A year ago, as some Republicans in Congress moved to disenfranchise Pennsylvania’s voters and throw out the state’s presidential votes, Sen. Pat Toomey opposed the move, defying the president he had previously supported.
“I rise to defend the right of my citizens, my constituents, to vote in the presidential election,” Toomey, a Pennsylvania Republican, said on the Senate floor hours after the Jan. 6 insurrection at the U.S. Capitol. “Even if Congress did have the constitutional responsibility to judge the worthiness of a state’s election process, which it does not, rejecting Pennsylvania’s electoral votes would still be wildly out of proportion to the purported offenses and very damaging to our republic.”
None of the Republicans hoping to replace Toomey would say this week if they would take a similar stand.
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 — a position taken by Toomey and 91 other senators in the aftermath of the Jan. 6 riot. (Toomey isn’t seeking reelection.)
Overall, only seven senators voted to reject the result in Pennsylvania. In the House, 138 Republicans, including eight of the chamber’s nine Pennsylvania Republicans, voted to block the state’s electoral votes. (Rep. Brian Fitzpatrick, of Bucks County, was the lone GOP exception from Pennsylvania.)
Toomey, who supported President Donald Trump’s reelection and most of his policies, was a rare Republican who forcefully defended Pennsylvania’s outcome even while acknowledging criticism of some of the state’s election procedures. His potential GOP successors won’t commit to doing the same.
Along with Bartos, The Inquirer contacted Senate candidates Mehmet Oz, the celebrity surgeon; Carla Sands, Trump’s former ambassador to Denmark; conservative commentator Kathy Barnette; and David McCormick, who recently left his post leading a Connecticut hedge fund in advance of an expected Senate campaign. Each is vying to be the GOP nominee in the May primary. Whoever wins in the November election could tip the balance of power in the Senate.
Even in acknowledging the outcome of the 2020 race, Bartos used the opportunity to criticize the victor.
“Joe Biden won the 2020 election, and as a result there is a humanitarian crisis at the southern border ...; inflation is running to all-time highs meaning your dollars aren’t going as far; gas prices are running to record highs thanks to Biden’s war on the energy industry,” Bartos said in a statement.
Scores of election and democracy experts are sounding alarm bells, however, over most Republicans’ refusal to publicly accept Biden’s victory and their nods to — or outright support of — Trump’s false election claims.
“There’s probably nothing more central to democratic politics than the peaceful transition of power,” said Michael Berkman, director of Penn State’s McCourtney Institute for Democracy. “I would call that the central norm to democracy. The idea that we decide through elections who gets to govern, the losers acknowledge the victory for the other side, they allow them to govern, they stick around to fight another day.”
The questions about Pennsylvania’s votes in 2024 aren’t necessarily theoretical. Trump has continued attacking the validity of the 2020 results in Pennsylvania with a litany of false claims and debunked conspiracy theories. He had planned a news conference for Thursday, the anniversary of the riot, but canceled it late Tuesday, saying in a statement that he would say more at a Jan. 15 rally in Arizona.
He’s also making moves to run for president again, raising the possibility of another attempt to subvert an election if he’s defeated a second time. And with Republicans favored to win one or both houses of Congress in this year’s elections, the GOP could have more power in 2024 to try to ignore the will of the voters in closely contested states such as Pennsylvania.
The commonwealth’s next U.S. senator could again be placed in the position of defending or undermining the state’s election results.
“I hope we’re wrong, but we could be heading for a real mess in 2024,” Berkman said.
Numerous public polls have found that around two-thirds of Republican voters doubt the legitimacy of Biden’s victory or think it was tainted by fraud. Those numbers, along with Trump’s continued influence in the GOP, make it politically risky to openly counter his election fraud claims, especially in a primary likely to be decided by the party’s most dedicated voters.
(Trump previously endorsed a candidate in the Pennsylvania Senate race, Sean Parnell, who had sued to throw out some 2.6 million 2020 mail ballots. Parnell later dropped out of the race amid domestic abuse allegations, leaving the former president’s endorsement open again.)
Audits and election reviews, including ones led by Republicans or Trump sympathizers, have affirmed the results in Arizona, Georgia, Michigan, and Wisconsin, debunking claims of widespread fraud or irregularities. An Associated Press review of the contested swing states found just 26 “suspicious” votes in Pennsylvania, where Biden won by 80,000 and more than 7 million votes were cast overall.
(In Michigan, the GOP-led review instead recommended that the state attorney general investigate the people who pushed false election claims.)
Still, the persistent effort to question or deny the lawful 2020 results, and sow doubt in the minds of many voters, Berkman said, is undermining confidence in democracy itself, and raises the possibility of even worse violence after the next presidential campaign.
A rising share of the public says violence could sometimes be justified. About 40% of Republicans and 41% of independents said so in a Washington Post-University of Maryland poll conducted in December, compared with 23% of Democrats.
Some 64% of Americans believe the country’s democracy is “in crisis and at risk of failing,” according to an NPR/Ipsos poll last month.
Meanwhile, in response to baseless fraud claims, GOP legislatures in several states have moved to strip power from election administrators and hand it to state legislatures. Those moves, and the increased power granted to partisan officials, could also prompt Democrats to question the validity of the next election, leading to a potential for rebellion on the left, Berkman said.
“Imagine if a Republican legislature throws out the votes from a Democratic city,” he said.
Few Republicans want to cross Trump or his election claims. Toomey had announced his decision to retire even before the 2020 election, but many others who have defied Trump, such as Reps. Liz Cheney (R., Wyo.) and Adam Kinzinger (R., Ill.), have been politically targeted, drummed out of leadership positions, or have chosen to step down.
In Pennsylvania, every Senate candidate has at least nodded toward Trump and his policies. They haven’t fully embraced his election claims, but nor have most rejected them.
Toomey declined an interview request this week. But in his Jan. 6 speech after the Capitol riot, he directly blamed Trump for fueling distrust and violence.
Urging fellow senators to respect Pennsylvania’s outcome, he said: “Let’s not abet such deception.”