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Warnock Beats Walker in Georgia Runoff, a Win That Matters for Democrats Now and in 2024

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Sen. Raphael Warnock of Georgia won reelection on Tuesday in a grueling runoff, capping off a tumultuous 2022 election season, one that saw Republicans win a bare majority in the House and Democrats hold their control of the Senate. Warnock’s victory over Republican Herschel Walker expands Democrats’ majority by one seat, to 51, padding that will prove critical over the next two years.

But the real story coming out of Atlanta Tuesday night may be the one it reveals about 2024, and not just for former President Donald Trump, whose handpicked nominee fumbled the ball as many Republicans had warned Trump he was likely to do. No, the real significance of Democrats scoring another notch in the victory column in these midterms is how it shifts the fight for the Senate two years from now.

In the short term, Warnock’s win means the Senate will no longer be evenly divided. With 51 members in their caucus, Democrats will be able to afford to lose one of their contrarian lawmakers—namely Sen. Joe Manchin of West Virginia and Sen. Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona—on some votes and still send legislation forward that could help their hopes for 2024. For the last two years, lawmakers have had to constantly keep those two fellow Democrats in the back of their minds as they weighed legislation that could jam through procedural loopholes or nominees they could consider, knowing either Manchin or Sinema—or both—held effective veto power. Warnock’s re-election win, following Democrats’ pick-up in Pennsylvania, means maybe the White House might consider more progressive contenders here and there without fear of the Manchin-Sinema swipe left. In their wildest dreams, Democrats might even once again imagine revisiting the filibuster.

(The win also frees up Vice President Kamala Harris to travel more freely, given she won’t have to spend so much time at the Capitol breaking 50-50 ties in the Senate in her role as the Senate’s president.)

And, while nominees and even some legislation tied to spending bills are important, the real impact of a 51-seat Democratic Senate is the slight buffer it provides heading into 2024, when the party is facing a tough map. Sinema is expected to draw her own primary challenger, and Arizona is hardly a slam-dunk for Democrats regardless of the nominee; the Democratic nominee for Governor prevailed this year by a scant 0.6 percentage points. Manchin, too, could be a tricky race to watch for Democrats, who recognize he’s probably the last of their own to have a shot in a state that voted for Trump by 39 points. Sen. Jon Tester’s re-election bid in Montana and Sen. Jackie Rosen’s in Nevada look difficult at best, and Democrats are skittish about Sens. Sherrod Brown in Ohio, Debbie Stabenow in Michigan, and Bob Casey in Pennsylvania.

Put another way: Warnock may be an insurance policy against a hellish map that requires almost everything to go right for Democrats to hold their majority. If nothing else, it helps Majority Leader Chuck Schumer more easily raise boatloads of cash owing to his ownership of the gavel for two more years.

As macabre as it sounds, there’s a corollary insurance policy here, too: 11 incumbent Democrats hail from states where they would be replaced by a Republican Governor should any of them vacate this mortal coil before their term is up.

Republicans, meanwhile, were rightly glum about the outcome Tuesday night. They had spent heavily to help Walker, a standout University of Georgia football star who went onto the NFL. The Heisman Trophy winner proved an uneven candidate, at best. Republicans buried their head in the sand when he started running, rationalized that he could still emerge victorious despite story after story after story that slagged his hopes, and then looked the other way as he veered erratically from the party’s well-honed and tested messages. Walker is merely the coda to a campaign season in which they watched candidates—all backed by Trump—tank the party’s Senate hopes in Pennsylvania, Nevada, Arizona, and now Georgia. In races where Trump’s super PAC spent money, he went 1-for-6.

At long last, the balance of power in Washington is set for the coming 118th Congress: Democratic President Joe Biden will hold the White House for the next two years, Republicans will hold a majority in the House and wrestle with a new Democratic regime, and the Senate stays, more or less, with the status quo. Welcome to a potentially never-ending gridlock where the loudest and most partisan voices can command attention but direct very little governing. And, from afar, Trump continues to complicate his fellow Republicans’ hopes for an even-keeled agenda.

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Write to Philip Elliott at philip.elliott@time.com