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Trump's 2020 loss gave the GOP the last key to 'win' the midterms

The plan involves manipulating elections before, during and after voters' trips to the polls.
Illustration showing a map of the United States with blue and red and a photo of protesters after the 2020 election.
Why win over new voters if you can just predetermine the outcome of elections?Chelsea Stahl / MSNBC; Getty Images; Reuters

There was a time in the not too distant past when the Republican Party was known for its sneakiness, a product of the underhanded tricks of operatives like Lee Atwater and his protégés. These days, the GOP is more a fan of brute force tactics when it comes to winning elections, reworking the rules of the game to make it more winnable — potentially even when they haven't won the most votes.

Even as the media shine lights on the individual components of the GOP's strategy — from the slew of changes in election laws enacted or proposed in states like Georgia and Texas to the absolute circus that's taking place in Arizona's "audit" of the 2020 election — it can be easy to miss how they fit together. But when you take a step back, it becomes clear that they're all interconnected, with one overarching goal: Republicans' opposition to free and fair elections boils down to a three-step plan to reclaim power in Washington and cement their control at the state level.

In three areas, the Republican Party is working to win elections not by persuading new voters to subscribe to their ideas, but by making their opponents incapable of victory.

Redraw the borders of the battlegrounds.

I wrote last week about the choice Democrats face in whether to ban gerrymandering nationwide ahead of the 2022 midterms. While there are groups that want to end gerrymandering entirely, like former Attorney General Eric Holder's National Democratic Redistricting Committee, it has been an uphill climb to get politicians on board with giving up one of the most palatable uses of pure partisan power.

That works out well, though, for Republicans, who 10 years ago used their success in the 2010 midterms to draw favorable electoral maps that made it easier for them to keep control of the House. And that was done with the Voting Rights Act still in place to help keep their worst excesses in check.

In three areas, the Republican Party is working to win elections not by persuading new voters to subscribe to their ideas, but by making their opponents incapable of victory.

This time around, Republican legislatures are champing at the bit to use this period — the first redistricting campaign since the Supreme Court gutted the Voting Rights Act in 2013 — to redraw election districts in ways that box out Democratic voters. And this time around, federal courts have less power to step in to redraw explicitly partisan borders. There is the threat that, as in North Carolina, state courts could still toss out maps that are clearly biased toward one party — but that's a risk some Republicans are willing to take.

In doing so, the GOP has the ability to win elections before the candidates are even in place — if there just aren't enough Democratic voters in a given map, there's no chance that seat could be the tipping point for a majority in the House. And as we were reminded in this most recent election, the House has the power to determine a winner in a presidential election when the Electoral College fails to give a candidate a majority.

Make the electorate smaller.

This is the step that has gotten the most attention lately in the media and in Congress, as it's the form of voter suppression Americans are most familiar with thanks to the fights to end Jim Crow in the 1960s. Today, Republicans are using the lie that the 2020 election was rife with voter fraud as an excuse to introduce dozens of bills to change election laws to make it harder for their states' citizens to vote.

The real insidiousness here is that in many cases, these restrictions are subtle enough to seem logical and defensible to the unaware. Texas' new elections bill would shut down 24-hour voting locations and drive-thru voting; Georgia's new law sharply restricts the use of drop boxes to collect early voting ballots. In effect, Republicans argue, these laws are just about securing elections and resetting standards back to the pre-pandemic norm.

Is that the same as stripping people of their right to vote? No. But it does raise the difficulty of casting a vote. And in cases like the above, in which it was mostly urban, minority voters who took advantage of these easier voting methods, there is a definite attempt to reshape the electorate in effect.

It's akin to placing hurdles on a racetrack — everyone still has the chance to run the race when the starting gun goes off, but there are obstacles in the way that will cause some people to trip or give up on running at all. What's worse is that the targeted way these changes are being designed makes it as though hurdles are being added to only some lanes.

Add the first two steps together and the odds of Democrats' keeping control of the House drop after the midterms. But it's step three that's the real innovation — and the most anti-democratic idea that former President Donald Trump has brought to the table.

Throw out results you don't like.

In contesting the results of the election, Trump offered no real evidence to prove that President Joe Biden had "stolen" the race from him. But his followers believed it — and Republican leaders are hesitant to correct the record. That has led us to a place where investigating the Jan. 6 attack on the U.S. Capitol, which Trump's rhetoric spawned, is a partisan issue.

The violent overthrow of the election is a bit too distasteful for most mainstream Republicans. What could be a real endemic threat, though, is the farce playing out in Arizona. For the last three months, a "forensic analysis" of the election results in Maricopa County has been hunting for any sign that Trump's claims about fraud were true. Trump has apparently even thought that the Arizona audit was his ticket back to the White House.

While the "audit" has made a bunch of money for its backers, it has come up totally empty so far. That hasn't deterred Cyber Ninjas, the firm running the audit, from insisting last week that it needs to take its sideshow door to door to really make sure there was no fraud. Worse, as MSNBC columnist Charlie Sykes recently wrote, the fever swamp in Arizona is spreading to Pennsylvania and potentially other battleground states. There's little stopping this from becoming a normalized part of the post-election process and justifying further restrictions on voting rights.

And there are more "legitimate" efforts to bring about the same potential outcome of Republicans' being declared the winners of elections in which they didn't get the most votes. The most dangerous involve Republicans' taking direct, partisan control over how elections are run and decided. Georgia's election law strips the secretary of state of his power over the State Election Board, giving it to the hyperpartisan Legislature. The scrapped version of Texas' election bill would have given judges the power to directly toss out results of elections that seemed, for whatever reason, dodgy.

When you think about the efforts to shape control of the House and limit who gets to vote and a new willingness to change the results of elections after the fact, you get a world where Trump's long-shot effort to have the House declare him the winner over Biden would have a real shot at success.

The genius of this plan is that it involves manipulating the outcome at every stage of the election process: before, during and after voters' trips to the polls. Taken separately, any one of them can be an infringement on the people's right to choose their elected officials. Together, they're a nightmare for democracy.

This is the plan, in plain view for anyone who is willing to look. It's naive to suggest that this behavior is somehow ahistorical or outside what America is capable of accepting. But it would be nice if it could have been relegated to the past, where it belongs.