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McConnell's plan unravels, GOP splinters over anti-election scheme

McConnell desperately tried to steer his members away from an anti-election scheme. As one observer noted, "That's all gone to hell."
Dusk falls over the U.S. Capitol on Dec. 20, 2020.
Dusk falls over the U.S. Capitol on Dec. 20, 2020.Samuel Corum / Getty Images

As several dozen far-right House Republicans lined up to contest Joe Biden's victory, after having already asked the Supreme Court to help overturn the election results, Senate Republican leaders tried to keep a level head.

Looking ahead to Wednesday's Capitol Hill proceedings, when lawmakers will meet to confirm Biden's win, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) has explicitly told GOP senators that there's no point in playing games with this. Senate Majority Whip John Thune (R-S.D.) recently added that such an effort would "go down like a shot dog."

By all accounts, GOP leaders, cognizant of congressional arithmetic, were desperate to avoid dividing Republicans against each other as the post-Trump era got underway.

So much for that idea.

Sen. Josh Hawley (R-Mo.) got the ball rolling last week, announcing his plan to contest election results he doesn't like. The Washington Post's Michael Gerson, a former George W. Bush speechwriter, concluded, "This begins with a simple and sad recognition: The ambitions of this knowledgeable, talented young man are now a threat to the republic."

Around the same time, Sen. Ben Sasse (R-Neb.) issued a lengthy statement condemning his Missouri colleague's dangerous stunt. "Let's be clear what is happening here: We have a bunch of ambitious politicians who think there's a quick way to tap into the president's populist base without doing any real, long-term damage," Sasse wrote. "But they're wrong — and this issue is bigger than anyone's personal ambitions. Adults don't point a loaded gun at the heart of legitimate self-government."

Ideally, the pushback would've discouraged others from being as irresponsible as Hawley. In reality, it did the opposite, as others scrambled to prove they were just as hostile toward democracy as Hawley is.

Nearly a dozen Republican senators and senators-elect demanded Saturday that a commission audit the results of the 2020 election and said they would otherwise object to the Electoral College votes that declared President-elect Joe Biden the winner. Even though there is no evidence of any fraud in the election — despite numerous claims by President Donald Trump — the group of lawmakers said in a statement that they were calling on Congress to create a commission with "full investigatory and fact-finding authority, to conduct an emergency 10-day audit of the election returns in the disputed states."

The ringleader of the faction, predictably, is Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas), who was joined by Ron Johnson of Wisconsin, James Lankford of Oklahoma, Steve Daines of Montana, John Kennedy of Louisiana, Marsha Blackburn of Tennessee and Mike Braun of Indiana, Cynthia Lummis of Wyoming, Roger Marshall of Kansas, Bill Hagerty of Tennessee, and Tommy Tuberville of Alabama.

The 11 far-right Republicans -- some of whom recently took the opposite position -- articulated their position in a deeply strange written statement that (a) points to the Compromise of 1877 as if it were a good thing, which is insane; and (b) fails to make any actual arguments, instead citing public "distrust" that was created by a Republican misinformation campaign.

As Yale historian Timothy Snyder put it, Cruz and his cohorts "do not allege fraud, they allege allegations of fraud."

Predictable fissures soon followed. Sen. Pat Toomey (R-Pa.) issued a statement criticizing Cruz by name, as did Sen. Mitt Romney (R-Utah). Vice President Mike Pence, however, offered his support for the stunt.

Sen. Tom Cotton (R-Ark.), who seemed like the kind of far-right voice who'd side with Cruz and Hawley, ended up doing the opposite, while four other GOP senators -- Maine's Susan Collins, Alaska's Lisa Murkowski, Louisiana's Bill Cassidy, and Romney -- also signed on to a joint statement describing the election as "over," and urging senators to accept the results of the electoral college vote.

All told, as of this morning, there are 51 Senate Republicans -- 12 of whom oppose certifying Biden's victory, 19 of whom support certifying Biden's victory, and 20 of whom don't want to talk about it.

Or put another way, nearly a fourth of the Senate Republican conference are responding to a Democratic victory in a presidential election by expressing contempt for democracy -- even if that means defying their own party's leadership, even if it means dividing the GOP as 2021 gets underway.

Yesterday, Politico summarized the unusual conditions on Capitol Hill nicely: "In short, there's a growing rebellion inside the GOP conference instigated by President Donald Trump.... We can't say this emphatically enough: This does not happen to Mitch McConnell. For four years, the Senate leader has managed to maintain order in his ranks as Trump unleashes daily mayhem on the GOP from the White House. That's all gone to hell."

The Senate vote confirming Biden's victory is still two days away. The hell may yet get worse before it gets better.