WASHINGTON — After the riots, as bloodstains and bullet holes marked the Capitol and police in tactical gear monitored the halls, several Republican lawmakers decided enough was enough.
They had planned to support President Donald Trump’s push to overturn his loss to President-elect Joe Biden, but backed off after the dark events of Wednesday, when a mob, fueled by lies about a stolen election, interrupted a step in the peaceful transition of power and desecrated the seat of popular representation. “The events that transpired have forced me to reconsider, and I cannot now in good conscience object to the certification of these electors,” Sen. Kelly Loeffler (R., Ga.) said on the Senate floor Wednesday evening.
But eight of the 10 Pennsylvania Republicans in Congress were not deterred. They led a push to overturn their own state’s election results early Thursday morning, speaking from the House chamber many of them had been rushed away from hours earlier. The episode underscored the grip Trump and Trump-style politics hold on a wide swath of Pennsylvania Republicans, even in the president’s final days in office and as other staunch Republicans saw Wednesday as a breaking point.
In some cases, they said the attackers’ grievances had actually highlighted the importance of their cause.
“I hate the idea of what we had to go through today,” Rep. Mike Kelly, of Butler County, said on the House floor. But he quickly pivoted to blaming the country’s sharp divisions on questions about the election’s outcome — questions he has fomented by suing to throw out millions of Pennsylvania votes over a state law passed with bipartisan support.
Thundering from the House floor a little after 2 a.m., he said: “We have driven this country apart through the people’s House, and we wonder what happens? The biggest loss on Nov. 3 was not by Donald Trump, it’s the faith and trust that the American people lost in this voting system because we have allowed it to happen.”
Rep. Dan Meuser, of Luzerne County, said the violence of the day would “be a black mark in our nation’s history,” but continued with his objection, too.
“The lawlessness and violence of today must be condemned, just as all violent protests must be condemned,” Meuser said. “Nevertheless the fact remains, a large number of Pennsylvanians are enormously frustrated with actions taken by elected and appointed officials in Pennsylvania which have led to a high level of distrust for this past election.”
The eight GOP congressmen made procedural complaints that have been repeatedly knocked back in court, furthering claims rejected by a wide array of judges that illegal action or irregularities may have led to Biden’s victory.
Their alignment with Trump, on perhaps the darkest day of his presidency, suggested top Pennsylvania Republicans may well continue to embrace him as the party looks ahead to open U.S. Senate and gubernatorial races in 2022.
Sen. Pat Toomey (R., Pa.), once elected as part of the vanguard of a new conservative movement, defended Pennsylvania’s electoral votes, saying the objections would disenfranchise millions. He decried Trump as a “demagogue” who “chose to spread falsehoods.”
Yet with Toomey retiring after 2022, there is an opening for a new face of the party. Primary races next year will be tests of the party’s direction.
“A decade ago Pat Toomey was at the tip of the spear, if you will, in terms of the anti-RINO Republican in Pennsylvania,” said Muhlenberg College pollster Chris Borick, referring to so-called Republicans in Name Only.
Indeed, it was Toomey’s 2010 Senate candidacy that drove the late moderate Sen. Arlen Specter from the GOP.
“Ten years later he’s on the floor denouncing the Republican president of the United States as a demagogue,” Borick said of Toomey. “That tells you how you get these shifts in politics, and Republican politics. That’s certainly going to be something the party has to try and deal with over the next few years as they approach a really meaningful and important election in Pennsylvania in 2022.”
Some Republicans are hoping for a change in approach, especially after seeing Trump decimated in the populous suburbs and seeing Trump-style candidates suffer blowout losses in the 2018 Senate and gubernatorial contests. But others see the Trump base as a potent force that taps into voters’ frustration — and can help them win.
Rob Gleason, a former state GOP chairman, said it was “hard to say” whether Trump’s actions Wednesday would loosen his grip on the party.
“I wouldn’t really want to make any judgment about that,” said Gleason, a Trump supporter. “It’s gonna take a little bit of time. ... It certainly wasn’t a positive thing.”
While some of the party’s senior figures — including Toomey — condemned Trump and the efforts to undo the election, the Pennsylvania congressmen hewed to the president’s debunked message about an unfair election. They cited procedural grounds, rather than the president’s baseless fraud claims, but in doing so still sought the same outcome: disenfranchising voters and overturning the result.
Some Republican insiders saw the effort as an attempt by the congressmen, who nearly all represent areas where Trump has huge support, to remain in good standing with his voters, to head off any potential primary challenges.
But some of them may also have wider ambitions. If they want to run for governor or Senate — Meuser is seen as one potential candidate for statewide office — the Trump base could be a powerful force in a GOP primary. At the same time, though, a close affiliation with Trump could be toxic in the state’s suburbs, where voters have poured out in recent years to reject the president and other Republicans.
Some Republicans have whispered that Donald Trump Jr. or Ivanka Trump, the president’s son and daughter, could be potential Senate candidates. Both are University of Pennsylvania graduates. Either running would tether the party to Trump even after he leaves office.
Several Pennsylvania Republicans were parroting Trump’s false election claims well before this week’s events. Rep. Scott Perry of York County attended a “Stop the Steal” rally outside the state Capitol in Harrisburg days after the election. Meuser told Fox News’ Sean Hannity in November the situation in Pennsylvania was so dire that “this is no longer one citizen, one vote.”
By Wednesday, with no evidence of widespread fraud, he said on the House floor his objections were over procedural matters.
The tactics of questioning elections weren’t limited to Washington.
GOP leaders in Harrisburg, including Senate President Pro Tempore Jake Corman and Senate Majority Leader Kim Ward, sent a letter to Congress on Monday urging lawmakers to delay certification of the presidential results “to allow due process as we pursue election integrity in our commonwealth.”
And on Tuesday in Harrisburg, the first day of the new state legislative session, GOP lawmakers refused to seat a Democratic senator whose narrow win was certified by the state, saying they wanted to wait for litigation to be resolved.
State Sen. Doug Mastriano (R., Franklin), one of more than 60 Republican state lawmakers who had encouraged Congress to reject the Pennsylvania results, was outside the U.S. Capitol on Wednesday. During a November hearing in Gettysburg where Trump and his campaign lawyer Rudy Giuliani made fantastical claims about the election, Mastriano declared that the future of “the republic is at stake.”
Mastriano, who’s expected to run for governor in 2022, said he went to Washington “to support the president.” In a Facebook video posted Wednesday night, he condemned the violence and said he and his wife left the area when “it became apparent” that “it was no longer a peaceful protest.”
“The overwhelming majority — 99 some percent — were just there to support our president, exercise our constitutional rights, as has happened many times over the past year,” he said.
At least one of the Republican objectors tried to move on Thursday. Rep. Fred Keller said that Congress had “upheld its constitutional duty and certified” Biden as the winner and that “we will move forward as one nation.”
Still, Democrats expressed outrage at Republicans whom they see as following the Trump playbook. Some called on Mastriano to resign, while Rep. Conor Lamb, an Allegheny County Democrat, excoriated his GOP colleagues in the House during one the most tense moments of the floor debate.
“A woman died out there tonight and you’re making these objections?” Lamb said. He later added, “We know that that attack today, it didn’t materialize out of nowhere, it was inspired by lies, the same lies that you’re hearing in this room tonight.”
Lamb may be a future candidate for statewide office himself. If so, that moment on the floor may be a preview of another clash with Trumpism, even with the president leaving office in two weeks.