Next week, voters in Georgia will determine which party controls the U.S. Senate in 2021 — and thus, quite plausibly, the future of macroeconomic, climate, and health-care policy in the United States.
President-elect Joe Biden has signaled that, should his party secure full control of the federal government, it will send hundreds of billions in fiscal aid to state and city governments, thereby averting cuts to public employment and social services, and abetting expansions of state-level safety nets. Biden and his congressional allies have also evinced interest in myriad incremental reforms that could be advanced through the budget-reconciliation process (which enables legislation to pass the Senate by majority vote, rather than the 60 votes required to overcome a filibuster), including large public investments in green technology and jobs, higher subsidies for consumers on the individual health-insurance market, expanded access to Medicaid, and more generous unemployment insurance benefits. Separately, once Democrats have secured a bare majority in the Senate, a wide array of the coalition’s interest groups will have reason to pressure Chuck Schumer’s caucus to use its power to abolish the legislative filibuster, an act that would make it possible for Biden to enact a genuinely transformative policy agenda, including statehood for Washington, D.C., comprehensive immigration reform, an updated Voting Rights Act, and a $15 federal minimum wage, among other measures that (at least ostensibly) enjoy party-wide support. Given the staunch opposition that moderate Democratic senators have voiced to filibuster abolition, victory in Georgia would by no means guarantee that last set of policy gains. But if defeating Republican incumbents David Perdue and Kelly Loeffler next week is not sufficient for winning such landmark reforms, it is a necessary precondition for doing so.
If Perdue and Loeffler prevail, Biden will likely struggle to so much as get his own Cabinet nominees confirmed, let alone judicial appointees. Meanwhile, his capacity to legislate will be contingent upon the good-faith cooperation of Mitch McConnell, which is about as dependable a resource as the empathic self-restraint of Donald Trump, or the commitment to ethical consumption of Jeffrey Dahmer.
The stakes are high, is what I’m saying. And earlier this month, it looked like the GOP was intent on gifting Democratic candidates Jon Ossoff and Raphael Warnock a potent message for the Georgia runoffs: Our races are referenda on a second large stimulus package. As of a few weeks ago, Republicans were insisting on a $500 billion stimulus bill that was bereft of cash assistance or long-term federal unemployment benefits. Democrats, for their part, were backing a $2.2 trillion stimulus that included a $600 a week federal unemployment benefit, another round of $1,200 relief checks, funding for states and cities, housing assistance, small business aid, and a variety of other social supports. All available polling indicated that the voting public favored the Democratic position. In a New York Times–Siena College survey, 72 percent of voters, including 56 percent of Republicans, backed a $2 trillion stimulus modeled after the House Democrats’ proposal. Thus, Democrats — and those who support the party’s agenda — had an incentive to maintain a contrast between the parties on stimulus, and keep the issue salient through the January 5 election.
But the stakes of getting aid into Americans’ hands as soon as possible were also sky high. With millions on the cusp of losing unemployment benefits, and others already going hungry and homeless, obstructing aid to secure some marginal, hypothetical advantage in a special election would have been a morally odious stance for congressional Democrats to take. So when a bipartisan group of senators hashed out a $908 billion compromise relief bill, the Democratic leadership rallied behind it. The recent passage of that legislation did not change the fact that the outcome of Georgia’s Senate elections will have consequences for COVID relief policy: The newly enacted law lacks fiscal aid to states and cities, which Democrats are committed to passing. For Georgia specifically, such fiscal aid would help restore funds for K-12 education that GOP governor Brian Kemp cut in the pandemic’s wake. Nevertheless, the passage of the compromise bill made partisan divisions over stimulus less politically salient. With a new relief package on the books, the stimulus fight was sure to fall out of the headlines, and thus, the consciousness of that strange subcategory of American who reliably votes in elections, but has no fixed partisan preference.
And then, Donald Trump and Mitch McConnell let Democrats have their stimulus and campaign on it too.
The president’s call for the bill’s relief payments to be increased from $600 to $2,000 gave the Democratic Party a fresh, highly salient wedge issue: According to polling from Data For Progress, roughly four out of five U.S. voters support $2,000 checks (a plausible figure given the popularity of relief payments among voters who are not conservative, and the popularity of doing whatever Donald Trump says among voters who are). Congressional Democrats quickly unified behind the proposal, passing an amendment out of the House, and lining up their entire Senate caucus in support. Shortly thereafter, David Perdue and Kelly Loeffler realized that blocking a highly popular policy that Donald Trump demanded was not in their best interests, and declared their uncharacteristic support for spending over $460 billion on unconditional welfare payments.
This development threatened to once again nullify the Democrats’ edge on stimulus in Georgia; to the extent that any congressional action will influence the runoffs’ outcome, having the state’s incumbent Republican senators deliver an additional $1,400 to almost all of their constituents on the eve of the election seemed like bad news for Ossoff and Warnock.
But Mitch McConnell’s caucus is home to a few deficit hawks and many welfare despisers. So the Senate Majority Leader blocked an up-or-down vote on $2,000 checks, opting instead to wed the proposal to two of Donald Trump’s other demands — the repeal of the law that insulates social-media platforms from being sued for libel on the basis of statements their users post, and the formation of a commission to investigate voter fraud in the 2020 election. It is far from clear that most Republicans actually wish to repeal the former law, which would have a wide variety of chaotic consequences, many of which seem contrary to the interests of a political movement whose media has thrived on unmoderated social-media platforms. The point of rolling these demands together isn’t to ensure that they all pass, but rather, that they all fail — because Democrats blocked them.
This gambit is clever but flawed. For one thing, Trump is still refusing to play his part. Instead of insisting that his three demands are inseparable, the president called for the immediate passage of $2,000 checks alone on Wednesday morning.
Further, recent survey data suggests that the public is not very sympathetic to the genre of argument, “Our party agrees with its opponents that X is a good policy, but we won’t vote for X unless it is paired with Y, which the other party currently opposes.” When Democrats refused to support stand-alone bills increasing aid to the Paycheck Protection Program and other relief measures with bipartisan support, polls showed pluralities of the public blaming the Democratic Party and Nancy Pelosi for “delays in the passage of additional coronavirus stimulus.”
McConnell’s scheming, and Perdue and Loeffler’s opportunistic positioning, still leave Ossoff and Warnock with a clear story to tell: Mitch McConnell is blocking a vote on $2,000 checks, and Georgia’s two Republican senators are the reason he has the power to block those checks. If Georgians vote for Democrats next week, Chuck Schumer will gain the reins of the Senate in late January, and a clean $2,000-check bill will be passed. If Georgians vote for Republicans, meanwhile, McConnell will carry on, standing athwart the money printer yelling stop. To his credit, Ossoff is already broadcasting a version of this message:
To be sure, it’s not clear how much persuasion of any kind is going to matter in this peculiar election, let alone persuasion linked to a relatively sophisticated argument about why Perdue and Loeffler are effectively blocking the $2,000 checks they claim to support. Swing voters are less likely to turn out for special elections — where only a single federal race is on the ballot — than for the once-every-four-years ritual of heading to their polling place with the rest of the nation. Therefore, “which party can turn out its base for a second time in two months” is more likely to decide the outcome in Georgia than “which party can convince nonpartisan voters it stands for their material interests.” (Thus far, Democratic turnout in early voting has many in the party feeling cautiously optimistic.)
This said, polling suggests these races are going to be very close. Which means flipping even a tiny fraction of voters could be decisive. And there is some evidence that Democrats can win over skeptical voters by communicating the fact that they are the party more supportive of $2,000 relief payments: A new national Data For Progress poll, shared exclusively with Intelligencer, found that Independent voters initially said they preferred the Republicans to prevail in Georgia by a margin of 41 to 38 percent — but when told that the Democratic candidates would pass another round of stimulus checks if elected, while the Republicans would not, these voters shifted their allegiance, favoring Ossoff and Warnock over Perdue and Loeffler by 52 to 37 percent.
More broadly, the dynamics that gave Democrats this opportunity to “cash in” on $2,000 checks are likely to produce further benefits for the party in the coming years. As Donald Trump exits office, his interests — and those of the Republican Party writ large — will be more divergent than at any time since the early months of the 2016 GOP primary. The billionaire has never cared whether his impulsive pronouncements created political problems for his adopted party. But while he was in office, congressional Republicans had the power to abet his corruption, self-dealing, and electoral interests. Come next February, this will cease to be the case. Which is to say, Trump will have even less incentive to balance his own insatiable desire for drama against Mitch McConnell’s political needs than he has heretofore. To the contrary, if Trump does end up becoming a conservative media mogul or personality, he will have a strong incentive to rile up his audience over Republican leaders stabbing them in the back. Such populist outrage-mongering is the bread and butter of far-right infotainment, and right-wing talk radio has created plenty of headaches for the GOP in the past. But no media personality has ever boasted the breadth or intensity of support among Republican voters that the (soon-to-be-former) president will.
Meanwhile, the congressional GOP’s reliance on conservative lawmakers and donors with deeply unpopular policy preferences will continue providing Democrats with tailor-made wedge issues — from Social Security expansion to universal long-term care to large child allowances — so long as Joe Biden’s party resists the entreaties of deficit hawks.
America’s political institutions structurally overrepresent the GOP’s core constituencies, enabling the party to remain competitive despite its liabilities. But the party’s reliance on grifter demagogues and libertarian ideologues remains a profound vulnerability — one that Democrats must exploit in Georgia over the next week, and across the country thereafter.