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The Democratic Strategist

Political Strategy for a Permanent Democratic Majority

Polling Averages, Trump’s Meddling Spur Dem Hopes for Winning Senate Control

If you predicted a year ago that not one, but two impassioned followers of Martin Luther King, Jr. would be ahead in polling averages as slight favorites to unseat two incumbent Republican Senators on runoff election day in the state of Georgia, your friends would probably ask if you needed a ride home. Yet here we are, as fired up Georgians close out the final day of the runoff campaign for both of their state’s U.S. Senate seats. Rev. Raphael Warnock, pastor of Dr. King’s Ebenezer Baptist Church and Jon Ossoff, a former staffer for Rep. John Lewis, now hold narrow, within the m.o.e., leads in both the FiveThirtyEight and Real Clear Politics polling averages.

FiveThirtyEight has Ossoff leading his race on election day by a polling margin average of 49.1 to Perdue’s 47.4, while Warnock is running ahead of Loeffler by a margin of 49.4 percent to 47.2. At Real Clear Politics, Warnock leads with a 1.3 percent polling average, while Ossoff is ahead by 1.0. The trendline over the last week favors the Democrats.

Democrats have had their hopes dashed before, and yes, a strong election day turnout in conservative counties could re-elect the incumbent Republicans. This is a toss-up election and anything can happen, including the worst case scenario. But it’s equally-important to understand that Democrats have already won something important by getting this close. If the optimistic scenario prevails, Stacy Abrams should be politically-cannonized, or at least offered the DNC chair. She will certainly be favored to win Georgia’s governorship race, if she choses to run for it in 2022.

The caveat, however, is that no runoff scenario will give Democrats a strongly-dominant position in terms of enacting their legislative agenda. Even if they win both seats, a sole Democratic senator defecting on a vote can deny them a majority, never mind a filibuster-proof majority. Even talk of scrapping the filibuster has cooled, since some Democratic senators, including Mancin and Sinema have expressed reservations about it. Further, as Ronald Brownstein writes at CNN Politics,

The one sure bet from Tuesday’s US Senate runoff elections in Georgia is that they will produce a Senate precariously balanced between the two parties, accelerating a fundamental change that is simultaneously making the institution more volatile and more rigid.

Even if Republicans win both races, they will control the Senate majority with only 52 seats. If Democrats win both, they will eke out a 50-50 Senate majority with the tie-breaking vote of incoming Vice President Kamala Harris. A split would produce a 51-49 GOP majority.

That slim range of possibilities underscores a key change in the structure of Senate elections: With each party now consistently dominating elections up and down the ballot across a larger swath of states, it has become much tougher for either to amass a commanding Senate majority.

The fact that neither side will control more than 52 seats after Tuesday means that either party has held at least 55 Senate seats in only three congressional sessions since 2000. By contrast, in the previous 20-year span, one party reached 55 seats or more in seven congressional sessions. In fact, the meager three majorities of 55 seats or more since 2000 represent the fewest times that any party has accumulated at least 55% of the Senate seats over a 20-year span since the turn of the 20th century, according to official Senate records.

The inability of either side to build a big cushion has contributed to a historic level of volatility in Senate control, with neither party holding the majority for more than eight consecutive years since 1980, a span of turnover unprecedented in American history.

The narrow majorities have also contributed to a Senate that has grown more rigid, with much more partisan conflict and less of the ad hoc bipartisan deal-making that characterized the body through the second half of the 20th century. The Senate will mark a new high — or low — in its rising partisanship on Wednesday when about a quarter or more of Republican senators will vote against recognizing Democrat Joe Biden’s election as president, despite the complete inability of President Donald Trump to present any credible evidence of fraud.

Whether they win or lose the runoff, however, Democrats have something to celebrate. They now have a solid beachhead in the South, and the demographic trends are all in a blue direction.

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