The election of Mike Johnson as Speaker of the House brought renewed attention to the efforts of Republicans to deny President Joe Biden’s victory in the 2020 election. For example, Johnson questioned the accuracy of voting machines and enlisted his colleagues in supporting lawsuits that sought to block the electors from key states.
In just the past week, this reluctance to accept the 2020 outcome was visible in an interview with Rep. Steve Scalise (R-La.), who of course was also in the running to be speaker at one point. Asking about the retirement of Republican Rep. Ken Buck (R-Colo.), who had lamented the party’s refusal to accept the 2020 election, Scalise passed up several opportunities to say that the election wasn’t stolen.
On the one hand, this behavior seems puzzling. After the Republicans’ surprisingly weak showing in the 2022 midterm, analysis by political scientists Janet Malzahn and Andrew Hall found that election-denying Republican candidates for senator, governor, and other statewide offices performed about 2 points worse in the 2022 election.
But that’s not the whole story. For one, Malzahn and Hall find that there was no penalty in the primary for election-denying candidates. If anything, they might have done a couple points better, although this estimate has enough statistical uncertainty that they are cautious in interpreting it.
Even more telling is a new study by political scientists Larry Bartels and Nicholas Carnes. They analyze whether election denial and other support for Trump by House Republicans affected their chances of reelection in 2022. They focus on the House roll call votes to certify the election in Arizona and Pennsylvania, to impeach Trump, and to establish the January 6 commission.
First, they examine all House Republicans who ran in the general election and faced a Democratic challenger. They find that House Republicans who voted for decertification or voted not to impeach Trump or establish the commission experienced no statistically meaningful general election penalty or benefit.
Then they examine the “political survival” of House Republicans more broadly, including candidates who were defeated in the primary as well as those who made it to the general and faced no opponent at all. In this larger sample, candidates who voted not to impeach Trump or establish the January 6 commission actually did a bit better in the 2022 election.
And once you factor in Republicans who retired – some of whom were willing to buck Trump – the results are even clearer. Bartels and Carnes note that GOP opponents of Trump largely left Congress by retiring (like Adam Kinzinger) or by losing to primary challengers (as happened to Liz Cheney). They write:
The substantial political costs for opposing Trump’s undemocratic actions were doled out not by voters in the general election, but by primary voters and the party establishment – local officials, donors, and interest groups with the political clout to encourage or deter primary challengers and bolster or abandon vulnerable incumbents.
If this is the group that holds sway, then we should not expect electoral retribution for the many elected Republicans who denied the 2020 election outcome.
Indeed, an under-appreciated fact is that election denial is now more prevalent among Republicans in Congress than it was in 2020. In the preface to the new paperback edition of my book with Chris Tausanovitch and Lynn Vavreck about the 2020 election, The Bitter End, we write:
After the 2020 election, a total of 139 House Republicans voted not to certify the results. In 2022, 127 of them ran for reelection and almost all of them won…. In total, the Washington Post counted 155 Republicans in the next Congress, including incumbents and those newly elected, who had voted not to certify the 2020 election, voiced skepticism about Biden’s victory, or both. In a separate count, the New York Times identified 20 more.
It’s no wonder, then, that Mike Johnson now leads the party in Congress.