Good Republicans in government may be democracy’s last hope

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There’s a grab bag of good news and bad news for just about everyone in Tuesday’s gubernatorial upset in Virginia, when Republican Glenn Youngkin bested Democrat Terry McAuliffe by two percentage points. Pundits are foretelling gloom and doom for Democrats nationally — pointing to everything from President Joe Biden’s stalled agenda, to COVID-19 fatigue, to the bogus belief that critical race theory (CRT) is poisoning K-12 public schools.

However, if our collective eye focuses instead on the viability of American democracy itself — which it should — what happened in Virginia suggests that the most realistic path toward staving off authoritarianism may be electing good Republican candidates, as theirs is the party to beat these days. That standard is fancifully easy to identify: Vote for anyone who rejects the 2020 election Big Lie and former President Trump who spread it — and, like Youngkin did to a small extent, revert to old-fashioned policy platforms to win elections.

As I have explained before in The Hill — with the Jan. 6 insurrection at the Capitol still mainly unaccounted for within the halls of government and the Republican Party’s devotion to Trump — most metrics point toward the demise of government by We the People in the coming years. Republican adherence to the Big Lie about an elusively “stolen” election in 2020 have gained traction.

A recent study by the Public Religion Research Institute and the Brookings Institution shows two-thirds of Republicans believing that Biden is an illegitimate president — a number that climbs to 97 percent among watchers of far-right outlets like Newsmax and OAN.

According to the Brennan Center for Justice, an unprecedented number of 19 states have so far this year enacted 33 laws that make it harder to vote. Four of those — Georgia, Iowa, Kansas and Texas — have passed new laws imposing stringent criminal penalties on election officials for errors in doing their jobs. A whopping 30 percent of such recently-surveyed public servants reported concerns for their safety, including death threats, due to their profession.

Couple all of that with Senate Republicans’ blocking even the most basic of voting reforms — including reinstatement of a key provision of the Voting Rights Act that the Supreme Court gutted in 2013 (despite its unanimous renewal in 2006). It’s not hard to see where things are heading: a Republican-dominated government that is comfortable canceling election results that don’t serve the party.

Yet, as Mona Charen, Policy Editor of The Bulwark wrote, “Isn’t it interesting that Democrats appear to have forgotten how to manipulate voting machines, stuff ballot boxes, engage in the wee-hour ballot dumps, collect ballots from dead people, and coordinate with Chinese/Venezuelan governments to change the outcome of elections? Two-thirds of Republicans believe that’s what happened in 2020. And yet, only one year later, Democrats have lost the knack?”

The Virginia race shows, once again, that elections do work well in the United States — something for which every American should breathe a sigh of relief.

In an email statement, the non-partisan Secure Democracy struck another positive note, “Republican Glenn Youngkin was elected governor in a state that EXPANDED voting access. In the past two years, Virginia enacted new laws to expand early voting, voting by mail, and voter registration … further evidence that providing equal access to the ballot box for all citizens does not benefit any one party — instead, it benefits all Americans.”  

In fact, voter turnout was exceptionally high for both Virginia gubernatorial candidates this week, surpassing the 2.6 million who voted for governor in 2017.

Meanwhile, although Trump endorsed Youngkin back in May, a Washington Post/George Mason University poll of likely voters revealed that four times as many voters — 37 to 9 percent — said that Trump’s support made them less likely to vote for Youngkin. Youngkin claimed he was honored by the nod and echoed the former president’s false voter fraud narrative, but later pivoted away from the MAGA train, shifting to policy issues like education (including the manufactured CRT debate) and inflation.

As The Atlantic’s David A. Graham remarked, these kitchen-table issues might have lured suburbanites who voted for Biden to Youngkin’s column, indicating that “If Republicans can win even in Virginia, … ‘bad’ general candidates might be able to beat Democrats in 2022” without having to embrace Trump and his dark vision for American government.

To be sure, voters lodged Democrats in power in a number of notable races this week: New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy kept his seat with a nail-bitingly thin margin, Michelle Wu became the first woman and person of color to win a mayoral seat in Boston after nearly two centuries, Aftab Pureval captured 66 percent of the votes to become the first Asian-American mayor in Cincinnati’s history, and for only the second time, a Black man — Eric Adams — will serve as mayor of New York City.

But make no mistake about it, democracy overall is on the ropes in America. It’s the Republican Party under the likes of Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) and House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) who are primarily to blame — not to mention zealots like Sen. Josh Hawley (R-Mo.) and Reps. Marjorie Taylor-Green (R-Ga.), Lauren Boebert (R-Colo.), Matt Gaetz (R-Fla.), and Jim Jordan (R-Ohio), among many others. 

Let’s not forget either that even after the carnage of Jan. 6, 147 Republicans voted to overturn the election with no real evidence of fraud. This was itself a fraud on the voters — every one of us, regardless of party affiliation — and if that lineup of politicians stays in power, we will no doubt see more of it.

As things stand, without changes to national voting laws through landmark legislation like the pending Freedom to Vote Act and the John Lewis Voting Rights Act (both of which Republicans are blocking), the system of elections will be rigged for generations. Rigged not only through gerrymandering and cynical laws that keep people from voting, but for the first time in history, by legislators willing to greenlight the cancellation of legitimate votes in favor of Democrats — all under the guise of fake voter fraud.

What Youngkin’s success suggests, then, is that if Republicans are on course to take over American government anyway, perhaps they can pledge to put their power to good use now that they know they can win elections fairly, and without Trump commandeering total control. If this evokes skepticism (it should), it would require a marked and deliberate Republican shift away from lies, hate and electoral manipulation and back toward meaningful policy debate and a modicum of integrity. What Virginians perhaps said yesterday — to both parties — is that it’s what the voters really want. 

Kimberly Wehle is a professor at the University of Baltimore School of Law and author of “How to Read the Constitution — and Why,” as well as “What You Need to Know About Voting — and Why” and “How to Think Like a Lawyer – and Why” (forthcoming February 2022). Follow her on Twitter: @kimwehle

This piece has been updated.

Tags 2020 election Authoritarianism big lie Democracy Donald Trump Election Day Glenn Youngkin Jim Jordan Joe Biden John Lewis Josh Hawley Kevin McCarthy Kimberly Wehle Lauren Boebert Matt Gaetz Mitch McConnell Phil Murphy Terry McAuliffe voter fraud voters

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