Trump tests Senate GOP leaders on election fraud claims

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Former President Trump’s refusal to commit to accepting the results of the 2024 election is putting GOP lawmakers in a tough spot, especially Senate GOP Whip John Thune (S.D.) and Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas), who are running to become next Senate GOP leader and have pledged to work closely with Trump.

Both senators, allies of Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), opposed Trump’s efforts to overturn the 2020 election results.

Sen. Tim Scott (R-S.C.), who is in the mix to be Trump’s running mate, repeatedly refused to say Sunday he would accept the results of this year’s election.

Now, other Senate Republicans will face the same question, including Thune and Cornyn, who will have to balance their past positions on Trump’s baseless claims of widespread election fraud with their ambitions to replace McConnell.

Trump’s Senate allies may provide the swing votes that decide who wins the leadership race, and both Thune and Cornyn have reached out to the former president personally to bolster their standing with pro-Trump colleagues.

“It’s a tough needle to thread, but it’s possible,” said Brian Darling, a GOP strategist and former Senate aide who advised GOP lawmakers to acknowledge that the changes to the law during the COVID-19 pandemic made it easier to vote in 2020 and to be on the lookout for controversial changes to voter registration and absentee ballot rules ahead of November.

Darling predicted that Trump is likely to claim widespread cheating again if he loses to Biden in November.

“We shouldn’t expect anything different from former President Trump in this election than we [saw] in the last election. It’s going to be a lot of the same arguments about how the election is run,” he said.

But the GOP strategist warned that if Trump and other Republicans sound the alarm about widespread voter fraud in the months ahead, it could wind up depressing Republican voter turnout.

“The one problem it does cause for Republicans is if you cast doubt on the results of an election before an election happens, then why would Republicans bother to vote? That’s something Republicans need to address,” he said.

Thune and Cornyn followed McConnell’s lead in rejecting Trump’s claims of widespread election fraud in 2020.

McConnell warned on Jan. 6, 2021, moments before a pro-Trump crowd stormed the Capitol, that if Congress tried to overturn the results of the election, “it would damage our republic forever.”

Thune was also outspoken in opposing the effort to block the certification of President Biden’s victory in 2020, pledging at the time the effort was “going down like a shot dog.”

And Cornyn acknowledged Biden was indeed the “president-elect” on Dec. 9, 2020, a month before Trump’s allies tried to block the certification of the election results on Jan. 6.

Both leaders declined to endorse Trump’s claims that the last presidential election was stolen in the lead-up to the 2022 midterms. Instead, they urged GOP Senate candidates to focus on the future.

Now, Thune and Cornyn need to decide whether they will remain part of the bulwark against unfounded claims of election fraud when McConnell steps down as leader at the end of the year.

“I believe that they should say that the United States has the best election system in the world, but it’s not always perfect. If there’s clear evidence of wrongdoing, of course we would contest the election, but all Americans should express confidence in our system of elections,” said Vin Weber, a GOP strategist and former member of the House Republican leadership.

Republicans are favored to win back control of the Senate and have roughly a 50-50 chance of keeping their House majority, which would put Republicans in Congress right in the middle of any debate over the validity of this year’s election outcome.

Lawmakers passed the Electoral Count Reform Act in 2022 to reduce the likelihood that a losing candidate would again try to block the result of a presidential election when Congress convenes to certify it.

That reform, passed as part of a year-end spending package, clarifies that the vice president’s constitutional role when Congress meets in joint session to certify an election is purely ministerial and he or she does not have the right to adjudicate disputes over electors.

It identifies each state’s governor as responsible for submitting the certificate identifying a state’s electors and provides for expedited judicial review of disputes over competing slates of electors.

And it raises the threshold for objecting to a slate of electors to require at least one-fifth of the members in each chamber — the Senate and House — to object to a slate of electors.

The issue of election fraud and the question of whether Republicans should accept the results of the 2024 election is back in the political spotlight after Trump declined to commit to accepting the outcome if he loses.

Trump told The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel in a recent interview that “if everything’s honest, I’ll gladly accept the results.”

But he warned that he would not accept the election if he suspects the results aren’t honest.

“If it’s not, you have to fight for the right of the country,” he said.

And he told Time magazine in an interview published last week that how he reacted to the results would “depend” on how he perceived the “fairness of the election.”

“If we don’t win, you know, it depends. It always depends on the fairness of the election,” he said.

Now, other Republicans are facing the same questions of whether they will accept the results of the election, and GOP politicians who want to stay in Trump’s good graces are declining to vouch for the integrity of the system.

Asked by Kristen Welker, the moderator of NBC’s “Meet the Press,” at least five times whether he would commit to accepting the election results, Scott, who is jockeying for a spot on Trump’s ticket, declined to answer yes or no.

“I know that the American people — their voices will be heard. And I believe that President Trump will be our next president. It’s that simple,” he said.

Thune and Cornyn urged fellow Republicans to move on from the 2020 election, warning that claiming widespread fraud without evidence was a political loser.

“I don’t think that relitigating or rehashing the past is a winning strategy,” Thune warned before the midterm election in which Trump-backed candidates lost key Senate races.

Cornyn agreed with that advice.

“Most voters are concerned about what’s going to happen in the future, not what happened in the past,” he said two years ago.

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