How much indulgence does a committed right-winger on Capitol Hill owe President Donald Trump, as he keeps looking for ways to deny his defeat? On Saturday, Texas Sen. Ted Cruz and a band of 11 Republican senators announced they would vote to reject electors from “disputed” states during Congress’ tally of Electoral College votes on Jan. 6. They’ll get the opportunity to vote on each state against whose electors a House member and a senator lodge matching objections. Plenty of House members are lining up to object to various states, and Missouri Sen. Josh Hawley has said that he will object to at least one state.
On Sunday, however, Rep. Chip Roy—Cruz’s no-less-conservative former chief of staff—forced House Republicans who would dispute the election results to put the insincerity of their claims on the record. As the new Congress gathered for its first day, Roy objected to the seating of 67 House members, representing Arizona, Georgia, Michigan, Nevada, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin. Those are the states carried by Joe Biden whose electors Trump-y members of the House would try to block.
Roy’s explanation was ruthlessly logical: Trump’s defenders plan to object to the electors “due to their deeply held belief that those states conducted elections plagued by statewide, systemic fraud and abuse that leaves them absolutely no way for this chamber or our constituents to trust the validity of their elections.” But the 67 members of the House from the states would claim their own seats based on the results of those very same elections.
“Such allegations,” he wrote, “if true, raise significant doubts about the elections of at least some of the members of the United States House of Representatives that, if not formally addressed, could cast a dark cloud of suspicion over the validity of this body for the duration of the 117th Congress.” Nevertheless, in the first roll-call vote of the 117th Congress following the election of the speaker, the House—including the would-be Trump dead-enders—voted almost unanimously to endorse the election results and swear those members in.
Trump waited until the final weeks of his presidency to deliver congressional Republicans one of his most debasing loyalty tests: demanding they vote to overturn the results of a presidential election he lost fair and square, to which any challenges—typically based on social media disinformation, or pure hallucinatory fantasy—have been dismissed time and again in court.
The plan has no chance of changing the election outcome. For a slate of electors to be rejected, both the House and Senate would have to vote against them. Democrats control the House, and the Senate Democratic minority will have more than enough Republicans joining them against such challenges.
Instead, the question of whether to go along with Wednesday’s shenanigans is a choice between risking a Trumpier-than-thou primary challenge or breaking new ground in the deterioration of American democracy. Many Republicans up for election in 2022 would rather have avoided either option, which is why Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell strongly urged members of his conference against objecting to any electors. Once Hawley announced his intention to object, however, the seal was broken.
You might expect, in a “free” vote where the ultimate outcome isn’t in doubt, for Republicans to make their decisions according to the gradient of redness in their district or state, when they’re next up for reelection, or what higher ambitions they harbor. That’s true in a lot of cases. Dozens—maybe a majority?—of congressional Republicans in safe seats will avoid putting primary targets on their backs by voting to reject “tainted” electors. Hawley (raising the objections) and Cruz (leading the group to sustain the objections) are both positioning themselves for a 2024 presidential primary, and earning the enmity of their “establishment” colleagues is a textbook first step. Oklahoma Sen. James Lankford, one of the more surprising members of Cruz’s coup troupe, is conservative, but typically keeps his distance from the extracurricular activities of the fringe right. He’s up for reelection in 2022, though, and the only way he loses is through a primary.
But as the split between Roy and Cruz shows, the breakdown defies simple analysis. Partisanship, or the incentive to act more partisan, doesn’t predict all the ways that Republicans are dividing themselves. Wyoming Rep. Liz Cheney, the No. 3 House Republican, could build back credibility with a Trumpist right that’s already leery of her by voting to reject electors; instead, she sent a sharp letter to her conference warning them against doing so. Another group of seven House Republicans, including Roy and mostly hailing from safe seats, released a joint statement declaring that “we must count the electoral votes submitted by the states” even though it “might frustrate our immediate political objectives.” New York Rep. Elise Stefanik, on the other hand, fully completed her transition from establishment moderate to Trump lackey by joining up with the objectors.
Most notable of all, though, was the statement of a particular Trump loyalist from a deep-red state who’s also widely expected to launch a presidential campaign: Arkansas Sen. Tom Cotton announced Sunday night that he “will not oppose the counting of certified electoral votes on January 6.”
The cynical read on Cotton’s decision is that he saw potential presidential rivals Hawley and Cruz take the lead in supporting Trumpist “Lost Cause” advocacy and, rather than appear to be scrambling after them, he took the other side of the bet, setting himself apart if their radical tactic turns out to age poorly. Still, Cotton gave three reasons for not voting to overturn the election: that it would “take away the power to choose the president from the people, which would essentially end presidential elections and place that power in the hands of whichever party controls Congress”; it would “imperil the Electoral College, which gives small states like Arkansas a voice in presidential elections”; and it would “take another big step toward federalizing election law, another longstanding Democratic priority that Republicans have consistently opposed.”
The first is the “duh” reason, and the third is a wishful account of the highly situational Republican approach toward federal election intervention. The second, though—the imperilment of the Electoral College—is the one that gives Republicans the political incentive they need to counter the wrath of Trump’s tweets.
Cotton’s specific defense of the Electoral College as giving “small states like Arkansas a voice in presidential elections” is one of the traditional, senselessly rote claims on the system’s behalf that doesn’t really stand up to scrutiny. The Electoral College doesn’t give Arkansas a voice; it allows presidential candidates to ignore it completely, as a minor prize whose entry in the Republican column is a foregone conclusion, while they pour resources and attention into states that have more competitive mixes of metropolitan and rural populations.
What the Electoral College does do, at least under the existing party coalitions, is give Republicans a chance to keep winning presidential elections against the wishes of a majority of the country’s voters. The statement that the seven House Republicans released supporting the counting of electors spelled this out more explicitly.
From a purely partisan perspective, Republican presidential candidates have won the national popular vote only once in the last 32 years. They have therefore depended on the electoral college for nearly all presidential victories in the last generation. If we perpetuate the notion that Congress may disregard certified electoral votes—based solely on its own assessment that one or more states mishandled the presidential election—we will be delegitimizing the very system that led Donald Trump to victory in 2016, and that could provide the only path to victory in 2024.
If the choice were strictly between appeasing Trump to avoid a primary and Doing the Right Thing, we’d have something close to a party-line vote on whether to overturn a presidential election. Instead, we’re seeing the Republican Party—especially in the Senate—break down into factional struggle after an era of ruthless partisan discipline under Trump. Even Mitch McConnell, whose willingness to defend and protect the president seemed to know no limits, is prepared to cut him off. He won’t do so because his heart grew three sizes over Christmas, either. He recognizes that it’s essential to preserving the working of the antiquated, Rube Goldberg electoral system that gives Republicans their only fighting chance nationally.