The prospect of a floor vote to overturn a contested congressional race in Iowa has suddenly become a real dilemma for House Democrats’ most vulnerable members.
Moderate Democrats are privately squirming over the possibility that they could be forced to choose a winner in the race for Iowa’s 2nd district, where the GOP candidate, now-Rep. Mariannette Miller-Meeks, won by just six votes — the smallest margin of any candidate in decades. Her opponent, Rita Hart, declined to appeal through state channels and instead took her challenge directly to the Democratic-run House.
A handful of nervous Democrats have spoken up publicly as the House Administration Committee reviews the case. But behind the scenes, more moderates are voicing concern about the dynamics of possibly unseating a GOP lawmaker — particularly after they hammered Republicans for trying to do just that to President Joe Biden, which led to a deadly insurrection in the U.S. Capitol.
The topic even surfaced at a call on Monday between Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee officials and the party’s most vulnerable members — a discussion that, at times, grew tense as lawmakers aired concerns about the looming committee decision.
“As I have said before in connection with the 2020 presidential election, legislators should be heeding states’ certifications of their elections,” said Rep. Susan Wild (D-Pa.), a swing-district Democrat who spoke up on the DCCC call. “Unless there is rampant error and substantial evidence thereof, I do not believe it is the role of House members to dictate the outcome of elections.”
Rep. Josh Gottheimer (D-N.J.), co-chair of the bipartisan Problem Solvers Caucus, added in a statement to POLITICO: “I have deep reservations.”
Senior Democrats say those concerns are overblown, arguing that Hart is going through a constitutional process, unlike Trump and his allies. They say the House Administration Committee will carefully review Hart’s challenge — which centers around 22 ballots that she said were improperly rejected and if counted would make her the victor — and that she carries the burden of proof.
Still, roughly a half-dozen Democrats have privately expressed reservations about the House taking up Hart’s challenge — enough to sink any vote on the floor, according to multiple sources familiar with the conversations. Some vulnerable Democrats plan to conduct an informal whip count among their own members this week to sound out exactly how many colleagues might oppose unseating Miller-Meeks if the issue does come to the floor.
“Losing a House election by six votes is painful for Democrats. But overturning it in the House would be even more painful for America,” said Rep. Dean Phillips (D-Minn.), who on Monday became the first swing-district Democrat to forcefully come out against any effort to overturn the results on Twitter.
That Iowa race is now up for review by the House Administration Committee, an unusual — but not unprecedented — process that could result in on-the-ground-investigations and a potential recount. Hart, who is being represented by top Democratic election lawyer Marc Elias, filed a new brief in the case on Monday. But there is no set timeline or process for this, and the committee has wide latitude in how it moves forward.
Some Democrats hope that if enough of them show reluctance toward ousting another member that the committee — which is chaired by Rep. Zoe Lofgren (D-Calif.), a Pelosi ally — will let the investigation fade. In past contested election cases, the Administration Committee has convened a small task force that can impound ballots, conduct a recount and then make a recommendation as to who is the rightful winner of the race.
The House could then vote on whom to seat — an outcome that swing-seat Democrats hope to avoid.
“This is an issue that states should have primary responsibility in determining the outcome of the election. The state of Iowa certified it, and that’s what should stand,” Rep. Lou Correa (D-Calif.) said in an interview.
All of this is taking place in the most tightly divided Congress in decades. Democrats are clinging to a 5-seat majority, after losing over a dozen seats in 2020.
Meanwhile, the House GOP’s campaign arm is nipping at their heels and trying to make the Hart situation as politically painful as possible for Democrats. The National Republican Congressional Committee has mounted a public pressure campaign — complete with near-daily email blasts — to target 15 of the most vulnerable Democrats over where they stand on the issue.
House GOP leaders have accused Pelosi of trying to “steal” a House seat to pad her razor-thin majority. In recent weeks, they’ve also sought to elevate Miller-Meeks, a doctor and veteran, inside the Republican conference: She joined House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) for a trip to the U.S.-Mexico border last week and was just appointed to a select subcommittee on the coronavirus.
And in the hopes of bringing some added credibility to the discussion, nine of the 10 Republicans who voted to impeach Trump wrote a letter to Pelosi on Monday warning that tossing out a state-certified victory would undermine voters’ faith in democracy.
“You cannot complain about anyone questioning the election certificates again if you’re willing to do the same to a dually elected member,” said Rep. Rodney Davis of Illinois, the top Republican of the House Administration Committee. “Especially since Rita Hart did not finish the court process in Iowa. She came straight to the politics.”
But after over 120 House Republicans challenged Biden’s victory the day of the deadly Jan. 6 riots, Democrats say Republicans have zero room to complain about contesting elections. McCarthy, however, defended his decision to challenge the presidential election results in two states, arguing in a testy exchange with a CNN reporter last week that it wouldn’t have been enough to actually change the outcome.
Miller-Meeks’ campaign seized on comments from House Democrats skeptical of Hart’s challenge. In a call with reporters on Monday, attorney Alan Ostergren cited the enormous cost of a taxpayer-funded investigation into the race.
“I question whether it makes sense to anyone to spend millions of dollars litigating an election contest,” he said, “when it’s clear that there are some members of the Democratic Party in the House who just think this whole thing is flawed from the start and should be stopped.”
Privately, some Democrats were stunned by Hart’s decision to challenge her loss in a way that could force endangered members to take a tough vote.
In contrast, former Rep. Anthony Brindisi (D-N.Y.) chose to end a prolonged battle over who would be the rightful winner of his upstate New York seat in February. When a state court ordered GOP Rep. Claudia Tenney be certified as the victor by 109 votes, he conceded, though he said the process was “riddled with errors, inconsistencies and systematic violations of state and federal election laws.”
It’s not uncommon for candidates to appeal to the House panel, though those reviews rarely result in an election result being overturned. Perhaps the best-known example was after the 1984 election, when Democrats refused to seat the GOP winner of Indiana’s 8th District, held a recount and then voted to seat their own candidate. House Republicans, led by then-backbencher Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.), accused them of trying to steal an election and staged a walkout in protest of the so-called “Bloody Eighth.”
Now, Republicans are warning of similar blowback — both at the polls and inside the halls of Congress — if Democrats follow through with unseating Miller-Meeks.
“It would be the most unifying event we would have had as Republicans in my entire career here,” Davis said.
Democrats argue they are not looking to prove a forgone conclusion — that Hart truly won the seat — but are trying to follow the facts without partisanship. And some are privately skeptical that the panel would ultimately recommend overturning the election.
“They’ll have to be able to present a really compelling case,” Rep. Dan Kildee (D-Mich.) said. “It’s not just going to be, you know, a conclusion. It’s going to have to be a really compelling case that includes the arguments from both sides in as full a fashion as possible.”
It’s also unclear how much the dynamics would shift if the committee does uncover new evidence in Hart’s favor. Some skeptical Democrats say they’re open to changing their minds.
“Right now, it’s a state issue. We get some facts that tell me otherwise? We’ll look at that as well,” Correa said.