WASHINGTON (AP) — An Iowa Democrat’s quest for Congress to overturn her state-certified defeat for a House seat is prompting awkward divisions within her party, months after its members reacted with uniform fury at Donald Trump’s unfounded drive to reverse his presidential election loss.
Democrat Rita Hart, the loser by an excruciatingly tight six votes, says she’s found 22 uncounted ballots that would make her the victor over Republican Mariannette Miller-Meeks, who took office in January. Hart has brought her case to the House Administration Committee, which has been collecting briefs, and both sides have lawyered up for a dispute that could smolder into summer.
The Democratic-run House could make the final decision. But with the party still seething over Trump’s brazen attempt to have Congress overturn state-certified election results he didn’t like, at least six Democrats have publicly expressed qualms about doing the same to Miller-Meeks.
Those dissidents are quietly supported by others, say several Democrats speaking on condition of anonymity to describe private conversations, suggesting that Hart's effort could fail.
“Legislators should be heeding states’ certifications of their elections,” Rep. Susan Wild, D-Pa., said in a statement. Without evidence of “rampant error,” she said, “I do not believe it is the role of House members to dictate the outcome of elections.”
There’s still time for uneasy Democrats to change their minds, but House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., is a renowned vote counter with little tolerance for embarrassing defeats. Republicans oppose the effort, savaging it as an attempt to ignore voters — a point few GOP lawmakers raised during Trump’s unjustified fight to invalidate certified votes and hang onto his presidency.
This leaves Democrats torn between seating Hart and adding a smidgen of breathing room to their precipitous 219-211 majority — with five vacancies -- or rejecting her claim and avoiding accusations of a hypocritical power play.
“For Democrats to somehow change their tune in a matter of weeks over how sacrosanct an election certificate is is the height of hypocrisy,” said Illinois Rep. Rodney Davis, top Republican on the House Administration panel.
Davis and Miller-Meeks were among the minority of House Republicans who voted against Trump’s groundless effort to invalidate Electoral College votes won by now- President Joe Biden. Those roll calls occurred hours after Trump supporters’ tried disrupting that process with the Jan. 6 attack on the Capitol, which left five people dead.
Pelosi has said “there could be a scenario” in which Hart would win the seat. Democrats say Trump’s allegations of widespread election fraud were fiction while their assertions about uncounted Iowa ballots for Hart, which are accompanied by voters’ affidavits, are solid.
“For them to call anybody hypocritical about elections” when well over half of House Republicans “voted against accepting the presidency of Joe Biden is, well, it’s just who they are,” Pelosi scoffed recently on ABC News’ “This Week with George Stephanopoulos.”
The Constitution gives each chamber of Congress the final power to judge the “elections and returns” of its members.
Hart’s request triggered the 1969 Federal Contested Elections Act, which gives the House wide latitude for investigating and determining which ballots can be counted, decisions that needn’t follow state laws. That statute places the burden of proof on the candidate challenging the results.
Challengers face long odds. Of 107 contested elections the House considered from 1933 to 2009, the overwhelming majority were dismissed, the nonpartisan Congressional Research Service has found. Its 2010 report said the House seated at least three challengers and declared at least one vacancy.
The committee has set no deadline for deciding the Iowa dispute. Hart counsel Marc Elias, who led Democrats’ national legal effort to uphold Biden’s presidential victory, has proposed a mid-July target.
Miller-Meeks initially won her southeastern Iowa seat, vacated by retiring Democratic Rep. Dave Loebsack, by 47 votes.
A recount demanded by Hart narrowed that advantage to six, 196,964 to 196,958, the slimmest House victory in nearly four decades. A state canvassing board of three Republicans and two Democrats unanimously certified that result Nov. 30.
Under Iowa law, Hart had until Dec. 2 to request state courts to examine the results further and rule on the winner by Dec. 8. Her campaign surprised observers when it opted to bring her case directly to the House.
Hart's campaign has said that tight deadline allowed no time to review the votes, including the 22 uncounted ones, of which they say 18 were cast for her. Miller-Meeks says Hart thinks she has a better chance of prevailing in the Democratic-run House.
“Everybody should be outraged about this,” Miller-Meeks said Tuesday on Fox News, suggesting that Democrats could next target “another congressional seat in another year.”
Miller-Meeks has had three Iowa attorneys working for her. House Administration panel Republicans have hired Don McGahn, Trump's former White House counsel, as an adviser.
Elias wants the committee to order a uniform hand recount of all votes, including the 22 located by the campaign. Those 22 ballots include some that were located too late to be counted, were considered improperly sealed or had other issues.
“All members of Congress, Democrats and Republicans, will want to make sure that the will of the people is followed,” Elias told reporters.
Besides Wild, other Democrats to express reluctance about unseating Miller-Meeks are Reps. Lou Correa of California, Josh Gottheimer of New Jersey, Dan Kildee of Michigan, Chris Pappas of New Hampshire and Dean Phillips of Minnesota.
A six-vote loss is painful for Democrats “but overturning it in the House would be even more painful for America,” Phillips tweeted this week. “Just because a majority can, does not mean a majority should.”
Republicans have gone on offense. Recently, nine of the 10 House Republicans who backed January’s House impeachment of Trump over the Jan. 6 insurrection wrote to Pelosi that Trump’s attempt to reverse his election defeat “led to horrific violence.” They said overturning Miller-Meeks’ victory would be “illegitimate and further erode” trust in elections.
In 1984, Indiana Republican Richard McIntyre narrowly defeated Democratic Rep. Frank McCloskey. When McCloskey challenged the result, the House Administration Committee ordered a recount that McCloskey won by four votes.
AP reporter Ryan J. Foley reported from Iowa City, Iowa.