“I think this is something that will come back to haunt Republicans,” said Jon Gilmore, a Republican strategist in Arkansas and an adviser to the state’s governor, Asa Hutchinson. “It opens a Pandora’s box.”
Since the 1990s, Republican presidential candidates have won the popular vote only once — in George W. Bush’s reelection campaign in 2004 — with Trump relying on the Electoral College for his victory in 2016 and having no chance of running even close to Biden without it this year. In the near future, the nation’s changing demographics, despite Trump’s modest inroads with people of color this year, appear likely to further put the popular vote out of Republicans’ reach, making the Electoral College all the more important to the GOP. Given the stakes, inadvertently delegitimizing the Electoral College would seem counterintuitive. To some Republicans, it’s nuts.
Sen. Tom Cotton of Arkansas, a Trump ally and a potential presidential candidate in 2024, raised the concern briefly in a statement over the weekend opposing his Republican colleagues’ efforts to block the counting of the votes. He said that overturning the outcome “would imperil the Electoral College, which gives small states like Arkansas a voice in presidential elections. Democrats could achieve their long-standing goal of eliminating the Electoral College in effect by refusing to count electoral votes in the future for a Republican president-elect.”
And seven House Republicans were even more explicit, warning in a joint letter that future Republican presidential campaigns were on the line.
“From a purely partisan perspective, Republican presidential candidates have won the national popular vote only once in the last 32 years,” read the statement from Reps. Thomas Massie of Kentucky, Ken Buck of Colorado, Chip Roy of Texas, Kelly Armstrong of North Dakota, Mike Gallagher of Wisconsin, Tom McClintock of California and Nancy Mace of South Carolina. “They have therefore depended on the electoral college for nearly all presidential victories in the last generation. If we perpetuate the notion that Congress may disregard certified electoral votes — based solely on its own assessment that one or more states mishandled the presidential election — we will be delegitimizing the very system that led Donald Trump to victory in 2016, and that could provide the only path to victory in 2024.”
As a point of principle, the proceedings on Wednesday will put Republicans in an awkward position.
“They all know it’s absurd,” said Stuart Stevens, who was chief strategist for Mitt Romney’s presidential campaign in 2012 and who worked against Trump’s reelection last year. “It’s just part of this, you know, you have people like [Sen. Josh] Hawley and [Sen. Ted] Cruz that spent their entire life building establishment credentials, and now they find themselves in a political world in which that is a negative, not a positive, so they are attempting desperately to prove that even though I call myself a constitutional lawyer, I’m happy to shred the Constitution.”
And though Stevens is supportive of ditching the Electoral College, most Republicans aren’t. In terms of rank politics, undercutting the Electoral College may be remembered as a profound example of the GOP shooting itself in the foot. One former Republican Party state chair said, “Republicans can’t say they’re for federalism and then undercut the Electoral College.”
Recalling that congressional Democrats forced debate on Ohio’s electoral votes after the 2004 election, former Rep. Tom Davis, a Virginia Republican who served as National Republican Congressional Committee chair, said that Democrats “set the precedent” but that “Republicans are now taking it and just running it into the ground.”
“It’s a slap at voters,” he said, predicting that it will be a “legacy vote” for Republicans in which “people will be judged in history by whether they wanted to overturn the Electoral College.”
Davis said he had spoken with several House Republicans who have been threatened with primary challenges if they don’t go along with Trump. But, he said, “there are just some things you shouldn’t tamper with.”
It’s possible that Cotton and like-minded House members are overstating concern about the Electoral College. The post-election challenges by Trump and his allies have been rife with any number of seeming political contradictions that Republicans are unlikely to suffer long-term damage from, with Republican lawmakers going so far in some cases as to demand their own states’ elections be decertified — but just the presidential result, not theirs. The Trump presidency has been defined by democratic norm-breaking, and the Electoral College isn’t exactly on any endangered species list.
One Republican National Committee member described the objections that Cruz and others plan to raise as simple “leverage” to advance complaints about voter fraud, boosting a looming effort by Republicans in statehouses around the country to tighten vote-by-mail and other voting restrictions. That effort, if successful, would probably help Republican nominees in future presidential elections. One prominent Republican political strategist called any suggestion of long-term implications for the Electoral College “complete bull—-,” and Frank Pignanelli, a former Democratic state lawmaker in Utah who now advises politicians of both parties, said, “I don’t think the Electoral College is going away anytime soon.”
“Things move so fast,” Pignanelli said, “that I think a year from now people will forget.”
Trump himself in 2012 called the Electoral College a “disaster for a democracy,” before relying on it to win in 2016 and reversing course.
But if the Electoral College is relatively sturdy, it’s also far from sacrosanct. From the GOP’s perspective, that means it needs every defender it can get. Even before the November election, a majority of Americans — 61 percent — told Gallup they supported abolishing the Electoral College. And for those who would very much like to see the Electoral College tampered with, the legal and legislative maneuvering since the election — culminating with the proceedings on Wednesday — is beginning to look like a bonanza.
In the post-election maelstrom surrounding vote challenges, John Koza, whose National Popular Vote initiative has slowly been gaining steam, said calls and donations to his organization were up. Since the mid-2000s, 15 states and the District of Columbia have signed on to the compact that his group is promoting in which — if enough states eventually sign — they would award their electoral votes to whoever wins the national popular vote, regardless of the outcome in their individual states.
For Americans who may not have previously paid much attention to the workings of the Electoral College, Koza said, the post-election litigation and legislative maneuvering “demonstrates in spades the instability that’s been around the current system for years.”
“This thing Wednesday, which is usually a total yawner, is now becoming a major event,” Koza said. “It focuses attention on the problem that the whole election revolves around a handful of battleground states, and 38 states are basically irrelevant in the presidential.”
Rep. Ted Lieu (D-Calif.), who was an early supporter of the National Popular Vote movement when he was a state lawmaker in California in 2006, said the spectacle surrounding the certification of this year’s election “does give more impetus for a national popular vote to replace the Electoral College.”
He said, “None of this would be an issue if we simply took Biden’s win of over 7 million votes.”
And for Republicans intent on keeping the Electoral College, even the risk of degrading faith in the institution is a problem. The Arkansas strategist Gilmore, like many Republicans, said the fight on Wednesday might be “just a flash in the pan.”
However, he said, “it’s not a flash in the pan that I, as a Republican operative and strategist who has worked in the party for a long time, want to see that spark continue.”