Twelve days after Election Day, Rick Scott was declared the winner in the Florida Senate race. Leading by 56,000 votes on election night, Scott saw his lead dwindle to 10,000 by the end of the legally mandated hand recount. Scott commented that Bill Nelson, the former astronaut who is finishing his third term in the Senate, was gracious in defeat.
Perhaps, with the benefit of hindsight, Scott regrets his execrable conduct over the past two weeks. Following Donald Trump’s lead, Scott lashed out at Nelson and Democrats, leveling charges of election fraud in front of the gathered media. Now that he is a United States Senator, maybe he will act with a more appropriate sense of decorum. But don’t hold your breath.
Donald Trump’s performance since Election Day may not violate his oath of office to preserve, protect and defend the Constitution, but his consistent willingness to undermine public confidence in our democratic system has been poisonous, if not treasonous. And the complicity in his conduct by Republican Senators, in particular, has been shameful.
Trump makes no bones about the fact that he will do whatever it takes to win — it is an essential part of what he views as his brand — and cries of voter fraud have long been a tool in his arsenal. During the presidential primaries, he attacked the Republican National Committee for rigging the vote against him. In the general election, of course, it was the Democrats who were doing the rigging.
The way Trump uses the term, rigging an election is not a metaphor for rules that can seem unfair, it is about abject fraud. It is about rampant illegal voting, about hidden cabals manipulating the vote count to steal elections. In 2016 it was about millions of illegal voters being brought across the border. He created his election fraud commission last year amid much fanfare, only to have it fade away with nothing to show for its efforts. That is because it is his accusations of election fraud that are themselves the fraud: outright lies and conspiracy theories propagated to serve his own interests.
This week, faced with election losses in the mid-term elections, Trump once again pulled the election fraud libel out of his tool kit. He pronounced the elections rife with fraud. This time, the stories were about people voting, and then going back to their cars, changing their clothes, putting on different hats, and then voting again. He demanded that the counting of absentee and provisional ballots in Arizona and Florida stop, and that Rick Scott and Trump’s other preferred candidates be deemed the winners, regardless of what the ultimate vote count might show. His goal was not to assure that the will of the voters was accurately determined, but rather to create his own set of “facts” that would serve his interests and be accepted by his supporters, which would in turn delegitimize the actual outcome, should it not go his way. It was an odious performance, deliberately intended to undermine public confidence in our ability to conduct fair elections; all the more reprehensible because he is the President of the United States.
As we have come to expect, Republican leaders fell in line to defend the President’s egregious attack on the elections. The actions of my own Senator, Colorado Republican Cory Gardner, were emblematic of the corruption of the Republican leadership and their abject failure to stand up against the Trump’s conduct. Gardner is an ambitious 44-year-old who heads the Republican Senatorial Campaign Committee who has tried to position himself as a “different kind of Republican,” willing to stand up to the President in critical moments. But no more. Gardner is up for re-election in two years and was clearly spooked this week when the President gleefully ticked off the names Republicans who lost re-election after declining his “embrace.” Following the President’s press conference, Gardner dutifully fell in line. In what must have been his lowest moment in politics, he went on the Sunday talk shows, knowing full well he was perpetrating a lie, and parroted the President’s cries of fraud.
There are few things more essential to our civic life than the message that generations of Americans have passed on to their children that when we have disagreements, however bitter they might be, we resolve them at the ballot box. Along with the rule of law, faith in elections and the commitment to uphold their validity is among our most important institutions. Elections are not easy, and there are times when the outcomes test our faith; but it is all we have. Upholding that faith is a singular obligation of our elected leaders. This week was a moment when our leaders were being tested; Cory Gardner, along with many of his colleagues, failed that test.
Several decades ago, when I was first dipping my toe into the world of Philadelphia politics, a colleague decided to take on a two-term incumbent member of Congress in the Democratic Party primary. The incumbent, Ray Lederer, had been caught on videotape six month earlier taking $50,000 from an FBI agent posing as a representative of an Arab sheik. Nonetheless, like indicted Republican Congressmen Chris Collins and Duncan Hunter this year, incumbency had its privileges and my colleague Dennis lost badly.
A few days after the election, I received a hand-written note from Dennis. “David, thanks for all your help. Believe me when I tell you, it’s not over yet.” Being a newbie in the political world, I was puzzled. Dennis seemed to be suggesting that there was a Wizard lurking behind a curtain somewhere who might yet dictate a different outcome. I showed the note to my boss — a man deeply schooled in Philly politics — who just shook his head and smiled. “Elections are rough. There is a finality to the results that can be hard to accept after a long campaign.”
Anyone who has worked on a political campaign — particularly a losing campaign — can understand the pain that Dennis felt. As the dream of winning evaporates, it is almost impossible to avoid second guessing and blame; pointing to the little things that might have changed the outcome. At the same time, there are few things more essential to our democracy than for candidates to accept the verdict of the voters. It is a burden that falls squarely on their shoulders right at the moment when they have been dealt the harshest of blows. Candidates must stand before supporters who have invested their psychic and physical energy in their candidacy, set aside their own feelings of loss — and often shame — and lift up the spirits of their supporters and ease the pain they are experiencing. It is in that critical moment that each of those candidates reaffirms our collective faith in the democratic process.
Hillary Clinton failed that test on election night in 2016, when she proved herself unable to set aside her own disappointment, and stand up in front of her gathered supporters at the Javits Center and help ease their grief and shock. Hillary succumbed to the bitterness that many candidates face as they see victory fade from their grasp. “I knew it,” Clinton retorted when Robby Mook, her campaign manager, told her it was over. “I knew this would happen to me. They were never going to let me be president.”
Clinton’s bemoaning the “they” who were never going to let her be President is a reminder of the vulnerability of our democracy to popular fears on the left or the right that there is some cabal or another — the media, titans of Wall Street, George Soros, the Elders of Zion — that manipulate outcomes of our elections for their own nefarious interest. That is the vulnerability that Donald Trump is only too willing to exploit to his personal advantage, as he did this past week as he cried fraud over and over again, making up stories out of whole cloth, or perhaps out of conspiracy memes he picked up somewhere on the Interweb.
Republicans across the country immediately picked up Trump’s narrative. In New Mexico’s 2nd Congressional District, Republican Yvette Herrell has yet to concede to Democrat Xochitl Torres Small. Herrell went to bed on election night having been declared the winner by several news organizations, only to see victory slip from her grasp as 8,000 absentee ballots were counted the following day. Following the President’s lead, Herrell went on Fox News to claim that the election had been stolen, claiming that those 8,000 absentee ballots “came up out of nowhere.”
Maine incumbent Republican Congressman Bruce Poliquin has similarly refused to concede to Democrat Jared Golden . Poliquin lost under the first use of Maine’s “ranked-choice voting” system adopted by public referendum in 2016. Poliquin led 46% to 45% after the first round, but once the votes were readjusted in accordance with the RCV rules, Golden won a majority, by 51% to 49%. Poliquin understood the rules going in, but in an environment when the legitimacy of elections across the country was under assault by the President, he had little to lose by challenging the legitimacy of his race as well.
It is not by happenstance that in races this year from California to Florida to Maine the results were not clear until days after Election Day. With the advent of increased reliance on mail-in ballots, extended voting periods, and alternative voting systems like RCV, Election Day is becoming less and less the day when Americans endure long lines to exercise their franchise than simply the last day that votes can be cast, or by which mail-in ballots must be postmarked.
This marks a significant change in what “Election Day” means. The time-honored process in Philly of gathering in the totals from voting machines in each precinct, while campaign workers wait expectantly in Center City ballrooms as the totals are posted on chalkboards, is a thing of the past. Gone as well is confidence in the projections of victory by news organizations that used to represent the climactic moment on election night. The fact that election results can take a number of days to be determined places a new type of stress on candidates who will have to show great patience during what can be days of uncertainty, all the while bearing the burden of leadership to help their supporters accept the ultimate results.
To give Rick Scott the benefit of the doubt, this is a new world for candidates. Hopefully he will rise to the occasion and allow his poor performance in the face of post-election uncertainty to be used as a lesson for others. In Scott’s own words, Bill Nelson was gracious in defeat; now the onus shifts to Scott to be equally gracious in victory.
Donald Trump, on the other hand, has earned no such benefit of the doubt. Time and time again, he has proven that he is indifferent to his oath of office, and has repeatedly and eagerly worked to undermine democratic legitimacy and public faith in elections to his own advantage. The time has passed as well for Republican leaders to be excused for their shameful conduct in giving the President cover. The essential truth — which our President prefers to ignore — is that upholding the legitimacy of our democracy is far more important than the election victory of any political candidate or party. Cory Gardner and his colleagues understood full well the recklessness of Trump’s words, but once again they shrank in fear from the President’s harsh words and tweets. They should feel ashamed for their complicity.
Historical Note: Ray Lederer went on to win reelection in the fall of 1980. Shortly after being sworn in, he was convicted of bribery and sentenced to three years in prison. Three months later, the House Ethic Committee voted 10–2 to expel him. He resigned from Congress the following day and spent the balance of what would have been his third term in Congress as an inmate at Allenwood Federal Prison. When I asked his sister, Rita, if resigning from Congress meant Ray would resign his powerful position as a Philadelphia Democratic Party ward leader, she was taken aback by the suggestion. “No, you never give that up.”
Follow David Paul on Twitter @dpaul. He is working on a book, with a working title of “FedExit! To Save Our Democracy, It’s Time to Let Alabama Be Alabama and Set California Free.”
Artwork by Joe Dworetzky. Check out Joe’s political cartooning at www.jayduret.com. Follow him on Twitter @jayduret or Instagram at @joefaces.