Georgia runoff could determine the Senate majority in 2024

ATHENS, GA - MAY 23: Heisman Trophy winner and Republican candidate for US Senate Herschel Walker speaks at a rally on May 23, 2022 in Athens, Georgia. Tomorrow is the Primary Election Day in the state of Georgia. (Photo by Megan Varner/Getty Images)

This week: The Briefing, Vol. X, Issue 48

  • Can Kevin McCarthy win the speakership?
  • Georgia runoff coming up Dec. 6
  • 2024 Senate map heavily favors Republicans

Speaker’s race: The big story on Capitol Hill is that House Republican leader Kevin McCarthy is struggling badly to find the 218 votes he will need in January to become speaker of the House. He already won his election within the Republican caucus as leader, but can he become speaker?

Not all conservatives oppose McCarthy. For example, Reps. Jim Jordan and Marjorie Taylor Greene have made a point of endorsing him. But Rep. Andy Biggs (R-Ariz ) has rounded up the support of about 30 Republicans and says they simply will not support McCarthy. 

During speaker elections, a majority is required, and there is no elimination of minor candidates as the rounds of voting continue. The House could just vote and vote and vote.

But the real question just might be why anyone would want the speakership under these circumstances. In a gridlock situation, with the narrowest of majorities, it is bound to be a thankless job, whose main purpose is to block Democrats from passing whatever wild reconciliation legislation they have in mind.

Don’t get your hopes up. The next House of Representatives will be essentially a placeholder legislative body until 2024, elected mainly to prevent Democratic excesses. The accomplishments will be few and far between. The investigations may keep the interest of the party base, and there will be clashes over spending and increasing the debt ceiling, but essentially any action on anything will be delayed until 2024.

Senate 2022

Georgia: The 2022 election is not over just yet. There is a very important Senate runoff occurring in Georgia on Dec. 6. Although it will not determine who controls the U.S. Senate, every Senate seat matters when it comes to gaining control of the body in 2024. Republicans have a very good shot at the Senate in the next cycle, but it becomes a lot better if they start off at 50-50 instead of behind at 51 to 49.

The problem is that it will be a lot harder to motivate voters this time around. Previously, Senate control was hanging in the balance. Now it isn’t. Also, Republicans can no longer count on the coattails of the successfully re-elected Gov. Brian Kemp, which may have permitted Herschel Walker (R) to reach this runoff in the first place.

But that problem applies equally on both sides. For Democrats, the need to defend the Senate is suddenly a lot less urgent. For Republicans, the possibility of retaking the Senate is now absent.

Traditionally, Republicans used to perform much better in the runoff than Democrats. That was the case, at least, until 2020, when The Democratic voter drop off between the November election and the January runoff was almost non-existent, and the Republican drop off was about 10%.

Can Democrats reproduce that miracle when Senate control is not at stake?

A recent poll by the AARP shows Democratic incumbent Sen. Raphael Warnock leading Walker, 51% to 47%. At this point, Republicans should be praying for the margin of error and the turnout to work in their favor. After what happened on November 8, there are a few reasons to be optimistic.

Senate 2024

There is only one Republican held Senate seat the Democrats really have a serious shot at winning in 2024, and perhaps a total of one more that is very remotely possible. This fact forms the basis of Republican hopes of regaining a majority in the federal legislature’s upper body in the next election. They will have nearly free rein in targeting Democrats; Democrats themselves will have few or no opportunities.

Which seats will Republicans be defending? Well, for starters, there’s Utah, Wyoming, North Dakota, Nebraska, Missouri, Indiana, Tennessee, and Mississippi. Out of those, Indiana is probably the most interesting because it will be an open-seat race. (Sen. Michael Braun (R) has already announced his intention to run for governor instead.) Even so, Indiana is now a deep-Red State. The voters reflexively vote against Democrats and there is hardly any Democratic bench worthy of note. Republicans will be heavily favored to keep that seat.

So then come the other two seats where Democrats have at least some chance.

Florida: Yes, Florida is the Democrats’ best shot at picking up a Senate seat in 2024. That really speaks to how desperate their situation will be.

It is doubtful, after his three clutch statewide election wins in 2010, 2014 and 2018, that anyone serious is going to want to take on the ambitious and wealthy Sen. Rick Scott (R) as he runs for a second term. 

And with Florida trending the way it has been, Republicans will definitely have the upper hand. That goes double if they nominate Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis for president at the top of the ticket.

But it gets worse, because for the first decade of this century, the Florida Democratic Party was merely coasting on its past glories. The formerly dominant state party managed to keep both of the state’s U.S. Senate seats until 2004, when the retirement of Bob Graham (D) opened the way for Sens. Mel Martinez (R) and then Marco Rubio in 2010 (R).

In 2018, Democrats lost their longest-held statewide post when Sen. Bill Nelson (D) fell to Scott. Republicans control every state constitutional office in Florida now, plus both Senate seats.

In short, Florida’s Democratic Party is one of the most useless and incompetent state parties in America from either the Republican or the Democratic side. They punch far below their weight, losing everything in what was until recently a relatively swingy state. 

It’s not just their poor performance in 2022 that is at issue — it is also their poor performance in the strong Democratic year of 2018 and in every year prior to that since 2000.

Texas: And yes, this is the Democrats’ second-best pickup opportunity. Again, that does not bode well. 

Sen. Ted Cruz has not formally announced his retirement, but he will almost certainly be calling it quits, perhaps to run for president. He came within four points of losing in 2018, when he was badly outspent in a Democratic year by the vastly overrated Beto O’Rourke. 

Even so, this is no picnic for Democrats. Republicans are gaining a new lease on life in the Lone Star State as they gain more support in heavily Hispanic South Texas. Run the right candidate — former Rep. Will Hurd (R) has already expressed interest, but there could be other possibilities, such as Rep. Dan Crenshaw (R). 

The Democrats’ bench is fairly depleted, especially as Beto O’Rourke has sucked most of the oxygen out of the state party in his last two extremely expensive statewide losses. 

So, in which states Will Republicans be on offense? Three states come to the top of the list.

Arizona: Okay, this may not sound like the most promising pickup opportunity, but bear with us. Republican hopes here hinge mostly on the possibility that Democrats will primary and either gravely weaken or outright throw out Sen. Kyrsten Sinema (D) on account of her disloyalty to the party and to president Joe Biden on various questions, including the abolition of the filibuster..

If Democrats go wild and nominate a leftist, there may be an opening for a Republican such as former Rep. Matt Salmon or soon-to-be former Attorney General Matt Brnovich.  They could also take a risk and go with someone less conventional, such as 2022 gubernatorial loser Kari Lake (R), but that is a long way off, considering that Lake is still litigating her 2022 loss.

Montana: Sen. Jon Tester (D) has repeatedly survived Republican attempts to oust him. But Montana has taken a hard turn away from Democrats during the Trump era, and his nine lives could well be up this time. 

Assuming he stays in, Republicans will need a quality candidate to defeat him. Were he to retire, it is hard to imagine any other Democrat holding this seat, assuming Republicans nominate someone who is not insane. That could include either of the Republican congressman elected earlier this month (Ryan Zinke or Matt Rosendale), or Gov. Greg Gianforte, among others

West Virginia: Joe Manchin (D) might already be making his retirement plans now. After he caved to President Biden and was made a fool by his own party on the issue of energy exploration, Manchin’s approval ratings plummeted by double digits into negative territory, such that in October a poll showed 42% approve and 51% disapprove.

Republicans have a growing bench in the Mountain State, having only recently taken full control of the entire state government and achieved supermajorities in both houses of the state legislature. Rep. Alex Mooney (R) has already announced he is running. Gov. Jim Justice (R) is also talking about running. 

Manchin survived in the Democratic midterm year of 2018, but it will be almost impossible for him to withstand the Republican momentum of a presidential year in newly Republican West Virginia, especially now that voters have soured on his brand of Washington fence-sitting.

Here are a few potential Republican Senate pickups that are still realistic but less promising than the ones mentioned above.

Maine: Sen. Angus King, a nominal independent who caucuses with the Democrats, has suggested he might retire. This would not be a slam dunk for Republicans or anything, but it could present an opportunity in the right sort of year and for the right sort of candidate. 

Michigan: 72-year-old incumbent Sen. Debbie Stabenow (D) has already announced she is running for a fifth term. She is certainly no easy target, but in the right sort of year, a quality Republican challenger could give her a run for her money and expand the Senate map.

Minnesota: Amy Klobuchar, one of the more impressive presidential candidates of 2020, is definitely no sitting duck. But Minnesota remains a very swingy state yet has gone a very long time without Republicans running a strong race for anything statewide.

Nevada: Republicans’ losing streak in the Silver State was extended with Adam Laxalt’s loss this month. But can Republicans finally field a winner against Democratic incumbent Sen. Jackie Rosen?   

Ohio: Sen. Sherrod Brown (D) is running for reelection, so the question is whether he can survive in a state that has moved far to the right of where It was when he first ran. Brown did fine in 2018, a Democratic wave year, but the rare success of a Trump endorsee (J.D. Vance) in the 2022 election presages a difficult race even for a Democrat as formidable as Brown. In a good Republican presidential year, he may just drown down-ballot of an unpopular Democratic nominee, especially if the unpopular Joe Biden is renominated.

The Republican Party’s bench in Ohio is quite deep, given the party’s utter domination of state government since 2010.

Wisconsin: Republicans have repeatedly failed to mount any sort of formidable challenge against Sen. Tammy Baldwin (D), who is now running for a third term. This is one of the races which, if a strong Republican candidate gets into it, could find its way onto the map, especially if the Biden years continue to go as poorly as they have so far.