Nearly a dozen Republican senators signaled Saturday that they would challenge the electoral college results next week, a last measure of their full devotion to a defeated president that has frustrated Senate GOP leaders and exacerbated concerns about the health of American democracy.
Eleven current and soon-to-be lawmakers — almost a quarter of the incoming Senate GOP conference — plan to vote Wednesday against certifying the results from swing states that propelled President-elect Joe Biden to victory.
In the weeks since his defeat, President Trump has led a baseless campaign claiming he was the victim of fraud in those states and has successfully pressured congressional allies to challenge the results. The effort was joined Saturday by Republican Sens. Ted. Cruz of Texas and John Kennedy of Louisiana, days after GOP Sen. Josh Hawley of Missouri became the first in the chamber to say he would object to the 306-232 electoral college tally in Biden's favor.
The faction also includes GOP Sens. Marsha Blackburn of Tennessee, Mike Braun of Indiana, Steve Daines of Montana, Ron Johnson of Wisconsin and James Lankford of Oklahoma, as well as Sens.-elect Bill Hagerty of Tennessee, Cynthia Lummis of Wyoming, Roger Marshall of Kansas and Tommy Tuberville of Alabama.
An aide to Vice President Mike Pence expressed his support for the Republicans' challenge. Pence is tasked with overseeing Congress' ratification of the election results on Wednesday.
But Sen. Mitt Romney of Utah, the GOP's 2012 presidential nominee, blistered his colleagues for what he called an "egregious ploy" that he suggested was motivated by political gain.
"I could never imagine seeing these things in the greatest democracy in the world," Romney said in a statement. "Has ambition so eclipsed principle?"
Republican Sens. David Perdue and Kelly Loeffler of Georgia had not signed the letter as of Saturday, days before Tuesday's runoff election that will determine which party controls the Senate. Trump, who traditionally demands demonstrations of loyalty in exchange for his political patronage, is scheduled to rally support for them Monday in Dalton, Ga.
Dozens of House Republicans are expected to lodge a similar protest, forcing hours of debate over election results that have been certified by state governments and survived repeated court challenges by Trump and his allies.
Because Democrats control the House and a majority of GOP senators are expected to join their Democratic counterparts in certifying Biden's win, the challenge faces little chance of success. But it will coincide Wednesday with a gathering that Trump supporters plan in the nation's capital, setting up another fraught moment less than two weeks before Biden's inauguration as the nation's 46th president.
Rep. Louie Gohmert (R-Texas), who is spearheading the challenge in the House, suggested in an interview Friday night that the courts' sweeping rejection of pro-Trump election challenges had left supporters "no remedy."
"In effect, the ruling would be that you've got to go to the streets and be as violent as antifa and BLM," Gohmert said.
In a letter explaining their plan, the Republican senators — three are up for reelection next year, and Cruz and Hawley harbor presidential aspirations — refer to Congress' formal role as "the lone constitutional power remaining to consider and force resolution of the multiple allegations of serious voter fraud."
Such allegations, born not of evidence but of Trump's deep denial, have dissolved upon scrutiny, however, and multiple recounts, audits and investigations have failed to produce signs of fraud that would have altered the results of any state's election.
Former Atty. Gen. William Barr last month broke with Trump over the matter before stepping down, telling reporters the Justice Department had uncovered no evidence of such fraud. More than 50 lawsuits filed by Trump's campaign and allies have been jettisoned from court, with judges in some cases expressing incredulity at the lack of evidence to support the accusations.
Nevertheless, the GOP senators are planning to stage a final battle, citing the dismissals and the Supreme Court's refusal to hear Trump's challenges as a reason they're pushing to establish an electoral commission to conduct a 10-day audit. The inquiry, they said, would enable states to reconvene to "change their vote, if needed."
"These are matters worthy of the Congress, and entrusted to us to defend. We do not take this action lightly. We are acting not to thwart the democratic process, but rather to protect it," they wrote. "And every one of us should act together to ensure that the election was lawfully conducted under the Constitution and to do everything we can to restore faith in our Democracy."
Sen. Patrick J. Toomey (R-Pa.) rebuked his GOP colleagues in a sharply worded statement.
“A fundamental, defining feature of a democratic republic is the right of the people to elect their own leaders," Toomey said. "The effort by Senators Hawley, Cruz, and others to overturn the results of the 2020 presidential election in swing states like Pennsylvania directly undermines this right.
"Allegations of fraud by a losing campaign cannot justify overturning an election," the senator added, noting that his colleagues "fail to acknowledge that these allegations have been adjudicated in courtrooms across America and were found to be unsupported by evidence."
The lawmakers involved, who are mostly questioning the validity of electoral tallies in predominantly Black urban centers, also referred to the Compromise of 1877 as "precedent," noting that Congress resolved the disputed 1876 presidential election with a commission like the one they're seeking.
The letter did not mention that the resolution hinged on the removal of federal troops from the South, effectively ending Reconstruction. It stripped away the newly acquired rights of Black Americans and ushered in the violent, segregationist Jim Crow era.
Although almost certain to fail, the protest vote offers a political opportunity for those eager to carry the mantle of Trumpism, but it's a stickier matter for senators facing reelection in 2022. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell had hoped to avoid such a vote that could fracture his caucus.
But as has been the case for the last four years, Trump's need for constant demonstrations of loyalty has rarely spared Republicans from fights and unpalatable dilemmas.
Trump has already attacked South Dakota's Sen. John Thune, the chamber's No. 2 Republican, for predicting that any effort to challenge the electoral college results would "go down like a shot dog." The outgoing president suggested that South Dakota's governor challenge Thune in a primary next year.
But the Trump-aligned senators' actions are driven by political calculus and the reality of a party that remains in Trump's grip despite his defeat, presaging a looming battle for the Republican Party's future.
One of McConnell's closest outside advisors, GOP strategist Josh Holmes, made his disapproval of the gambit clear, suggesting in a tweet that the effort would eventually backfire on those involved.
"Rarely can you predict with 100% assurance," Holmes tweeted, "that years from now everyone who went down this road will wish they had a mulligan."
This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.