The Trailer: What happens when the majority doesn’t rule?


Locked out of power in Washington but with firm control of most state legislatures, Republicans are taking steps to make policy out of something they used to joke about: Liberal cities shouldn’t determine who wins statewide elections.

“I think people would just feel better knowing that their vote went to the candidate that they chose in their area,” Wisconsin GOP Assemblyman Gary Tauchen told the Atlantic this week, defending an electoral college proposal that would have given President Donald Trump six of the state’s 10 electors last year, based on which congressional districts he carried, despite losing statewide.

The sentiment isn’t new, and neither are some of the proposals. After the 2012 election, when Republicans controlled all branches of government in Michigan, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Virginia, and Wisconsin, each considered a proposal to split up electoral votes, but quickly dismissed them. Trump’s 2016 victory in four of those states quashed any discussion of changing the winner-take-all system — yet Biden’s narrow Midwest victories have rekindled the debate, even if passage isn’t likely.

The way Trump lost, with landslides in most rural areas and defeats in big cities and suburbs, has animated some campaigns to reduce urban clout. Last week, as Republicans on the House Oversight and Reform Committee attacked a plan to grant statehood to the District of Columbia, they characterized it not just as a “power grab” — Republicans struggle to get 10 percent of the vote there — but as an effort to empower urbanites who did not do useful work.

“In South Carolina, we have farming. In South Carolina, we have mining,” said Rep. Ralph Norman (R) of South Carolina. “The new State of Washington will have none of that.”

The shift of rural White voters toward the GOP, which began before Trump but accelerated during his presidency, produced an electoral map that confounded the former president. No one had won as few counties as Joe Biden and taken the White House, a fact that post-election memes and presidential insistence that he couldn’t have lost turned into allegations of fraud. In his February speech to the Conservative Political Action Conference, Trump repeated a theme he’d picked up after his defeat, that he had won “18 of 19 bellwether counties” — a sign of Democratic decline outside the suburbs — and that no candidate who had lost places such as New Mexico’s Valencia County (pop. 76,688) had ever won the presidency.

Trump falsely insisted, as he did after 2016, that millions of blue-state votes cast against him were illegitimate. Most Republican voters continue to tell pollsters that the 2020 election was riddled with fraud, an idea that has powered legislation for new voting restrictions in several states even though such allegations are false.

But the premise that conservatives represent a bigger, more real America, and are more deserving of voters than Biden’s supporters, isn’t necessarily tied to Trump’s allegations. Last summer, 53 percent of voters in a Missouri referendum voted to expand Medicaid under the terms offered by the Affordable Care Act. A few months later, Republicans easily kept control of the state; in the latest legislative session, they left the Medicaid expansion out of the budget, pointing out that the measure won majorities in just eight of the state’s 114 counties.

“Rural Missouri said no,” Rep. Sara Walsh, whose district sits between the Democratic strongholds of Columbia and Jefferson City, said to the Kansas City Star. “I don’t believe it is the will of the people to bankrupt our state.”

Republicans in Montana and Pennsylvania, who favor splitting the state court into districts in a way that would currently advantage the party, have used similar rhetoric about geographic diversity being crucial to self-governments. In several states, measures favored by a minority of voters can be forced onto the ballot, or even through a legislature. 

That’s the case in California, where both Republicans and Democrats expect a recall election for Gov. Gavin Newsom this year after organizers collected signatures from more than 12 percent of the 2020 electorate, the minimum needed. According to the Recall Gavin campaign’s petition data, voters in rural and other Republican strongholds were responsible for far more signatures than voters in more populous Democratic counties. 

In liberal San Francisco County, petitioners got signatures only from around 5 percent of eligible voters; in Orange County, where Democrats have made gains but Republicans are well organized, they got 24 percent of voters to sign. In Kern County, farm country represented in Congress by House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R), 23 percent of eligible voters signed petitions, compared to around 11 percent in neighboring Los Angeles County.

Recalls can allow a party that struggles in high-turnout elections — increasingly, Republicans in California — to triumph when most voters are tuned out. In 2016, Orange County Democrat Josh Newman captured a state Senate seat with 160,230 votes, edging out Republican Ling Ling Chang. A 2018 recall, held the same day as the state’s all-party primary, attracted just 158,089 voters — 91,892 of whom voted to remove Newman, and 50,215 voted to install Chang as his replacement.

Republicans in Michigan, meanwhile, are exploring an election move that could evade the statewide electorate entirely. Although the party held the state legislature in 2020, its dozens of voting bills are dead on arrival in Lansing, subject to veto by Gov. Gretchen Whitmer (D). But the state GOP has described a plan to package changes into a ballot measure, obtain at least 340,047 signatures — and then kick it to the legislature, where any measure that’s qualified for the ballot can be passed as is, with no ability for a governor to veto it. 

“The majority of Michigan voters in 2018 elected Gov. Whitmer and passed election reform,” said Merissa Kovach, the policy strategist for Michigan’s ACLU, which backed a successful 2018 ballot initiative to amend the state’s election laws. “This is a way of bypassing the government that a majority of voters put in office.”

As Republicans found in Georgia, any change to election law in post-2020 conditions is fuel for a backlash — but anything they can get the votes or signatures for can pass anyway. Bill Gannon, the New Hampshire Republican state senator who favors splitting the state’s electoral votes, pointed out that it wouldn’t have changed anything in 2020, when the competitive 1st Congressional District, after backing Trump in 2016, swung toward Joe Biden. But they’d have more clout if, like neighboring Maine, candidates could compete for votes in a slightly more GOP seat and a slightly more Democratic one.

“I always hear it from my Democratic colleagues, too: We want everybody down to the smallest level feeling that they are represented,” Gannon said. “So my congressional district really is feeling like: We keep voting Republican. We turn out the numbers for Republicans. And we don’t get the electoral vote.”

Reading list

In your arm, and now in your cable package.

How Florida’s senator is putting together a 2024 run.

The “mark of the beast” is back.

Why a president who came fifth in the first caucuses has allies ready to nix them.

The end of the first real congressional House challenge in decades.

Dems in disarray

The 2020 election ended in a whimper yesterday evening, when Democrat Rita Hart suspended her challenge to the results in Iowa’s 2nd Congressional District. Hours earlier, House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) was in that district, denouncing the idea that Hart had ever challenged the vote in the first place. That was the story of Hart’s 98-day challenge — Republicans grabbed every microphone to condemn it, while Democrats struggled to explain why it was happening.

“Despite our best efforts to have every vote counted, the reality is that the toxic campaign of political disinformation to attack this constitutional review of the closest congressional contest in 100 years has effectively silenced the voice of Iowans,” Hart said in a statement, before congratulating Republican Rep. Mariannette Miller-Meeks, who House Democrats seated at the start of the new Congress.

Hart wasn’t the first defeated candidate to bring a challenge to the House Administration Committee, and she wasn’t the only candidate who did so after 2020. (Illinois Republican Jim Oberweis has sought a challenge to his 5,374-vote loss to Democratic Rep. Lauren Underwood, which GOP leaders do not support, and which has not been pursued by the full committee.) Although the House has the power to determine who sits in it, only rarely has it not seated a candidate who was certified as the winner by his or her state, as Miller-Meeks was. 

In December, Iowa certified that Hart had lost by six votes — as she said, the closest race in a century, and one of the closest ever when accounting for population changes. Her campaign, after the election, identified 22 voters who had cast ballots that they learned too late had been disqualified, and argued that a full count of those ballots would put Hart back ahead. The state had certified election results on Nov. 30, and the House administration committee was the final authority on the matter, so Hart’s team made the decision to contest the results there.

“Given the impossibly short review period permitted by the Iowa court system in unusual cases like this one, we thought that the Federal Contested Election Act guidelines, allowing for full recount, were more appropriate,” Democratic superlawyer Marc Elias said in a call with reporters last week. “Twenty-two voters who did everything right, right now remain without their right to vote, because their votes have not been counted.”

It’s not clear how a court would have handled Hart’s challenge. In New York’s 22nd Congressional District, neither candidate in a contested 2020 election was seated until Feb. 8, when the state Supreme Court allowed the state to certify results that put Republican Rep. Claudia Tenney 109 votes ahead. That legal wrangling was underway — as was the House GOP-backed effort to reject presidential election results in several states — when Democrats in Washington urged the Hart team to make its challenge.

But what Republicans saw, and Hart’s side did not appreciate, was that the fact that Democrats ran the House could be used to portray her challenge as not just frivolous but unfair. The American Action Network, one of the House GOP’s campaign groups, polled Iowans and found voters recoiling at Hart’s challenge when they learned it was made in the House, not in court. Voters couldn’t fire a judge if he or she ruled a way they didn’t like, but House Democrats would have to vote to seat Hart if the challenge succeeded — so Republicans focused on them.

“The danger of what Hart proposes cannot be overstated,” the Miller-Meeks team argued in its first brief in the now-concluded challenge. “One cannot change the rules after the election was conducted without favoring one candidate or the other — and without destroying the public’s confidence in our election system.” 

Democrats were never comfortable defending the challenge, so Republicans turned up the pressure, blasting it as “Pelosi’s power grab,” and rejoicing as a few Democrats went on the record rejecting the challenge, each one representing a potential vote to keep Miller-Meeks in her seat. A group of Republicans who voted to impeach Trump urged Democrats to move on; another group, led by Sen. Tom Cotton (R-Ark.), asked corporations to cut off donations to any Democrats who voted to install Hart.

“Speaker Pelosi should have declined to get involved and applied the same standard that she stated just a few weeks ago: certified elections need to be honored,” wrote Cotton, who had refused to embrace other Republicans’ efforts to overturn Biden’s election.

Republicans won the PR battle decisively, ramping up before the recess, with the same group that conducted polling on the challenge announcing that it was phone-banking voters in swing Democratic districts to “stop Pelosi’s plan.” When Hart conceded, Republicans continued to hammer Pelosi, with Iowa Republicans denouncing “Pelosi’s scheme” and Congressional Leadership Fund President Dan Conston saying that Pelosi only bucked “once it was clear she lacked the juice to muscle it through.” The National Republican Congressional Committee tweeted a meme of a dragon from “Game of Thrones” breathing fire on a caravan, with no doubt about what was the NRCC and what was the Democrat.

The election ended with Hart’s concession, but not all of the efforts to question the 2020 results did. In her interview this week with her father-in-law, Lara Trump asked the former president how he was feeling. Trump quickly turned the question back to the 2020 election.

“I guess that’s still, in my opinion, being looked at by a lot of people,” Trump said. “It was disgraceful what happened. It was a Third-World-country voting system.”

Special elections

The June 1 election in New Mexico’s 1st Congressional District is set, with state Rep. Melanie Stansbury besting state Sen. Antoinette Sedillo López to secure the Democratic nomination on Wednesday night.

“I am running because I believe deeply in our communities and our ability to bring meaningful change, and I am looking forward to getting it done in the general,” Stansbury said after the vote total was announced. She got 103 votes from members of the state central committee; Sedillo López won just 97 votes. 

It was a partial defeat for the party’s left wing, which had backed Sedillo López, a former law professor, in both 2018 and the special. While now-Interior Secretary Deb Haaland became a popular figure on the left and a co-chair of Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren’s presidential campaign, groups such as the Justice Democrats had backed Sedillo López over Haaland in the 2018 primary, and groups such as the Progressive Democrats of America backed her for the special election.

There wasn’t much they could do to push her. In New Mexico, all parties pick nominees for special elections in party meetings, not primaries, and Sedillo López’s left-wing profile and clashes with moderates put her at a disadvantage. As the jockeying for the seat heated up, the senator sponsored a bill to fine parents if they take their children shooting without giving them a training course — not necessarily a toxic position in a district that backed Biden by 23 points, but the sort of thing Republicans hoped to take advantage of.

“The most radical legislation in Santa Fe, you name it, that’s Sedillo López,” said Eddy Aragon, a conservative radio host who ran unsuccessfully for the GOP nomination. “Stansbury is more polished.”

Eight Democrats made it to the first round of party voting, five of them Latino. But at least one national Latino group fretted that Republicans, who nominated state Sen. Mark Moores on Saturday, would have an advantage if they emphasized his Hispanic heritage, and Democrats did not nominate a Latino candidate — in a district where 51 percent of residents are Latino. The counterpoint: Haaland, who is Native American, had won the seat easily, defeating a Latino challenger, and the shifts that spooked Democrats in Latino parts of Florida and Texas last year did not really play out in New Mexico, a state the Trump campaign ceded to Biden.

Despite the district’s strong Democratic trends — 90 percent of the vote comes from Albuquerque’s Bernalillo County — Democrats saw Stansbury as a safer choice. An ecologist who had worked in President Barack Obama’s budget office, she emphasized that she’d flipped a Republican district in the 2018 midterm election; Sedillo López had not actually won an election yet, coming third in the 2018 primary, then securing an appointment to her Albuquerque seat.

Poll watch

In the next few weeks, both opponents and proponents of the California recall expect it to qualify for the ballot. Organizers continue to compare this campaign to the 2003 recall that put Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger (R) in office — and Schwarzenegger himself told Politico this week that he saw “pretty much the same atmosphere today as it was then.” 

But what if it isn’t? PPIC, which captured the collapse of Gov. Gray Davis (D) ahead of his recall, finds Newsom in decent political shape, with 54 percent job approval and just two out of five voters backing his removal. Just 42 percent of independents (who outnumber Republicans in the state) favor recall, and just 41 percent of voters in Orange County and San Diego do. That might be the biggest change from 2003 — 73 percent of Orange County voters backed the recall that year, alongside 66 percent of San Diego County voters. The leftward shift that helped build a suburban Democratic supermajority in the legislature and has blunted Republicans running statewide has become a wall for recall supporters to climb.

Ad watch

Susan Wright, “Bright Hope.” The widow of Rep. Ron Wright has built her campaign around the same themes as Rep.-elect Julia Letlow, who won a special election in Louisiana last month to replace her late husband. The ad opens with Wright (R) holding a photo of herself and Ron at the Capitol, talking about the grief of losing him, then laying out the agenda she’ll pick up if she replaces him in the May 1 special primary election: “Protecting the unborn, securing our borders, defending our Second Amendment rights, and supporting our law enforcement.”

Brian Harrison, “Bleed Business.” A veteran of Trump’s Department of Health and Human Services, Harrison’s campaign for Texas’s 6th Congressional District has positioned him as a doer running against talkers. Harrison condenses his life story to that of a businessman who was pulled into Washington by Trump. “I ripped up regulations, eliminated taxes, and even terminated a new government program,” he says. “And then I put term limits on Washington bureaucrats to make it stick,” describing a rule the HHS implemented in Trump’s final days. Harris had previously worked in Washington under George W. Bush; that he mentions the last Republican president, and not the last Republican president from Texas, is noteworthy.

Christy Smith, “Let’s Get This Done.” Smith handily lost a 2020 special election for California’s 25th Congressional District, and lost a 2020 rematch by 333 votes. The closeness of the race is one theme in her reintroduction ad, but so is Republican Rep. Mike Garcia’s vote to contest the presidential election results in Pennsylvania and Arizona — a risky move two months after thousands of ticket-splitters backed him and Biden. “He sided with the insurrectionists and against the people of our community,” Garcia says, in one of the first of likely many Democratic ads playing footage from the Jan. 6 Capitol riot.

Money watch

The first campaign fundraising quarter ended on Monday, and a few 2022 contenders were quick to release their numbers. In Wisconsin, former Milwaukee Bucks executive and Democrat Alex Lasry raised $1.1 million for his U.S. Senate campaign, during a period in which both Democrats and Republicans questioned the electability of a candidate who hadn’t spent much time in Wisconsin before his family bought the team in 2014. In Pennsylvania, Democratic Lt. Gov. John Fetterman raised $3.9 million — six times as much as he raised for his 2016 bid for the Senate seat, and one-quarter as much as the eventual Democratic nominee ran for her entire campaign. Rep. Tim Ryan of Ohio raised $1.2 million, though he has yet to formally announce a Democratic Senate bid; Ryan raised just $2 million for his 2020 reelection bid before winning by the slimmest margin of his career.

All three Democrats are looking down the field at potential challengers, with Lasry already battling Outagamie County Executive Tom Nelson, and Fetterman facing two Black state legislators from Philadelphia — state Rep. Malcolm Kenyatta, who won the endorsement of Fetterman’s successor as mayor of Braddock this week, and state Sen. Sharif Street, who filed his paperwork today. We’ll have much more about the fundraising race as more candidates put out their numbers.

On the trail

Twelve Republicans are running to represent Texas’s 6th Congressional District, and the Arlington Republican Club had promised to let them all speak. So on Wednesday night, three panels of four candidates each got onstage at the Studio Movie Grill, with questions moderated by Nick Adams, an Australian American who claims that his books have made him “Trump’s favorite author.”

It was the best look yet at a field that has not made way for Susan Wright, the widow of Rep. Ron Wright, who has collected endorsements from her husband’s colleagues, and on Wednesday was slotted into the second act of a three-act forum.

“I’m a Christian, I’m a grandmother, I’m a neighbor, I’m an activist, I’m a patriot,” Wright said. “This isn’t something I planned to do, but I’m doing it.”

Wright told the crowd that she would “not be on the TV every night” if elected, and was not in the race just to be a “voice” in an open Republican seat. As a criticism, it could have applied to multiple other candidates. Dan Rodimer, who had relocated to the district after losing a 2020 House bid in Nevada, told the crowd he had been a great debater in high school even if he wasn’t “the best student.” Police Officer Travis Rodermund said he could head to Washington to battle “the Marxists and the left.” Sery Kim, who worked in Trump’s Small Business Administration, got loud applause when she repeatedly focused on the threat posed to America by China.

“I am Asian American and I have never felt discrimination because I blame China for the problems they have actually created,” she said. “They steal our intellectual property, they give us coronavirus, they don’t hold themselves accountable, and quite frankly, I can say that because I’m Korean.” 

Again and again, the questions and the topics for candidates returned to China, “election integrity” and what the candidates had done for Trump. Veteran and contractor Mike Egan told the crowd that he’d helped with Trump’s 2016 transition, and said his first focus in the House would be fair election conduct. 

“China has elections. Russia has elections. Nobody believes the outcomes of those elections because the foundation of those elections are corrupt,” Egan said. “We can’t allow the same thing to happen to our election system.”

Michael Wood, a veteran who’s running to turn the party away from Trump, emphasized that during his time onstage. “We used to be a party of ideas and unfortunately, we turned into a cult of personality, too comfortable with conspiracy theories,” Wood said at the start of his remarks, as some in the crowd audibly groaned. “I understand a lot of you might not be able to hear this, but I’m the only Republican, one of the few in the country, who’s willing to speak plainly to you because I respect you.”

Nobody else in the room made a play for that vote. The crowd laughed knowingly when one candidate joked about Republicans challenging “President Harris” as early as 2022, and Brian Harrison, who worked for Trump’s HHS, repeatedly said that he’d actually delivered on the priorities other candidates just talked about.

“I’m suing Joe Biden and sending him to federal court to force him to do something I put in place,” Harrison said. “And we’re going to win that lawsuit.”

What I’m watching

“Woke capitalism.” When South Dakota Gov. Kristi Noem (R) opposed the state’s transgender athlete ban, she drew fire from conservatives who didn’t buy the argument that it would hurt state business. When Delta criticized Georgia’s new voting law, Republicans in the state House amended a bill to remove one of the company’s tax breaks.   

The Georgia measure didn’t survive, but its supporters did what conservatives want their governors to do: Stare down corporations if they recoil at legislation. It’s something to keep monitoring as Republican governors look at ways to punish tech companies for censorship, and as anti-trans bills move through legislatures.   

According to Terry Schilling of the conservative American Principles Project, while corporate opposition has previously gotten Republican governors to back off social conservative bills, the movement is expecting anyone who wants to lead the party to take the heat and “call the bluff” when the inevitable happens the Chamber of Commerce or individual businesses threatening to take their money elsewhere.  

“At the end of the day, the board of directors is not going to move their state from a very pro-business state like North Carolina or South Dakota. It’s irresponsible,” Schilling said. “You’re going to have hellfire come down on you from the media and these corporations, so you have to stand your ground. You have to just double down on the messaging and never back away.”  

Keep an eye on this in the wake of the president’s Wednesday interview with ESPN, where he suggested that Major League Baseball should move this year’s All-Star Game out of Atlanta if the voting law remains. 

2024 watch

Sen. Rick Scott of Florida is in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, today, more than a year after he ran his first ad in the state — a straight-to-camera attack on Joe Biden, days before Biden’s face-plant in the 2020 caucuses. Scott arrived a week after former secretary of state Mike Pompeo‘s two-day Iowa swing, which took him to the same Des Moines-area conservative breakfast that Sen. Tom Cotton of Arkansas stopped by in the final weeks of the 2020 election. Sen. Tim Scott of South Carolina is heading to Iowa on April 15. 

While Trump‘s interest in a 2024 bid has frozen the primary, this is the most activity by potential presidential candidates at this stage that local Republicans can remember, and it has a side benefit: As they come through, Republicans are agreeing that Iowa should continue to hold the first presidential contest.

“I can sit here and preach all I want about first in the nation,” Iowa GOP Chair Jeff Kaufmann told the Des Moines Register. But if we’ve got our top national leaders coming into this state — in some cases this being their first step in the process — that speaks louder than anything I can say.”

It’s a fun subject for Republicans, in part, because Democrats are still arguing over whether a largely White state that hasn’t given them a substantial win in nine years should continue voting first. As first reported by Politico, House Majority Whip James E. Clyburn (D-S.C.) and former Senate majority leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) have continued to insist that more diverse states, such as theirs, should leapfrog ahead of largely White Iowa and New Hampshire, pushing for a committee to review the primary process ahead of 2024. 

Biden said last week that his “expectation” is that he’ll run in 2024, when he’ll be 81 years old, and no Democratic president has faced a challenge in Iowa or New Hampshire since 1980, when Jimmy Carter fended off Ted Kennedy. But when Kamala D. Harris suspended her campaign in 2019, a wave of Democratic hand-wringing about Iowa followed — and arguments that a contest dominated by White voters was skewing the process were energized after Biden’s second-place finish in Nevada and big win in South Carolina catapulted him to the nomination.

Countdown

… five days until off-year elections in Wisconsin
… 23 days until the runoff in Louisiana’s 2nd Congressional District
… 30 days until the special primary in Texas’s 6th Congressional District
… 37 days until the GOP nominating convention in Virginia
… 61 days until the special election in New Mexico’s 1st Congressional District
… 68 days until primaries in New Jersey and Virginia
… 82 days until New York Citys primary
… 124 days until the special primary in Ohio’s 11th Congressional District


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