Raise your hand if Georgia’s going deep blue was on your 2021 bingo card.
Me neither. But it turns out the state really has evolved — in part thanks to a decade-long push by voting-rights advocates and organizers like Stacey Abrams — into a different kind of political animal than its Deep South cousins. The final tallies from its twin Senate runoffs are still to be determined, but the Democratic contenders, the Rev. Raphael Warnock and Jon Ossoff, are on track to unseat the Republicans Kelly Loeffler and David Perdue.
This is a welcome development for the health of American democracy. At the risk of sounding harsh, both incumbents needed to lose. Not because of their politics or how they served constituents — though there was plenty to criticize in those departments. Rather, Ms. Loeffler and Mr. Perdue proved themselves unfit for office with their cynical, spineless embrace of MAGA nihilism, topped off by their support of President Trump’s crackpot crusade to reverse the results of the presidential vote. Such rank betrayals of democracy should not go unpunished. There will, in fact, need to be more such reckonings if the Republican Party is to find its way out of Trumpism.
Sweetening the victory, Mr. Warnock, the senior pastor of the historic Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta, will be Georgia’s first Black senator. When he was born, in 1969, the state was represented in the Senate by two proud segregationist Democrats, Richard Russell Jr. and Herman Talmadge. Mr. Warnock smashed this barrier by besting an opponent who stooped to conspiracy-mongering and race-baiting in pursuit of a Republican base in thrall to Mr. Trump, whose political brand was built on such poisonous appeals. Having a Baptist minister join the ranks of Senate Democrats is also a valuable rejoinder to Republicans’ efforts to claim God for their team alone. Mr. Warnock’s win is good for the nation’s soul.
In terms of the more big-p political, the Georgia outcome is obviously great news for President-elect Joe Biden and his party. Having underperformed in November’s congressional elections, the Democrats had been girding themselves to deal with a Senate still ruled by Republicans — or more precisely, by their iron-fisted leader, Mitch McConnell. Georgia has upended that dynamic. Even with super-skinny margins, Democratic control of both chambers gives Mr. Biden a much better shot at addressing the nation’s tangle of crises. It also promises to make his job even more of a pressure cooker.
Minority leader Mitch McConnell. These four words are music to the ears of those long frustrated by the obstructionism and gridlock that have defined the Kentucky Republican’s reign. Mr. McConnell’s Senate is where ambitious legislation — any legislation, really — goes to die. From the minority, he can still make trouble for the Democrats. And bills will still fail — more often than not, in a Congress so closely divided. But Mr. McConnell’s days as the Grim Reaper of legislation are over. He no longer controls what, or who, gets brought to the floor for consideration. This, to paraphrase a certain president-elect, is a big freaking deal.
Most immediately, it will give Mr. Biden more freedom in staffing his administration. Mr. McConnell had let it be known that so long as he was in charge, any nominees deemed too liberal or otherwise too offensive to his members might well be denied a confirmation vote. He is no longer in charge. Going forward, this will also prevent Mr. McConnell’s warping of the judicial confirmation process. His quest to push the judiciary ever farther rightward is canceled. And there will be no replay of the Merrick Garland travesty.
In key ways, a (barely) unified government will make Mr. Biden’s job all the more difficult. Had Republicans held the Senate, no one would have expected him to accomplish anything much on the legislative front — maybe a few tweaks here and there. With Democrats in charge, he will face intense pressure from progressives to think big and move fast to get stuff done before the 2022 midterms reshuffle the deck.
But an evenly divided Senate with Vice President Kamala Harris serving as a tiebreaker on floor votes is not a recipe for bold change. Likewise, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi has a painfully small majority that allows for few caucus defections. For now, the big, systemic reforms progressives hunger for — overhauls on the order of a Green New Deal or Medicare for All — remain off the table.
Democrats will need to fashion proposals with broad-based appeal, even to pass legislation on a party-line vote. In a big-tent party that ranges from the crusading lefties of The Squad to the conservative Blue Dogs, this will require serious horse-trading. (Time to bring back those earmarks!) The jokes are already flying about how Senator Joe Manchin, the conservative Democrat from the Trumpy state of West Virginia, just became king of the upper chamber.
On the campaign trail, Mr. Biden pitched himself as a seasoned negotiator, a cleareyed pragmatist who knows how to build consensus, even across party lines. Having spent more than three decades in the Senate, he contended, no one knows better how to navigate its bizarre folkways. He even has a longstanding friendship with the inscrutable Mr. McConnell.
Mr. Biden will spend the next couple of years proving either himself or his skeptics correct about whether there is any place left in Washington for his vision of compromise and comity. At times, he will need to wrangle his left flank into line. Other times, he’ll need to seek common cause with the few Republican moderates still hanging on. Senator Lisa Murkowski of Alaska is willing to cross party lines now and again. And Susan Collins of Maine may be looking to rebuild her reputation as an independent-minded centrist, which took a beating in the Trump era.
None of this will be easy. Meaningful progress may well prove impossible. But thanks to Georgia, the incoming president, his party and the nation now have a fighting chance.