, Wisconsin Lt. Gov. Mandela Barnes’s narrow loss to GOP Sen. Ron Johnson means the Democrats have to rely on Arizona Sen. Kyrsten Sinema or West Virginia’s Joe Manchin to change their minds on abolishing the 60-vote threshold in the Senate if they’re going to pass legislation protecting abortion or voting rights.
This doesn’t seem likely, especially considering just a few months ago Sinema defended the filibuster at an event at the University of Louisville—hosted by none other than Sen. Mitch McConnell.
What about the House?
Control of the House of Representatives has yet to be decided, and is likely to pivot on several still-uncalled races in California. Should the Democrats unexpectedly keep the House as well as the Senate, they’ll be able to keep moving Biden’s spending agenda through Congress through the reconciliation process, as they’ve done for the last two years. This is how we got the Inflation Reduction Act (the hollowed-out shell of Build Back Better), as well as the $1.9 trillion stimulus package in February 2021.
Even if they do manage to secure a narrow House majority, Republicans have dramatically underperformed their expectations in a national climate that they hoped would provide them with another midterm wave like the 1994 Republican Revolution or 2010 Tea Party wave. They would also have gerrymandering to thank for that majority.
But regardless of how they get there, a Republican House majority would shift the balance of power in the federal government substantially. For one, Biden’s agenda would mostly be dead on arrival without enormous concessions to Republicans; this could significantly hamper Congress’ ability to ease a potential recession.
Furthermore, wild investigations would likely abound. Right-wing House Republicans have demanded that Republicans begin investigating both President Biden and his son, Hunter, as well as a raft of other political enemies including the House Jan. 6 committee.
But given the small margins that are going to decide the House, life could get very complicated for Kevin McCarthy, the current House Minority Leader. Both McCarthy and McConnell are facing challenges from far-right members of their caucuses who blame them for the GOP’s weak midterms performance, even though hard-right Republicans themselves got hosed in winnable races.
In Washington, for instance, Trump-endorsed former Green Beret Joe Kent defeated GOP Rep. Jaime Herrera Beutler in the primary after she voted to impeach Trump in 2021. But Kent lost the general election to Marie Gluesenkamp Perez, a logger who ran on a platform of abortion rights and bringing jobs to rural communities. Perez will now be the first Democrat to represent the district in more than a decade.
So McCarthy—or whoever leads the Republican caucus—will now have to balance the desires of the right-wing he’s spent the last two years placating with the demands of more moderate members who want the party to move on from Donald Trump. After easily winning re-election in the Philadelphia suburbs, GOP Rep. Brian Fitzpatrick said his constituents spoke “with an overwhelming voice in support of unity, collaboration, moderation and bipartisanship.”
For the Democrats, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi has not said whether she would run to lead the Democratic caucus again, even though she promised in 2018 to leave the leadership after four years. But she had some harsh words for the man who may replace her in the top role in the House, when asked by CNN if McCarthy “has what it takes” to be House Speaker.
“No, I don’t think he has it,” Pelosi said. “But that’s up to his own people to make a decision as to how they want to be led or otherwise."
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