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GOP Senate hopefuls in Pennsylvania dodge key election question

The five leading Republican contenders in Pennsylvania's U.S. Senate race were asked about the 2020 election. It didn't go well.

A few weeks ago, the five leading Republican contenders in Minnesota's gubernatorial race met for a televised debate. The first question, posed by conservative radio host Hugh Hewitt, was relatively straightforward: Did President Joe Biden legitimately win the 2020 election?

None of the five said yes.

There's a lot of this going around. This week, The Philadelphia Inquirer asked the five leading Republican contenders in Pennsylvania's U.S. Senate race similar questions, which they didn't want to answer.

The Inquirer contacted the five most prominent Republicans declared as Senate candidates or likely to run, asking if they believe President Joe Biden won the 2020 election and if they would have certified Pennsylvania's election results, as nearly all senators did. Only one candidate responded in any way. Jeff Bartos, a Montgomery County real estate developer, acknowledged Biden's victory, as he has multiple times in the past. But neither Bartos nor any other candidate commented on whether they would have voted to certify Pennsylvania's election results.

The point is not that this is surprising. It's not. But sometimes, predictable truths are important.

For one thing, we've clearly arrived at a point in Republican politics in which GOP candidates in competitive primaries are either too radical or too afraid to acknowledge our electoral realities. The Minnesota and Pennsylvania examples are striking, but it's a safe bet voters will see similar dynamics in key primary contests nationwide.

For another, it's worth noting that the senator these Pennsylvania candidates hope to succeed took a far more sensible and responsible approach last year.

A year ago today, eight Senate Republicans voted at least once to reject the results of the 2020 presidential election, but Sen. Pat Toomey wasn't among them. On the contrary, the Pennsylvania Republican, who'll soon wrap up his career in elected office, did the opposite.

Toomey not only voted to confirm the election results, and not only acknowledged the Democratic victory, he also issued a written statement criticizing his GOP colleagues — by name — for trying to undermine our democratic process.

Around the same time, Toomey appeared on NBC News' "Meet the Press" and said, in reference to Sens. Josh Hawley and Ted Cruz, "They're going to have a lot of soul searching to do. And the problem is they were complicit in the big lie."

Hours after the attack on the Capitol, the Keystone State senator spoke on the chamber's floor and defended his home state's election results — even though he wished they'd gone the other way.

It's far too soon to say who'll fill Toomey's seat next year, which party he or she will belong to, or even who'll win his party's primary. But as the Inquirer's report suggests, if Toomey is succeeded by a Republican, he or she will likely be more hostile toward democracy than the GOP incumbent.

And that's no small thing. It's sometimes tempting to think contemporary Republican politics has hit rock bottom, and it's unrealistic to think it can get worse.

Those assumptions are wrong. A year ago tonight, eight GOP senators voted at least once to reject the results of their own country's presidential election. That's eight too many, but they represented a modest percentage of the overall Senate Republican conference: 84 percent of GOP senators, including Toomey, voted to certify the winning candidate's victory.

They may not have been happy about it, and they may have cast their votes grudgingly, but they weren't willing to reject democracy altogether.

But as Republican senators like Toomey prepare to exit the stage, along with several other GOP contenders who voted to certify Biden's victory who are also retiring, it's awfully difficult to feel confident that their successors will be equally respectful of our system of government.