Pennsylvania will once again be at the center of a fraught national political battle Wednesday, when a typically routine ceremony to confirm the results of the presidential election is expected to become a brawl over the country’s very democratic principles.
Dozens of Republicans in the U.S. House and Senate — including 8 from Pennsylvania — will try to block Pennsylvania’s presidential electors and those from some other states, attempting to overturn the will of the voters to keep President Donald Trump in power.
The plan is doomed to fail in the face of opposition from congressional Democrats and a significant share of Republicans, including Pennsylvania Sen. Pat Toomey.
But the attempt to block Congress from accepting the results of an election will amount to one of the most direct challenges to American democracy in memory and a test of the GOP’s direction as Trump nears the end of his term.
It promises to turn what is normally a staid step in the transfer of power into a clash that has split the GOP, enraged Democrats, and fueled unfounded attacks on Joe Biden’s presidency before he even takes office.
“A fundamental, defining feature of a democratic republic is the right of the people to elect their own leaders,” Toomey said in a statement Saturday. The efforts to “overturn the results of the 2020 presidential election in swing states like Pennsylvania directly undermines this right.”
Toomey, who supported Trump’s reelection and the vast majority of the president’s policies, has been one of the most outspoken GOP critics of the attempt to invalidate the election.
“I intend to vigorously defend our form of government by opposing this effort to disenfranchise millions of voters in my state and others,” Toomey said.
On the other side of the debate are eight fellow Pennsylvania Republicans — out of nine GOP members in the state’s House delegation — who almost all represent deeply conservative districts and have joined the fight against Biden’s victory. They say they are standing up for the principle that elections must be fair. Of Pennsylvania Republicans in the House, only Bucks County’s Brian Fitzpatrick isn’t joining with the objectors.
Rep. Jeff Van Drew, of New Jersey, plans to join the Republican objections as well.
The fight Wednesday comes against a backdrop of a stinging Republican defeat in Georgia, where Democrats appear to have won two Senate run-offs and, with them, control of the Senate, to go along with hold of the House and White House. Some Republicans are already blaming Trump and his baseless accusations of “rigged” elections for driving down GOP turnout and costing the party its last hold on power in Washington.
Yet at the same time, Trump is promising retribution against any Republicans who fail to support his false claims.
“I will personally work to defeat every single Republican Senator / Congressman who doesn’t stand up against this fraud - they will be primaried in their next election and they will lose,” the president’s son Eric Trump tweeted Tuesday.
Hours before the Congressional vote tally began, Trump supporters waved flags outside the Capitol and gathered for a rally, a sign of their continued devotion to the president and his message.
Like other Republicans, the Pennsylvania congressmen are not basing their objections on proven allegations of fraud — claims of widespread malfeasance have been widely debunked and rejected by courts — and their statements stop short of saying there was anything improper that could overturn Biden’s 81,000-vote victory in Pennsylvania.
Instead, they object to the procedures implemented by the state and argue that Gov. Tom Wolf and Secretary of State Kathy Boockvar, both Democrats, and the state Supreme Court exceeded their legal authority in setting election guidance and rules.
“Until these unlawful practices are acknowledged and corrected, we cannot agree to support electors chosen based upon an inaccurate total vote count. The voters of Pennsylvania deserve integrity in the election process and equal protection under the law,” said a statement from the eight Republican Congressmen, John Joyce, Fred Keller, Mike Kelly, Dan Meuser, Scott Perry, Guy Reschenthaler, Lloyd Smucker and Glenn Thompson.
Sen. Ted Cruz (R., Texas) has said he is seeking a commission to hear claims of voter fraud, not to change the outcome.
The procedures in question, however, are left up to individual states and have already been challenged in court. Judges, including some Trump appointees, have shot down GOP claims that they led to an illegitimate outcome in Pennsylvania.
The election counts themselves have been certified as accurate by Democratic and Republican election officials across the country, including in Pennsylvania. Former Attorney General William Barr, appointed by Trump, has said he saw no fraud on the scale that could have altered the outcome. An array of state and federal judges and the Supreme Court have rejected dozens of lawsuits brought by the president and his allies, at times excoriating them for a lack of substance and evidence.
“It’s total B.S.,” Sen. Bob Casey (D., Pa.) said of the objectors’ plans. “This effort is nothing more than a shameful and sorry attempt to overturn the will of Pennsylvania’s voters — the very constituents these elected officials have a responsibility to serve.”
Those objecting to Pennsylvania’s election administration, meanwhile, have said virtually nothing about a phone call Saturday in which Trump pressured Georgia’s Republican secretary of state to “find 11,780” votes to change that state’s outcome.
In the final days of Trump’s presidency, the attempt to support his fraud claims have amounted to perhaps the most consequential test of the GOP’s sometimes uneasy alliance with the president, who has inspired intense devotion from his supporters and fueled misinformation about the election.
In turn, many of the lawmakers point to the direct result of that misinformation as justification for objecting to the results, saying their constituents have raised concerns about the election. A throng of Trump supporters was planning to protest Biden’s victory in Washington as lawmakers take up the results Wednesday.
Several Pennsylvania Republicans said the congressmen may be worried about primary challenges if they failed to back Trump’s effort to reverse his loss.
“These are districts that are very red, and if you’re ever going to have a political opponent, it’s going to be a challenge within your party,” said Samuel Chen, a Republican consultant from the Lehigh Valley.
Alison Dagnes, a political science professor at Shippensburg University, said many of the voters in these lawmakers’ districts believe the fraud claims, despite the lack of evidence behind them.
But she added that the consequences could be long-lasting. “It’s really sad that so many lawmakers are assuming that the institutions and structures of the American government are strong enough to withstand a test like this, because I think what we’ve seen in the last eight weeks is that they are a lot more fragile than we thought,” she said.
Some of those supporting Trump’s effort have eyes on bigger futures. Some of the Pennsylvania congressmen are seen as possible contenders for Senate or governor in 2022. Sen. Josh Hawley (R., Mo.) and Cruz, the leaders of the Senate opposition, are each seen as potential 2024 presidential candidates.
Trump’s devoted supporters could be a powerful force in those races.
“These Trump people are not going away anytime soon because of these conspiracy theories,” said Rob Gleason, the former Pennsylvania Republican chairman and a Trump supporter. “People out in [Western Pennsylvania] still have their Trump flags up, their Trump bumper stickers. They have not given up and I don’t think they’ll ever give up.”
He said the doubts in many voters’ minds will be “a millstone” around Biden’s presidency.
Republicans opposing the push often come from the old guard. Among the GOP critics have been Sen. Mitt Romney (R., Utah), the 2012 nominee for president, and Toomey, who is retiring after 2022.
The fight will test how far Republican officials are willing to follow Trump even as he leaves office.
There have been other objections in the past, including by Democrats who opposed Trump in 2017. But in that case and others, the losing Democratic presidential candidate had already conceded the race. There was no concerted effort to change the outcome.
Each of the Pennsylvania Republicans objecting to Biden’s win was also reelected in the very same election they are now questioning. The GOP also scored significant statewide victories in other 2020 races, flipping the auditor general and state treasurer offices from Democratic control.
“It would confound basic human reason if the presidential results were to face objection while the congressional results of the same process escaped without public scrutiny,” said Rep. Chip Roy, a conservative Texas Republican who opposes the effort to block the electors.
This is a developing story and will be updated.