With Democratic sweep in Georgia, Mitch McConnell will lose majority leader role

Morgan Watkins
Louisville Courier Journal

Georgia voters have spoken, and their voices resonate loudly in Kentucky: Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell won't keep his job as the most powerful senator in Congress.

Tuesday's high-stakes runoff elections in the Peach State pitted two Republican incumbents, David Perdue and Kelly Loeffler, against Democrats Jon Ossoff and the Rev. Raphael Warnock, with the GOP's control of the Senate — and McConnell's role — on the line. 

The Associated Press called the race for Warnock at 2 a.m. Wednesday. He received 50.6% of the vote.

At that point, McConnell’s majority leadership hinged on the outcome of the Ossoff-Perdue battle. Then, after 4 p.m. Wednesday, the AP called that race for Ossoff, who received 50.3% of the vote based on the latest results.

That clinches control of the Senate for the Democrats — and dooms McConnell to losing his grip on power there this year. 

Even though Ossoff's victory wasn't officially called until Wednesday afternoon, that didn't stop prominent Democrats from gloating earlier that day about McConnell's all-too-likely loss of his majority leadership.

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Hillary Clinton, the 2016 Democratic presidential nominee, tweeted just before 10 a.m.: "Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell."

Kentucky's sole Democrat in Congress, U.S. Rep. John Yarmuth, said that morning: "It may not feel like it for some, but every Kentuckian will be better off because of the Georgia election results. Well. Almost every Kentuckian."

The victories by Warnock and Ossoff create a 50-50 split in the Senate in terms of the number of seats held by the Democratic Party and the GOP.

Vice President-elect Kamala Harris, who will be inaugurated Jan. 20 alongside fellow Democrat and President-elect Joe Biden, will get the tie-breaking vote in the Senate and give her party the edge over the GOP.

That means Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer gets to swap jobs with McConnell — a development that's sure to disappoint Kentucky's longtime senator, who served as minority leader before he got the top job in 2015.

"I've been both, and I can tell you, the majority leader's better," McConnell told reporters last year. 

Two months ago, McConnell easily got reelected to the Kentucky Senate seat he's held for 36 years when he trounced Democrat Amy McGrath by about 20% in the November election. 

As majority leader, McConnell has control over which legislation comes up for consideration in the Senate. But he won't for much longer.

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The two Democrats' wins will strip McConnell of the ability to single-handedly block bills from coming up for a vote in the Senate — a power he used frequently in recent years, prompting criticism over the "legislative graveyard" of proposals that effectively died on his desk.

Winning both Georgia runoffs also clears the way for Senate Democrats to confirm the people Biden nominates for Cabinet positions in his presidential administration, as well as his nominees to the federal judiciary.

Those confirmations require only a simple majority to pass, which the Democrats will have thanks to Harris' tie-breaking vote.

McConnell led the charge to confirm well over 200 federal judges, including three U.S. Supreme Court justices, while the GOP controlled the Senate and the White House over the past four years, so it's a safe bet the Democratic Party will want to make up any ground it can on that front. 

Molly Reynolds, a senior fellow in governance studies at the Brookings Institution, said Senate Democrats will need to stick together on things that require 51 votes to pass — such as Biden’s nominees and certain budget-related bills — because a single defection on their side could nix the proposal if all the Republican senators oppose it.

As minority leader, McConnell still will wield notable influence on big debates.

And even with Harris as the tie-breaker, a 50-50 split won't give Democrats a blank check to approve whatever proposals they want, Rutgers University political science professor Ross Baker said.

"Many things in the Senate, things of importance, generally need 60 votes (to pass)," said Baker, who has closely observed the chamber's inner workings.

Eliminating the legislative filibuster, a 60-vote threshold senators must meet to advance most bills, has been debated nationally as a way Democrats could make it easier to pass their priorities, but Baker suggested that will be tough for Schumer to accomplish. 

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He also stressed the Democrats will get only a technical majority with the 50-50 split, so he expects they'll need to cooperate with their conservative colleagues to some degree.

"If precedent is any guide ... the party with the vice president knows it simply cannot ride roughshod over a technical minority," he said.

Schumer will be under pressure to "press his advantage to the maximum," Baker acknowledged.

"But I think in terms of the functioning of the institution ... this is really something that is going to involve negotiation and accommodation rather than command and control," he noted.

Baker suggested Biden's relationship with McConnell could be vital. The two men served as senators together for over 20 years and also brokered key compromises when Biden served as former President Barack Obama's second-in-command.

"For all the polarization and all of the very hard-edged partisanship that’s in the Senate, personal relationships still do matter," Baker said. 

It'll also be important for McConnell to ensure other conservative senators fall in line on important votes, according to Reynolds, of the Brookings Institution.

McConnell typically has been able to do that in the past, but soon-to-be-former President Donald Trump potentially could make that harder for him.

For example, some GOP senators spoke out against Congress' planned certification of Biden's electoral victory Wednesday, even though Trump's baseless claims of voter fraud are false and McConnell opposed the ill-fated attempt to overturn the legitimate results of the election.

That certification process was paused Wednesday afternoon after a mob of Trump supporters stormed and breached the Capitol while Congress was in session.

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Even though Trump will no longer be in office after Biden is inaugurated Jan. 20, he could keep casting a shadow over conservative politics.

"He is going to be on the outside of the tent, but the walls of the tent are very thin," Baker said.

However, Trump’s continuing influence over conservative senators is far from a sure thing. Reynolds said what role Trump might play in congressional politics after Biden’s inauguration is “a huge unknown.”

She is, however, fairly certain where McConnell’s long-term focus will shift in the wake of the Georgia elections: regaining control of the Senate.

Reynolds expects McConnell’s actions will be guided by what he thinks will best serve that overarching goal of helping the GOP retake the Senate.

“I mean, at the end of the day, McConnell’s kind of big guiding principle is either keeping the majority or getting the majority back,” she pointed out. 

The next round of Senate elections are in 2022.

Reach reporter Morgan Watkins: 502-582-4502; mwatkins@courierjournal.com; Twitter: @morganwatkins26