Jim Brewster was cutting up with his colleagues on the floor of the Pennsylvania state Senate, waiting to be sworn in for his fourth term in office, when all hell broke loose. Brewster won his November election by 69 votes and survived multiple legal challenges from his opponent, Republican Nicole Ziccarelli, who sought to have hundreds of mail-in ballots thrown out because voters hadn’t properly dated them. The state Supreme Court ruled against her in November, and on Dec. 16, the Pennsylvania Department of State certified Brewster’s victory. The drama, it seemed, was over.
But as Democrats lined up for swearing-in ceremonies, the mood suddenly changed inside the chamber, and it didn’t take long for Brewster to figure out why: The Republican state Senate majority was about to launch a last-ditch attempt to overturn his victory by refusing to seat him in the Senate.
It didn’t matter that the legal challenge had failed. Pennsylvania Republicans, who spent more than $1 million on futile efforts to overturn Democrat Joe Biden’s victory in November’s presidential election, were willing to ignore the court if it meant they might be able to gain one more seat they didn’t need to hold a majority in the state Senate.
“They knew exactly what they were doing,” Brewster said last week. “They were trying to steal the election.”
Brewster was finally sworn in on Jan. 13, after a federal court ruled in his favor, too. But many Republicans in Pennsylvania have not accepted defeat. Instead, they have indicated that their plan for the 2021 legislative session is to try to rig the state’s democratic system so they will be less likely to taste defeat again.
Similar crusades are underway all over the nation, in Texas, Arizona, Georgia and other states. Radicalized by four years of Trump’s presidency, angry over his loss, and emboldened by their own success in fending off Democratic dreams of flipping even a single state legislative chamber last fall, the GOP is ready to subvert democracy in state capitals nationwide. If Pennsylvania is any indication, Republicans could use their majorities to take a jackhammer to voting rights while curtailing the power of Democratic governors and legislators. They may even attempt to overhaul courts in a way that bends the justice system to their liking.
Pennsylvania Republicans are “flexing their muscles, their authority and their power to try to limit the ability of Democrats to participate in our democracy,” said state Sen. Jay Costa, the Democratic minority leader. “They believe that their power should be supreme, in the sense that it should supersede the powers anybody else has. They don’t want to have to be held by the checks and balances that we have the ability to provide.”
The Republicans who hold total control of 29 state legislatures are making clear that the authoritarian tendencies of the 45th president were a symptom of something deeper within the GOP.
“Donald Trump has left office, but Trumpism continues to be empowered in state capitols across the country ― not just among protesters, but among the lawmakers in power,” said Daniel Squadron, a former New York state senator who now serves as the executive director of Future Now, a progressive group that focuses on state legislatures. “That has the risk of metastasizing, and it’s certain to keep fueling the movement.”
Attacking The Right To Vote
Conservatives have long used state legislatures to launder increasingly radical, often anti-democratic policies and positions into the Republican mainstream.
During Barack Obama’s presidency, Arizona Republicans passed an anti-immigration bill that served as a model for other conservative legislatures. Five states passed copycat versions of Arizona’s S.B. 1070, which imposed draconian ID requirements on immigrants and mandated racial profiling of anyone who might look “illegal,” after its original approval in 2010. The Supreme Court eventually struck down most of the law, but it helped turn hard-line anti-immigration rhetoric into a GOP litmus test well before Trump descended a golden escalator and launched his presidential campaign with a fascistic diatribe against immigrants.
Voting rights fared even worse. In 2011, Wisconsin’s Republican Legislature approved voter identification legislation that helped launch a nationwide assault on voting rights. Between 2010 and 2019, 25 states ― the vast majority with Republican-controlled legislatures, and many eager to move after a conservative U.S. Supreme Court majority gutted the Voting Rights Act in 2013 ― passed bills that placed new restrictions on voting.
Pennsylvania passed its own voter ID law in 2012, and although most GOP lawmakers stayed on message about the purported threat of “voter fraud,” the Keystone State’s top Republican at the time gave away the game: The legislation, then-state House Majority Leader Mike Turzai said, was “gonna allow” GOP presidential nominee Mitt Romney “to win the state of Pennsylvania.”
That plan didn’t quite materialize. Legal challenges stopped the law, which was among the most restrictive in the country at the time, from going into effect in 2012, when Obama won Pennsylvania and his second term as president. The Supreme Court eventually struck it down as well.
So far this year, Pennsylvania lawmakers have introduced 14 pieces of legislation meant to limit voting rights, more than in any other state.
But it’s not hard to draw a straight line between the Republican lawmakers who cut their teeth in state legislatures during the Obama years ― a period the GOP spent openly challenging the legitimacy of the nation’s first Black president and passing laws meant to blunt his party’s political power ― and the conspiracy theories surrounding Democratic victory in the 2020 election.
Roughly half of the 147 congressional Republicans who voted to overturn last year’s election results are former state legislators, including Rep. Andy Biggs, the Arizona congressman who led the fight to overturn Biden’s win in his state, and Pennsylvania Reps. Fred Keller, Scott Perry, Lloyd Smucker and Guy Reschenthaler. All the Pennsylvanians except Reschenthaler, who didn’t enter the state legislature until 2015, voted in favor of the 2012 voter ID bill. Perry, in particular, played a key role in Trump’s effort to invalidate the election results, The New York Times revealed last week, by introducing the president to a U.S. Department of Justice official who was willing to do anything he could to change the results in Pennsylvania and other states.
In states like Pennsylvania, the combination of heavily gerrymandered legislative districts and closed primaries has insulated many Republican lawmakers from threats to their incumbency, and today’s political and media environment further incentivizes ambitious elected officials to prioritize the most rabid elements of the conservative base to boost their profile at home and nationwide. So the most extreme elements of the current crop of state legislators may be even more radical than their predecessors.
Pennsylvania state Sen. Doug Mastriano, a Republican who questioned November’s election results, was one of at least 21 state and local GOP lawmakers who were present at the Jan. 6 rally that turned into a riot in the U.S. Capitol. Mastriano was not among those who entered the Capitol, but his campaign helped organize bus trips to the “Stop the Steal” rally.
And despite Republican efforts to deflect blame for the riot, Mastriano stoked conspiracy theories and spread misinformation as part of an anti-democratic power trip fueled by the idea that any GOP election loss must have been fraudulent. He staged a hearing in the state Senate to question the election results in November, and Trump attorney Rudy Giuliani showed up to testify.
Back in state capitals like Harrisburg, those conspiracy theories are now driving efforts to erode voting rights and curtail access to the ballot.
“This climate has reenergized the push to roll back progress on voting,” said Hannah Fried, the national campaign director at All Voting Is Local, a voting rights campaign of the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights. “The stuff that people are saying about vote-by-mail ― that it can’t be trusted, that there’s fraud ― that is patently false and has been demonstrated time and time again to be untrue. And yet they persist.”
So far this year, Pennsylvania lawmakers have introduced 14 pieces of legislation meant to limit voting rights, more than in any other state, according to the Brennan Center for Justice. Immediately after Trump lost, two GOP legislators announced that they would file legislation to eliminate provisions approved in 2019 that allowed no-excuse absentee voting for the first time. Pennsylvania Republicans also introduced legislation to tighten signature-matching requirements on absentee ballots, increase poll watcher access to absentee ballot-counting sites, eliminate permanent early voting lists, and specifically mandate the rejection of absentee ballots that are not received by Election Day.
The state House has already scheduled at least 14 committee hearings to discuss changes to the state election system, and is scrutinizing everything from voting machines to the process for accepting mail-in ballots. In the state Senate, GOP leadership has proposed the creation of a “special commission on election integrity and reform,” a bipartisan group tasked with reviewing “the security of the vote before, during and after Election Day” and examining the role of the judiciary and statewide officials in the election process.
Republican leaders in Pennsylvania argue that they don’t want to relitigate the election, and that their eventual decision to seat Brewster proved that they weren’t trying to “steal” his race, despite his claims. “If anything,” Republican Senate President Pro Tem Jake Corman told HuffPost, it was Democrats who violated state law and attempted a “coup” in Brewster’s race, because Democratic members of the state Supreme Court ruled that minor problems ― like failing to date absentee ballots ― were not a sufficient reason to toss out the votes.
And it was Democrats like Gov. Tom Wolf and Kathy Boockvar, Pennsylvania’s secretary of state, Corman said, who created the atmosphere for conspiracies to flourish, by stretching election laws beyond the legislature’s intent and refusing to accede to GOP demands to increase the number of poll watchers allowed at election sites and implement other so-called “election integrity” measures.
“There are hundreds of thousands, if not millions of Pennsylvanians, who do not believe the last election came off in a way that provides integrity to the election process,” Corman told HuffPost. “That is a major problem for democracy in our commonwealth, that people don’t have belief in the electoral system. Our job is to go back and review how the election process went, to dispel false rumors and false stories that are there and look to see where changes can be made to add integrity to the process so that people have confidence moving forward. This can’t be done by Republicans, it can’t be done by Democrats, it has to be done bipartisan.”
Of course, there’s a reason for that purported lack of belief in the voting system: Republicans stoked wild voter fraud theories for months before the election, and have not stopped since.
Costa, the Democratic Senate minority leader, said his caucus believes there need to be tweaks to the election process, but that there are already mechanisms in place to do that. The new commission, he said, is designed only “to continue this drip, drip, drip about fraud and everything else.”
The Pennsylvania GOP’s most radical proposals aren’t likely to become law, given that any legislation that passes would require Wolf’s signature. But they’re a hint at what the GOP might try if a Democratic governor didn’t stand in the way, and nationwide, the drip Costa fears has turned into a flood.
Republicans in Texas, already one of the nation’s most restrictive states for voters, are pushing to make it even harder to cast a ballot. In Georgia, Republicans have pushed to end no-excuse absentee balloting, which the state has used for more than a decade without issue; another proposal would require voters to mail in two copies of their photo ID before they can receive a ballot. Kentucky’s Republican legislative leaders have indicated they have little interest in maintaining voting by mail, which the state introduced for the first time in 2020, or other changes that fueled record turnout. An Arizona Republican wants to require notaries to witness ballot signatures on absentee votes.
Republicans in Pennsylvania and elsewhere have mostly couched their moves in the same language they used around the voter ID bills enacted over the last decade, insisting that they are about preserving “election integrity,” eliminating “irregularities” and improving “voter confidence.” But elsewhere, GOP officials with loose lips have once again made it impossible to ignore the party’s true motivations.
“I will not let them end this session without changing some of these laws,” Alice O’Lenick, the newly appointed Republican chairwoman of the Gwinnett County Board of Elections in Georgia told the Gwinnett Daily Post this month. “They don’t have to change all of them, but they’ve got to change the major parts of them so that we at least have a shot at winning.”
Unlike with voter ID, Republican radicalism about mailed ballots won’t obviously benefit the party ― the GOP is blasting away at a fundamental tenet of democracy simply because too many of its lawmakers are too immersed in the conspiracies Trump peddled, and too beholden to conservative voters who believe the nonsense.
“They don’t like democracy,” said state Rep. Malcolm Kenyatta, a Democrat who has introduced legislation to expand early voting in Pennsylvania. “It really is that simple. They are not fans of democracy. The election did not turn out the way they wanted, so now they want to make it more difficult for people to vote.”
Republican legislators are pushing blatantly political proposals to amass power in obviously cynical and anti-democratic ways for the national party too — creating conditions that would be difficult for Democratic presidential candidates to overcome.
In Wisconsin, a GOP state lawmaker has introduced legislation to gerrymander presidential elections by awarding electors by congressional districts. If that had been the case in the 2020 election, Donald Trump would have won the majority of the state’s electoral votes even though he lost the overall vote in the state, due to the gerrymandered nature of Wisconsin’s congressional districts. If enacted, it would also send gerrymandering battles into overdrive.
U.S. Rep. Bill Huizenga, a Michigan Republican, has suggested that his state’s GOP do the same. Such proposals would tug an already anti-democratic institution ― the Electoral College ― even further askew, and make it even easier for GOP candidates to win 270 electoral votes even if they can’t win a majority of the popular vote nationwide.
[Republicans] want to blame and call fraudulent any institutions or any voter or any election that doesn’t turn out the way they want. Pennsylvania state Rep. Malcolm Kenyatta (D)
A Republican legislator in Arizona went even further last week by proposing a bill that would allow the legislature to simply override the presidential election results in the state, with no need for legislators to even assert a reason.
It’s certainly possible that independent judiciaries in these states would have something to say about the naked rigging of the democratic system. But Republican legislators have an answer for that too.
Pennsylvania Republicans, who were among those who considered altering the awarding of Electoral College votes after Obama won reelection in 2012, are now targeting the state’s judicial system instead. This month, a GOP lawmaker introduced legislation to overhaul the process for electing judges to Pennsylvania’s top three courts, including the state Supreme Court, by replacing statewide judicial elections with district-based contests instead. The scheme would drastically increase the likelihood that Republicans would control the courts.
State Rep. Russ Diamond, the Republican leading the charge, has said his legislation is an apolitical effort to ensure that judges come from across the state, instead of largely from Philadelphia and Pittsburgh, its two major population centers. Both chambers could pass legislation to overhaul the courts in this session, which would eventually put it on the ballot for voters to consider.
“This isn’t some Republican power grab,” state House GOP spokesman Jason Gottesman said. “This is giving the people the ability to decide how they want their judges to be elected.”
But the timing of the push lends credence to claims that Republicans want to gerrymander the courts, as critics have argued. The Pennsylvania GOP began rumbling about judicial changes only when the state Supreme Court struck down its plans to gerrymander congressional maps two years ago, and after Republicans tried and failed to impeach the Supreme Court’s Democratic members.
“Anywhere they don’t get their way, they want to blame and call fraudulent any institutions or any voter or any election that doesn’t turn out the way they want,” Kenyatta said.
The Right Moves Farther Right
Not all Republicans in Pennsylvania are on board with the party’s radical turn. State Sen. Gene Yaw decried his party’s efforts to overturn the election results in December, and later, in an interview with a local news station, chastised members of his caucus who “want to go to war.”
“Do I like the fact that the candidate I supported lost – NO,” Yaw wrote in his December statement. “Nevertheless, our system requires that, as a citizen, I respect the laws of this state and country.”
Kenyatta believes there are at least 20 Republicans in the Pennsylvania state House who oppose the conspiracy-driven pushes to roll back voting rights. Together with Democrats, they could form a majority that says “enough is enough” and puts an end to the madness around the election and voting rights, Kenyatta said.
“But unfortunately,” he added, “the folks who are the most rabid and out of control have been allowed to run roughshod over everybody else.”
That fierce battle for control of the Republican Party ― between dedicated anti-democratic forces, and everyone else ― is playing out at almost every level of government. The right wing of the party has attempted to flex its muscle against any Republicans who have dared to buck them since the Capitol riot.
More than two dozen county GOP officials in Kentucky backed a recent resolution that accuses GOP Senate leader Mitch McConnell ― one of Trump’s chief enablers over the last four years ― of “abandon[ing] his Republican base that put him in office” because he suggested he may vote in a looming Senate trial to convict Trump for inciting a riot. Some Florida Republicans are reportedly recruiting Trump loyalist Rep. Matt Gaetz to mount a primary challenge next year to Sen. Marco Rubio ― a Trump loyalist whose vote in favor of election certification apparently demonstrates that he’s not loyal enough. Wyoming Rep. Liz Cheney’s vote to impeach Trump has earned her a primary challenge.
And Arizona Republicans have censured GOP Gov. Doug Ducey for his refusal to back Trump’s effort to overturn Biden’s election victory there; former GOP Sen. Jeff Flake and Cindy McCain, the wife of the late Sen. John McCain, were censured as well. Michigan Republicans, meanwhile, removed a GOP-appointed election official after he voted to certify Biden’s win in the state.
Many of these attempted shows of force will eventually whimper out (the Kentucky state GOP shot down the anti-McConnell resolution), and it’s possible some of them will backfire: Republicans have lost two consecutive Senate races in Arizona and saw the state go blue for Biden in November; at least in statewide elections, they may be headed down a similar path as the Virginia GOP, which has become increasingly irrelevant as it has become obscenely radical.
But in most states where the GOP holds legislative power, the only lawmakers who risk facing consequences for this extreme right turn are those who hesitate to go along. Republican dominance of state legislatures has left the party in total control of redistricting processes in many states, allowing GOP lawmakers to draw boundaries that make state legislative districts increasingly uncompetitive. In those districts, the only threat to Republican incumbents will come from the right. Moderates, much less Democrats, need not apply.
Scores of Republican voters, meanwhile, reregistered as independents after the Capitol riot, meaning that in states with closed primaries, like Pennsylvania, the primary electorate may only further radicalize.
The right also keeps moving farther right: Republicans in Texas and Wyoming have mentioned that they could favor secession, and while those ideas are absurd enough that they’re unlikely to go anywhere, the violence that occurred at the U.S. Capitol and state capitols in Michigan and Oregon ― and the adherence of Republican lawmakers to the conspiracy theories that fueled it ― is proof that a dangerous strain of extremism is not relegated to the party’s fringes but festering at its core.
That core is still in state legislatures ― in Pennsylvania, and beyond.
CORRECTION: This piece initially stated that Republicans have lost three consecutive Senate elections in Arizona. They have lost the last two.