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The controversy surrounding a contested congressional election in Iowa, explained

Republicans are accusing Democrats of trying to “steal a race.” Those claims are misleading.

Rep. Mariannette Miller-Meeks (R-IA) on the Capitol steps on January 4.
Tom Williams/CQ-Roll Call, Inc via Getty Images

An Iowa Democrat who narrowly lost a seat in the House of Representatives has asked for Congress to review her race in an inquiry that could lead to her taking the place of the Republican who was sworn in in January. And now Republican members of Congress are trying to make hay over the purported hypocrisy, casting the review as a Democratic effort to overturn the result of a certified congressional election.

Republicans’ attempts to do so rest on a false equivalency.

Democrats widely denounced attempts by former President Donald Trump and his Republican enablers to overturn the result of his election. Republicans claim Democrats are actually fine with overturning elections, so long as it benefits their party.

But the situations are not the same. Trump clearly lost the presidential election fair and square, but nevertheless tried to invalidate millions of votes from numerous states for the flimsiest of reasons. The House candidate in Iowa, on the other hand, is following longstanding procedure by requesting the House of Representatives review 22 ballots she says were improperly disqualified.

Nonetheless, the optics of Democrats challenging an election so soon after the failed attempt to install Trump for a second term is providing grist for GOP attacks.

The race for Iowa’s Second Congressional District was extremely close

Iowa’s Second Congressional District seat is currently occupied by Republican Mariannette Miller-Meeks. Miller-Meeks prevailed over Democratic candidate Rita Hart by just six votes out of nearly 400,000 cast last November.

After a recount, Miller-Meeks’s victory was certified by the Iowa State Board of Canvassers in late November. Hart’s campaign responded to the certification with a statement that pointed out the recount “was designed to count ballots that had already been tallied, meaning that additional legal ballots may have yet to be counted.”

Instead of filling a challenge in state court, Hart instead challenged the outcome under the Federal Contested Elections Act on the grounds that 22 ballots she says were lawfully cast were not counted (and thus not included in the recount). House Speaker Nancy Pelosi provisionally sat Miller-Meeks at the beginning of the House term in January, but the House Administrations Committee is considering Hart’s challenge, and Pelosi recently said “there could be a scenario” where the full House ultimately votes to seat Hart. It’s a process that has played out more than 100 times, with very rare success.

Republicans wasted no time pouncing after the House Administration Committee voted to hear Hart’s challenge on March 15. House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy last week accused Democrats of trying to “steal a race” by entertaining Hart’s challenge. Meanwhile, in comments on the Senate floor, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell alluded to former President Donald Trump’s attempt to overturn his election loss and accused Democrats of hypocrisy.

“The process played out in the way that every liberal in America spent November, December, and January insisting was beyond question. But there’s a catch. This time, the Republican won and the Democrat lost,” McConnell said.

Then, this week, a group of Republican senators including McConnell, Tom Cotton, and Iowa’s two Republican senators, Joni Ernst and Chuck Grassley, wrote an open letter to companies that vowed to stop donating to Republicans who backed Trump’s efforts to overturn November’s presidential election, asking them to take “the same position with respect to members of the House of Representatives who are poised to overturn a state-certified election in the second Congressional district in Iowa.”

“We are asking you to apply the same standard to this attempt to overturn an election that you applied to the Republicans who objected to certain states’ electoral votes, and publicly condemn the actions of Democrats who are seeking to overturn the state-certified election of Representative Miller-Meeks,” they wrote. “If you decide to not speak out about this brazen attempt to steal the election, some may question the sincerity of your earlier statements and draw the conclusion that your actions were partisan instead of principled.”

But there’s a big difference between Hart’s challenge and Trump’s effort to overturn the presidential election that was backed by a majority of Republicans in the House and a handful of them in the Senate: The Miller-Meeks race was actually a squeaker. Trump’s loss was not.

Kevin McCarthy is trying to turn the tables on critics of his efforts to end democracy

Hart’s challenge rests on the claim that there is a quantifiable set of ballots that were not counted — but should be — and that they could change the outcome of the election.

Trump’s challenge was nowhere near as specific; he pushed conspiracy theories about fraud involving voting machines and also claimed pandemic-related changes to state election procedures were unconstitutional, and thus nullified the entire election. He and his lawyers could produce no evidence for their conspiracy theories, and his legal arguments were rejected in courtroom after courtroom, including by judges he appointed.

Despite the flimsiness of Trump’s arguments, Republicans lined up behind it. One hundred thirty-nine House Republicans and eight Senate Republicans voted on January 6 to overturn the results in one or more states that President Joe Biden won. Since they could marshal no evidence that fraud occurred, their rationale for rejecting the results rested on obviously circular reasoning about how mere suspicions that fraud occurred justified throwing out the results.

McCarthy was among the Republicans who backed Trump’s efforts. During a news conference on March 17, CNN reporter Manu Raju pressed McCarthy to explain the difference “between the efforts [in Iowa] to overturn the election in the House, versus Donald Trump’s efforts to overturn the election in Congress that you supported.”

The House minority leader’s response was to argue he didn’t really support overturning the presidential election because he only voted to throw out the results from Arizona and Pennsylvania, and removing those two states from Biden’s column wouldn’t have been sufficient to overturn the results. But what he didn’t acknowledge is that in December, he supported a legal challenge to Biden’s victory that was rejected by the Supreme Court — but that could have had a huge effect on the election.

Republicans have countered that Trump took up his complaints with the judiciary (of course, he also suggested that he expected Supreme Court justices he’d appointed to help him win, regardless of the ballot totals) and have complained that Hart didn’t contest the election in Iowa courts before appealing to the House of Representatives. Hart’s lawyers argue that there wasn’t time to do so, but Miller-Meeks supporters argue Hart just wanted her challenged heard by the Democratic-controlled House. Hart, however, has a legal right to challenge the election in the House, and the House is legally obligated to hear it.

Because of this legal basis, House Administration Committee Chair Zoe Lofgren (D-CA) released a statement earlier this week calling on Republicans to cease politicizing Hart’s challenge.

“Republicans know how this process works — over the past 90 years the Congress has adjudicated, in a bipartisan manner, more than a hundred contested elections cases filed by Republicans and Democrats alike in races nowhere near as close as Iowa’s Second,” she said. “With that history in mind, it is profoundly disappointing some of my Republican colleagues are now painting this process as somehow nefarious.”

But even if the House Administrations Committee brings the matter to the House floor, it appears that some Democrats, anticipating attacks from Republicans, would be unwilling to seat Hart.

Hart’s challenge faces an uphill battle

As the Wall Street Journal detailed on Thursday, Democratic Reps. Dean Phillips (MN), Elissa Slotkin (MI), and Josh Gottheimer (NJ) have already indicated some wariness about the possibility of voting to unseat Miller-Meeks.

“Losing a House election by six votes is painful for Democrats. But overturning it in the House would be even more painful for America. Just because a majority can, does not mean a majority should,” Phillips tweeted on Monday.

With the House split 219-211, just four Democratic defections would be sufficient to defeat any effort to seat Hart, assuming Republicans stay unified against it.

So while it’s unlikely that Miller-Meeks’s apparent victory is overturned, Hart’s legal challenge is providing elected Republicans and Fox News with a cudgel to attack Democrats for purportedly being guilty of the very thing they recently accused Republicans of doing.

When the facts of the matter are unpacked, however, it’s clear that Republican talking points about what’s happening in Iowa are misleading. Hart is not claiming an election was stolen because she lost, but that a handful of ballots weren’t counted that perhaps should have been — and that failing to include them in the vote total means the people of Iowa’s second district don’t have the representative they preferred.

But the likes of McCarthy and McConnell aren’t about to let facts get in the way of their narrative.