WASHINGTON – Just after midday Wednesday, two-thirds of the House of Representatives’ 211 Republican members gathered in the House chamber planning to object to the legitimacy of November’s election results.
Some Republicans had openly echoed President Donald Trump’s repeatedly debunked conspiracy theories about Democrats stealing an election that saw the GOP gain 10 seats in the House. Most, like Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers of Spokane, had issued more oblique statements expressing doubt about the integrity of the election.
The lawmakers faced pressure from GOP voters, who overwhelmingly told pollsters they believed the election was a sham after months of Trump insisting any vote he lost must have been rigged. They also faced overt threats that the defeated president would help oust them in primary elections.
About a mile from the Capitol, rallying his supporters outside the White House, Trump offered a reminder of the fealty he demanded from GOP lawmakers.
“We have to primary the hell out of the ones that don’t fight,” Trump told the cheering crowd, lambasting “the weak Republicans” who had refused to heed his demands to object to the Electoral College results.
“We’re going walk down to the Capitol, and we’re going to cheer on our brave senators and congressmen and women,” Trump said. “We’re probably not going to be cheering so much for some of them, because you’ll never take back our country with weakness. You have to show strength.”
After the president’s speech, the crowd marched down Pennsylvania Avenue and stormed the Capitol building, pushing past overpowered police, some calling for the execution of prominent Democrats and Vice President Mike Pence, who had refused to block the certification process. The riot left five people dead, including a police officer.
Hours later, after police and federal agents cleared the building, the lawmakers emerged from their secure hiding places while workers cleaned blood and broken glass off the Capitol’s marble floors. When they returned to the chamber, half of the roughly dozen GOP senators who had pledged to object to the results had changed their minds, but all but two of the 141 House Republicans followed through with their objections.
One of the two reversals in the House came from McMorris Rodgers. In a statement released during the lockdown, she called the actions of the president’s supporters “disgraceful and un-American.”
“What we have seen today is unlawful and unacceptable,” McMorris Rodgers said. “I have decided I will vote to uphold the Electoral College results and I encourage Donald Trump to condemn and put an end to this madness.”
Spokesman Jared Powell said by the time the congresswoman made it back to her office, her mind was made up – she would vote to certify the results.
“When she got back to the office, that was where she was at,” Powell said.
Powell declined to comment further and referred to the congresswoman’s op-ed in Thursday’s Spokesman-Review, in which she added to her earlier statement and called for a peaceful transfer of power.
“The only reason for my intention to object to some Electoral College votes was to give voice to the concern that governors and courts unilaterally changed election procedures without the will of the people and outside of the legislative process,” McMorris Rodgers wrote. “Our opportunity for discussion and debate on the election was interrupted and ended because of what happened yesterday.”
In addition to her specific concern about election law changes, the Spokane lawmaker said Tuesday she planned to object to the results “to amplify the voices of millions of Americans who do not have trust and confidence in our election process,” citing two debunked allegations of wrongdoing.
McMorris Rodgers embodies a Republican Party in turmoil, struggling to hold together a winning coalition with a base that demands loyalty to a departing president more than adherence to conservative principles.
Her last-minute reversal, after taking a stance seemingly calculated to minimize electoral risk, was a rare show of political courage in a GOP conference that has largely reshaped itself in Trump’s image over the past four years. With the end of the Trump administration, the party finds itself searching for direction.
Sen. Mitt Romney, the Utah Republican who was his party’s presidential candidate in 2012, voiced the frustration of many Republicans when lawmakers resumed debate Wednesday.
“What happened here today was an insurrection incited by the president of the United States,” Romney said. “Those who choose to continue to support his dangerous gambit by objecting to the results of a legitimate, democratic election will forever be seen as being complicit in an unprecedented attack against our democracy.”
Spokane County Treasurer Michael Baumgartner, a Republican, said he’d like to see the GOP return to its principles and away from a singular focus on one leader.
“I think there’s a very bright future for a party that’s committed to limited government, the rule of law, safe and secure communities and market growth,” said Baumgartner, a former state senator. “But it’s got to be about those ideas, and not about the individual.”
But Trump’s brand of populism has captured a sizable swath of the GOP base that expects their representatives to show unbending loyalty to an individual whose future role in the party remains unclear.
State Rep. Rob Chase, a Republican who mounted a primary challenge against McMorris Rodgers in 2020 before winning the race to represent the 4th district in the state House in November, said her constituents expected her to back Trump.
“I think she should have stuck to what she said she was going to do,” Chase said. “The next day, when it seemed like the wind had shifted, then she jumped ship. I don’t think she represented the people she’s supposed to represent.”
Cornell Clayton, a professor of political science at Washington State University, said the congresswoman clearly knew the move carried political risk.
“There’s no question that she understands it’s going to upset some of her constituency,” Clayton said. “One of the roles of a representative is to represent the views and interests of your constituency, but another one … is to display principled leadership, even when your constituency wants to believe things that are not true.”
“Many Republicans, that’s the problem they find themselves in today. They’ve ridden the tiger and now they find themselves in its belly.”
Election experts say a small amount of voter fraud occurs in virtually every election, but GOP election officials, Trump-appointed judges and Trump’s former Attorney General Bill Barr have said there is no evidence that enough fraud took place to affect the outcome of the presidential election. McMorris Rodgers has so far stopped short of saying that.
Clayton said McMorris Rodgers should get some credit for her change of heart after the unprecedented assault on the Capitol, but pointed out she could have resisted Trump’s demands on conservative grounds, as fellow Washington GOP Reps. Dan Newhouse and Jaime Herrera Beutler did.
“There’s nothing wrong with the change of course,” Clayton said. “When the facts on the ground change, you should change your mind. The real problem was her original calculation, which I think was an opportunistic one, to go ahead and launch a challenge when she knew she was aiding and abetting a president who was engaged in an effort to overturn an American election.”
Sam Reed, a Republican who served as Washington’s secretary of state from 2000 to 2012, said he was unhappy with McMorris Rodgers’ initial decision to object to the results but welcomed her change of heart.
“I was very disappointed in Cathy,” Reed said. “But I’m proud of her (for the reversal) because a lot of the others obviously didn’t change their minds.”
As the state’s former top election official, Reed said he was disappointed McMorris Rodgers didn’t talk to him or his Republican successor, Kim Wyman, who has called Trump’s claims “garbage.”
“If she really was concerned about election fraud, she could have talked to either one of us,” Reed said. “The problem is that people like Cathy, who are highly respected and regarded, go along with this notion that there was something seriously wrong.”
Sen. Lisa Murkowski, a Republican facing re-election in GOP-dominated Alaska in 2022, nevertheless called Friday for Trump to step down. The veteran lawmaker known for her independent streak told The Anchorage Daily News on Friday she attributed Wednesday’s violence to Trump and had doubts about remaining in the same party as the outgoing president.
“If the Republican Party has become nothing more than the party of Trump, I sincerely question whether this is the party for me,” Murkowski said.
Unlike some of her fellow Republicans, McMorris Rodgers has not rushed to distance herself from Trump since Wednesday’s violence.
After Twitter permanently suspended Trump’s account Friday, McMorris Rodgers criticized the move, pointing to Twitter’s initial refusal to remove a tweet by China’s embassy in Washington praising a campaign of sterilization and abortions forced on Uighur women by the Chinese government.
Facing pressure from the congresswoman and others, Twitter removed the Chinese embassy’s tweet late Friday.
Never a firebrand, McMorris Rodgers has shifted her approach over her 16-year career in Congress to court different Eastern Washington constituencies.
“I don’t think it’s any great secret that Cathy was not originally a Trump supporter,” Clayton said. “But as she has seen the influence of this more radical element in the 5th congressional district, she’s made political calculations and she’s been pushed to be tacitly supportive of Donald Trump.”
Facing a tough reelection fight in 2018, McMorris Rodgers accepted the endorsement of former state Rep. Matt Shea, though she later backed state GOP leaders’ move to oust Shea from the caucus after an investigation found Shea had participated in armed confrontations with federal officials that constituted domestic terrorism.
On Friday, Shea retweeted a post from fired Trump administration official and right-wing celebrity Rich Higgins comparing Wednesday’s events to the 1933 burning of the German parliament building that led to the Nazi Party’s rise. In another tweet shared by Shea, Higgins wrote, “If (the GOP) isn’t over, it needs to be.”
The Trump era has propelled far-right figures to the political mainstream. The freshman class of GOP lawmakers includes a supporter of the QAnon conspiracy theory, a gun advocate who released a video Monday proudly carrying a Glock to Congress and a woman who said at a pro-Trump rally Wednesday, “Hitler was right on one thing. He said, ‘Whoever has the youth has the future.’”
“It’s up to Cathy to redeem herself or have a good explanation for why she did that,” Chase said. “Cathy has got an excellent opportunity and some great things where she’s at, but she’s maybe lost the fire that she had when she was younger and has become more remote from the people of her district.”
Reed said pressure from the party’s far right no doubt factored into the majority of House Republicans heeding Trump’s demand to question the election results.
“They looked at going for reelection in 2022 and thought, ‘Do I really want to have a primary coming from those folks?’” Reed said, “They did a political calculation. That doesn’t show political courage, but that is not atypical of elected officials.”
“I do think we are at a turning point for the Republican Party. We were basically taken over by the populists four years ago, and we saw them in action (Wednesday).”
Clayton said the next year will be a critical time for Republicans like McMorris Rodgers to show leadership if they want to get their party back on track.
“This is what we look for in great leaders,” he said. “In these crucial times, they make principled decisions, and it’s not just a matter of reflecting views that are maybe held very passionately but are (based on) things that are not true and are detrimental to our democracy.”
“From a historical perspective, that’s how we look back and say, ‘This was a great leader’ or ‘This was somebody who was just another politician.’”
Orion Donovan-Smith's reporting for The Spokesman-Review is funded in part by Report for America and by members of the Spokane community. This story can be republished by other organizations for free under a Creative Commons license. For more information on this, please contact our newspaper’s managing editor.
Local journalism is essential.
Give directly to The Spokesman-Review's Northwest Passages community forums series -- which helps to offset the costs of several reporter and editor positions at the newspaper -- by using the easy options below. Gifts processed in this system are not tax deductible, but are predominately used to help meet the local financial requirements needed to receive national matching-grant funds.
Subscribe to the Coronavirus newsletter
Get the day’s latest Coronavirus news delivered to your inbox by subscribing to our newsletter.