Kate Backshall | United States Fellow
This election cycle has been one of the most turbulent in U.S. history. While headlines have been consumed by division and violence, a nationally significant election took place in Georgia. Despite the Democrats winning the general election in November, it was not yet finalised how much influence the incoming President Joe Biden would have during his term. The last hurdle, a runoff election which would determine which party held control of the Senate, took place on the 5th of January–a day before the Capitol descended into riots.
Democrats needed to win both seats in Georgia’s runoff elections to achieve a 50/50 split in the Senate making Vice President Kamala Harris the deciding vote. By winning both seats they now have a slim majority and control of both houses. If they had lost one, or both, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, who has a record of partisan obstructionism–as seen during Obama’s administration, would have instead controlled the Senate. With high stakes, it was an aggravating event for the ‘Stop the Steal’ rioters who distrusted the election results.
President Trump’s supporters have been infuriated over unfounded claims that the runoff election an general elections were illegitimate. With the U.S.’ intelligence capacity, riots should have been foreseeable yet they were woefully unprepared. The subsequent riots breached the walls of the Capitol for the first time in 209 years and were described as an insurrection. They eventuated in five deaths and the risk of future violence remains high.
Why was there a runoff election?
In the state of Georgia, a candidate must receive over 50 per cent of the vote to advance through a primary or general election. Without securing this, a runoff commences with the top two candidates.
Democrat Rev. Raphael Warnock became Georgia’s first Black senator in these runoff elections aside Georgia’s first Jewish Senator Jon Ossoff. This is significant as the introduction of this runoff system has roots in the racist Jim Crow era and there are compelling arguments this system was designed to disenfranchise Black candidates. It weakens their base's ability to vote as a bloc and instead requires them to also garner the support of white voters to elect a candidate.
It is also noteworthy that Georgia had long been considered a Republican stronghold and yet, in the general election, Democrats broke a 28-year long GOP streak. Black grassroots organisers have been credited with the swing, particularly the work of Fair Fight and the New Georgia Project which are led by the charismatic Stacey Abrams. Abrams was instrumental in registering 800,000 new voters in a state struggling with documented voter suppression and was again credited as vital in securing the two Senate seats for the Democrats.
Why was the Senate runoff so contentious?
The kinds of limitations a Republican majority-held Senate could have placed on Biden’s agenda were already observable in the confirmation process of nominees for cabinet positions. Some progressive and even centrist selections by Biden had already been blocked by the Republican-held Senate.
With control of both houses, conservative voters feel they potentially have a lot to lose during this term. Policy ideas which would displease Republicans have been optimistically speculated as possible for democrats - although many of these ideas would be difficult to achieve regardless and it is not yet clear there is an appetite from Democrats to enact them. Options like: increasing the size of the supreme court, providing statehood to Puerto Rico and D.C. and removing the filibuster – a technique used to block or stifle a bill, could now potentially be used to increase the Democrats legislating power or improve their chances of future re-election. Additionally, some of Biden’s campaign promises like investing $2 trillion in clean energy would have been almost certainly out of reach without the Senate.
Biden will likely promptly reverse several of Trump’s executive orders and foreign policy positions. He is expected to focus on repairing the US’ foreign relations by rejoining the WHO, the Paris Climate Agreement and attempting to renegotiate a nuclear arms deal with Iran.
What will this mean for the divided voters of the U.S.?
The Democrats have a term riddled with challenges ahead of them. It will be no small feat to manage both the economic and health fallouts of the pandemic while a significant number of Americans still distrust the election results. Biden could now press ahead with some of his progressive promises, but he also prides himself on his bipartisanship and may be concerned about the division in the country, so he might be inclined to pursue more centrist policies. However, without enacting some of his more ambitious and progressive policy aims, he risks alienating key voting blocs who were essential in his election.
Kate Backshall is the United States Fellow for Young Australian's in International Affairs.