Historic Runoff for Two Senate Seats in Georgia Likely to Determine Direction of Country

AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite

Yeah — that’s a big headline, but it is likely true.

As things stand right now, the Republicans have a 50-48 lead in the Senate, with the two Georgia seats not yet filled.

The two races on Tuesday ended with the leading vote-getter receiving 49.8% and 32.9%. Georgia state law requires a candidate to receive an outright majority of the vote for any statewide office, and when the leading vote-getter fails to cross that threshold, the contest is decided in a Special Election between the top two finishers.

One of the Georgia races is the normal cycle race involving Sen. David Perdue running for re-election, and the other is a special election to fill the remaining two years of former Sen. Johnny Isakson who retired at the end of 2019 due to health reasons.  Perdue received 49.8% of the vote and must have a rematch with the Democrat candidate Jon Ossoff.

Sen. Kelly Loeffler finished 250,000 votes behind the leader in the Special election for Isakson’s seat, but that was a three-way race with GOP Congressman Doug Collins also having run for the Senate seat, with Collins taking 20% of the vote.  Loeffler will face Raphael Warnock in the runoff.

Warnock is a political novice, but he comes with a powerful constituency — he is the Pastor of the Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta, where Martin Luther King Jr., served as Pastor.  Warnock has been involved in many liberal political causes in Georgia over the past two decades, and there is no question that Democrat and African-American interest groups will turn out in force for him in the January 5, 2021 contest.

If the Democrats were to win both seats, the Senate would be split 50-50, and if there is a Biden Presidency, VP Harris would cast the tie-breaking vote and deliver the Senate majority to Chuck Schumer.

That would change everything.

Except for the fact that Joe Manchin is in the Senate.

There is a significant amount of speculation that Mitch McConnell will be talking to Manchin about finally making a party switch.  The decision will come down to a couple of key questions for Manchin:

  1. Does he intend to run for re-election in 2024?
  2. Is he willing to give control of the Senate to the Democrats along with the House and Presidency given their stated policy agenda and its likely impact on West Virginia?

Manchin is the former Governor of West Virginia where he won statewide election as follows:

2004 — 63.5%

2008 — 69.8%

He won Robert Byrd’s Senate seat in 2010, and has been re-elected twice since.

2010 — 53.5%

2012 — 60.6%

2018 — 49.6

Republican Shelly Moore Capito won re-election to the other West Virginia Senate seat last week with over 70% of the vote.

GOP Governor Jim Justice was re-elected with 65% of the vote.  He was first elected to the office in 2016 with only 49% of the vote — as a Democrat — and then switched parties.

Manchin has remained in the Democrat caucus and has voted regularly with the Democrats on all the major party-line votes over the past four years — with the exception that he did vote to confirm Justices Gorsuch and Kavanaugh.  He voted against Justice Barrett — but he was a “safe” vote since McConnell already had the votes he needed.

But Manchin — like Byrd before him — has always opposed radical environmental policies that would destroy the West Virginia coal and oil industries.  Providing the 51st vote to make Chuck Schumer the Senate Majority leader would do exactly that.

Switching to the Republican Party would keep the Senate in GOP hands, continue divided government that would maintain the status quo to a significant degree, and make him the swing vote on matters of importance to him and West Virginia.

If Manchin was not willing to join the GOP outright, he could pull a Bernie Sanders maneuver by declaring himself an independent but caucusing with the Republicans. That would leave him free to not join party-line votes.  But that would likely lead to a GOP challenger in 2024, and the voting math of West Virginia is not on his side if he is outside the Republican Party.

The conjecture online is that McConnell will offer Manchin a significant Committee Chairmanship in exchange for the switch.  He is currently the Ranking Member on the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee.  The Chair of that Committee is Sen. Lisa Murkowski of Alaska, one of the least dependable RINOS in the Senate.  Removing her as Chair in order to hand the committee to Manchin could cause her to switch parties. She is already likely to face a strong GOP primary opponent and Pres. Trump has pledged to personally campaign against her re-election. McConnell probably can’t risk having Murkowski burn down the Senate in the aftermath of a Manchin switch.

If Manchin intends to run again in 2024 — he would be 77 years old — he might need to decide that not getting the Energy Committee Chair now is the price he needs to pay to keep the Senate out of the hands of advocates of the Green New Deal.  He could simply strike a bargain with McConnell that he would get the Committee in 2022 if Murkowski loses her bid for re-election — or chooses to not run.  He might be offered the Chair on key subcommittees of the Appropriations Committee where he participates on four such subcommittees now.

But that only deals with the Senate side of the aisle.  There are two GOP Senators who have announced an intention to not seek re-election in 2022 — Richard Burr in North Carolina and Pat Toomey in Pennsylvania.  Online left-wing pundits have speculated about whether one or both could be convinced to leave the Senate in 2021 if named to key Ambassadorships by Biden.  North Carolina and Pennsylvania both have Democrat Governors who would appoint their successors until special elections could be held in 2022.

The problem with speculation over Burr is that North Carolina state law — passed in 2018 by the majority Republicans in the state legislature — requires the Governor to appoint someone to fill the seat from the same party as the Senator who vacates the seat AND limits the Governor’s choice to one of three people named by the State Party of the departing Senator.  So the North Carolina GOP would prevent the seat from flipping to the Democrats.

Pennsylvania law does not have a similar requirement — the Governor can appoint whomever he wants to fill the seat.

But between Toomey and Burr, Toomey is the far less likely candidate to be drawn into any such deal. He’s a long-time conservative and has opposed in the Senate all the top priority programs that a Biden Administration would want to pursue.  Toomey is only 59 and in explaining his decision to not seek re-election he stated that he would be pursuing business opportunities.  It seems unlikely that he could be enticed by an Ambassadorship to leave the Senate early given his explanation.

Finally, given the controversy in the election over the events in Philadelphia, it seems unlikely that Toomey would further reward the Democrat Party of Pennsylvania by handing his Senate seat — and control of the Senate along with it — to those same partisans.

Joe Manchin appears to be McConnell’s “ace in the hole” should the Democrats manage to sweep both races in Georgia.