“It very much does look like the opening salvo of a Republican presidential primary campaign, at least a very early litmus test of where potential candidates are on a very important question to Republican voters as we sit here today,” said Lanhee Chen, a top adviser on Mitt Romney’s 2012 presidential campaign.
Cotton’s late Sunday announcement that he wouldn’t be objecting to the Electoral College came as a surprise to many in the party. The Arkansas senator has established himself as a staunch Trump ally, speaking at his convention and even running TV ads this past year bolstering the president. But Cotton argued in his statement that “the Founders entrusted our elections chiefly to the states — not Congress.”
Hawley, meanwhile, was the first senator out of the gate to announce that he’d oppose the Electoral College certification. In doing so, he got ahead of Cruz, who declared his plans a few days later. The high-profile legislative maneuver, some Republicans note, bears some resemblance to Cruz’s 2013 push to “defund Obamacare,” which forced a government shutdown (and failed to end Obamacare) but helped Cruz position himself as a staunch opponent of the health care law ahead of the 2016 GOP primary contest.
Senior Republicans say either approach presents risks.
The risk for Cotton is alienating the president’s legions of supporters, many of whom remain convinced the election was stolen. Trump advisers privately said they were miffed by Cotton’s move, and Trump retaliated with a Monday tweet warning the senator that Republicans “NEVER FORGET!”
“Primary voters are always looking for fighters. And they have long felt that there was voter fraud in elections,” said former Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, who faced off against Trump in the 2016 GOP nomination contest. “So I do think that it will have an impact in future primaries.”
Hawley, meanwhile, has antagonized Republican leaders who pleaded with senators not to take the inevitably doomed step of trying to subvert the election. Republicans were rankled last week when Hawley skipped out on a Senate GOP conference call, which Majority Leader Mitch McConnell had attempted to use to get Hawley to explain his plans.
Former Sen. John Danforth, a Missouri political fixture who helped Hawley secure the Republican nomination in the 2018 Senate race, delivered a stinging rebuke of his protégé on Monday. “Lending credence to Trump’s false claim that the election was stolen is a highly destructive attack on our constitutional government,” Danforth declared in a statement.
But some Republicans see a potential upside for Hawley as he positions himself for a future primary. The Missourian is defining himself as an anti-establishment figure, which could pay dividends with grassroots conservative activists and small donors. Should he run for president in 2024, Hawley would likely face competition from similarly positioned candidates like Cruz or Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul.
Hawley’s maneuver could also keep him in Trump’s good graces. The soon-to-be-former president is widely expected to take on a powerbroker-type role once he leaves the White House.
Trump’s “endorsement or criticism could make or break candidates over the next two to four years, given his popularity within the primary electorate,” said Mike DuHaime, who steered ex-New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie’s 2016 presidential bid. “His strength is still high now. While it will diminish over time when he is no longer president, he will still be very influential within the Republican primary.”
Cotton’s decision could help him make inroads with mainstream Republicans who are repulsed by Trump’s quest to overturn the election. While Cotton has ingratiated himself with the president, he has also been privately courting the party’s set of establishment donors. The Arkansas senator has drawn fundraising support from billionaire investment banker Paul Singer, who opposed Trump’s nomination in 2016.
The shadow duel between Hawley and Cotton has drawn attention from senior Republicans, who regard the two as ready-made rivals. Cotton is a 43-year-old Harvard Law School graduate who clerked on the United States Court of Appeals; Hawley is a 41-year-old Yale Law School-educated former U.S. Supreme Court clerk.
Cotton’s announcement “will resonate with a lot of traditional Republicans, just as the Hawley statement will register with Trump voters. It just depends what side of this you’re on,” Chen said.
Others — including some would-be Republican presidential candidates who aren’t in Congress and don’t have to vote — are trying to duck out of the Electoral College debate entirely. There is little to be gained, some in the party argue, by engaging forcefully either way. Speaking out against the Electoral College objection means risking Trump’s wrath. Joining the fight against certification means taking the unprecedented step of trying to subvert the results of an election.
Pence, who finds himself in the painful position of having to preside over the certification of Biden’s victory, has been particularly circumspect. Pence has come under pressure from the president, who has retweeted a message calling on the vice president to “act” and stop the finalization of the results. On Monday, Trump squeezed Pence again at a rally in Georgia before the state’s Senate runoffs.
“I hope Mike Pence comes through for us,” Trump said, adding: “Of course, if he doesn’t come through, I won’t like him quite as much.”