PHILADELPHIA — Pennsylvania Republicans are going all in on President Donald Trump’s false election claims.
U.S. Rep. Scott Perry attended a “Stop the Steal” rally in Harrisburg last Friday before going on Fox Business Network to declare the state’s election “a horrific embarrassment.”
U.S. Rep. Dan Meuser told Fox News host Sean Hannity the situation is dire: “This is no longer one citizen, one vote.”
And U.S. Rep. Guy Reschenthaler told the conservative outlet Newsmax that “we know there is voter fraud that occurred,” it’s just a question of how much. “Very suspect,” he said of the fact that the lead Trump held on election night in Pennsylvania had moved to a narrow Biden win.
There is no evidence of any widespread voter fraud in Pennsylvania’s presidential election. Trump’s campaign itself hasn’t presented any such evidence in its numerous legal challenges contesting the result, nor has it cited in legal filings even a single specific allegation of a vote deliberately cast illegally. And that election night “lead” for Trump was the direct and expected result of a dynamic in which more Republicans vote in-person, more Democrats vote by mail, and mail ballots are slower to count — meaning votes for Trump were simply counted faster.
As Trump continues his baseless claims that the election is being stolen from him and refuses to concede to President-elect Joe Biden, several high-profile Pennsylvania Republicans have taken to cable television, radio programs and social media to attack the integrity of the state’s elections, often making misleading or outright false claims.
While legal experts say the Trump campaign’s court challenges are highly unlikely to change the results and world leaders have congratulated Biden on his win, the race to defend the president is shaping up as a purity test for any Republican who has aspirations for higher office.
As of Tuesday, Biden led Trump in Pennsylvania by more than 45,000 votes, exceeding Trump’s 2016 margin of victory in the state, with ballots still to be counted.
Usually after a presidential election, the losing party’s leaders and rank-and-file undergo some introspection. As with much else in the Trump era, this time is different. And the lengths to which Pennsylvania Republicans go to cast doubt on the state’s electoral system will offer clues about the party’s direction after Trump. It remains to be seen whether this posture will endure and help shape the GOP primary elections for governor and U.S. Senate in 2022.
“Trump is going to continue to have a lot of influence over the party,” said Jason High, a Pennsylvania Republican lobbyist who managed Scott Wagner’s 2018 gubernatorial campaign. “I think you’re seeing that reflected in statements being made by potential candidates in 2022 and beyond.”
Some Pennsylvania Republicans are hoping the party takes a different turn, citing the party’s 2018 landslide losses in the Senate and gubernatorial races, in which both nominees closely aligned with Trump.
The attacks are especially striking considering just how well the Republican Party actually did in Tuesday’s elections in Pennsylvania. The GOP won the races for auditor general and treasurer — their first victories in statewide row offices since 2008. And the party beat expectations by holding on to comfortable majorities in both chambers of the state Legislature, as well as two hotly contested congressional seats.
Now, some Republicans are effectively arguing that the same electoral process that resulted in big GOP wins down-ballot was nothing short of an affront to democracy when it comes to Trump.
It’s not just happening in Pennsylvania. In Georgia, two incumbent Republican U.S. senators who face runoff elections in January called on the Republican secretary of state to resign, alleging without any evidence that he had mishandled the election. In Washington, only a handful of Republican senators have acknowledged Biden as president-elect.
“Are these the last gasps in the breaths of Trumpism?” said former U.S. Rep. Charlie Dent, a Pennsylvania Republican and Biden supporter. “Or does Trumpism become the guiding governing philosophy of the party?”
It’s no surprise that it’s taking longer this year for county elections officials to tabulate votes. This is the first year Pennsylvania allowed for no-excuse mail voting, and more than 2.5 million voters used that method amid the pandemic. And in the months before the election, leaders of the GOP-controlled Legislature declined to advance legislation that would have permitted county officials to begin processing mail ballots before Election Day, saying they’d only do so if Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf agreed to include other provisions such as prohibiting the use of drop boxes — a nonstarter for Democrats.
That ensured it would take longer to count the votes.
“I’m just a bit dumbfounded that so many people are suggesting there is something nefarious going on here,” Dent said.
The Trump-led effort to undermine faith in the results appears to be working: Just 23% of Republican voters say they believe Pennsylvania’s results are reliable, according to a postelection national survey of almost 2,000 registered voters conducted by Morning Consult. Prior to the election, 68% of Republicans said they had at least some trust in the U.S. election system. That figure has dropped to 34%, according to Morning Consult.
For months, Trump told supporters that the widespread use of mail ballots — adopted by states across the country as a safe and secure way to vote during a pandemic that has killed more than 230,000 Americans — was part of a vast Democratic conspiracy. And he specifically targeted Philadelphia, saying “bad things happen” in the largest city in Pennsylvania, which both campaigns knew could be a decisive battleground state. There is no evidence that mail ballots are susceptible to widespread fraud.
Philadelphia elections officials have received death threats, and two Virginia men face felony firearms charges after they drove to the city last week in a Hummer stocked with firearms and displaying stickers supporting QAnon, the far-right, deranged conspiracy theory that holds Democrats and elites who control the government are Satan-worshiping pedophiles. One of the men is co-founder of a pro-Trump veterans group.
Not everyone in the GOP is jumping on board with Trump’s campaign to discredit the election.
Sen. Pat Toomey, R-Pa., said Trump’s speech last Thursday from the White House — in which he accused state officials of trying to steal the election — “was very hard to watch.”
“The president’s allegations of large-scale fraud and theft of the election are just not substantiated,” Toomey said on NBC’s “Today” show on Friday. “I’m not aware of any significant wrongdoing here.”
And on Monday, Toomey told a Pittsburgh television station that Trump should begin cooperating with Biden’s transition team, a step the administration has yet to take. Toomey said last month he would not seek reelection in 2022 or run for governor that year.
In Harrisburg, leaders of the GOP-led Legislature are walking a tight rope. Senate Majority Leader Jake Corman, R-Centre, said last week that the Wolf administration attempted to “tip the scales” in Biden’s favor but acknowledged he didn’t “have any evidence of misdoing.”
On Tuesday, Pennsylvania House Republicans said they would hold hearings to investigate the election.
As Republicans in the Legislature were set to hold leadership elections Tuesday, Trump wrote on Twitter: “I hope they pick very tough and smart fighters. We will WIN!!”
Republicans have alleged their poll observers were blocked from watching election workers count votes, especially inside the Pennsylvania Convention Center in Philadelphia. They’ve noted with suspicion that the Convention Center’s windows were covered with paper. And they’ve questioned the Pennsylvania Supreme Court’s decision permitting counties to count mail ballots received up to three days after Nov. 3.
The Trump campaign has filed lawsuits making similar claims.
In Philadelphia, Republican and Democratic poll observers were both kept the same distance from the tables at which votes were being counted. On Thursday, a Pennsylvania Commonwealth Court judge ordered city elections officials to permit poll monitors from both parties to watch the count take place within six feet. City officials say they have treated both parties equally and complied with state law, while taking extra precautions in light of the pandemic.
The city set up a livestream of the vote counting inside the Convention Center — which some networks carried on national television.
And Kathy Boockvar, the Pennsylvania secretary of state, issued guidance prior to Election Day advising county elections officials to segregate mail ballots that arrive during the three-day grace period. The U.S. Supreme Court left open the possibility that it may review the GOP’s request to invalidate those ballots.
Boockvar said Tuesday counties received about 10,000 ballots in that time frame — well below Biden’s margin of victory.
Nevertheless, Republicans have continued to sound the alarm. During the interview on Hannity’s radio program, Meuser, a congressman from Luzerne County who is considered a potential candidate for statewide office, brought up these claims and more.
Hannity asked whether “we’ll ever get a true, fair, accurate accounting of votes” in Pennsylvania. Meuser said he was hopeful the litigation would proceed and officials would be able to identify the separated ballots.
When Hannity suggested “we don’t really know” what happened, Meuser replied: “Unfortunately we don’t. This is no longer an exact science. This is no longer one citizen, one vote.”
“Scary,” Hannity concluded.
©2020 The Philadelphia Inquirer