Rep. Lloyd Smucker (R-PA), a member of the bipartisan Problem Solvers Caucus, speaks at a markup hearing of the Democrats’ Build Back Better Act at the Capitol, Sept. 9, 2021. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite)

Election Denial Is Not a Problem for Bipartisan Caucus

in Sludge
on May 19, 2022

In Pennsylvania this week, Republican primary voters comfortably nominated state Sen. Doug Mastriano for governor, putting forward a far-right denier of the legitimacy of the 2020 presidential election. If he wins this year, the Trump-endorsed Mastriano would likely appoint a secretary of state who would thoroughly undercut the 2024 election process, starting by throwing out all existing voter registrations. 

With his Christian nationalist message and his participation in the “Stop the Steal” protests on Jan. 6, 2021, Mastriano has plenty of allies in Republican contests this year. Politicians who reject that the 2020 election was held soundly and its results were legitimate are running for secretary of state in 19 of the 27 states with elections this year, according to the group States United Action. Counting other statewide offices, at least 163 candidates were running as of the Jan. 6 anniversary who have expressed sympathies with baseless conspiracy theories—tossed out in dozens of court cases nationwide—that the presidential election was stolen. 

The Republican election-denying candidates are certainly reflecting their base. As of January, two-thirds of Republican voters believed the claim that “voter fraud helped Joe Biden,” despite scores of dismissed legal cases and public debunking from Trump’s own former attorney general Bill Barr that the “Big Lie” claims were “bullshit.” 

Several of the Republicans who voted against certifying the election results on January 6 are members of the Problem Solvers Caucus, an evenly-split group of Democrats and Republicans that is one of the most prominent bipartisan organizations of House members. The caucus put out statements last year reaffirming that they endorse the 2020 election results, yet it has not done anything to address its members’ votes against affirming those results based on false election fraud theories.

On the morning of Jan. 6 last year, the bipartisan Problem Solvers Caucus put out a bare-bones press release laying out its principles on elections, calling them “basic, commonsense values regarding our democratic system.” The first principle committed the centrist House caucus to “combating attempts to undermine the will of the American people as expressed through the legitimate results of a democratic election.”

Later that day, though, six Republican House members who are members of the Problem Solvers Caucus voted to sustain objections to the presidential election results from Arizona, Pennsylvania, or both. The six Problem Solvers among the 147 Republican lawmakers voting for challenges to the Electoral College results were Reps. Mike Bost of Illinois, Ben Cline of Virginia, Bill Johnson of Ohio, Dan Meuser of Pennsylvania, Tom Rice of South Carolina, and Lloyd Smucker of Pennsylvania.

The Problem Solvers Caucus, which says it is “on a mission to change the culture of D.C.” and was “organized to get to ‘yes’,” grew last year to 56 members, meaning that one in five of the caucus’ Republican members was a 2020 election objector. Reps. Cline and Rice were new members of the caucus, announced as added to the roster after casting their Jan. 6 votes with the pro-Trump challenges.

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After the melee on Jan. 6, 2021, the caucus’ co-chairs, Democratic Rep. Josh Gottheimer of New Jersey and former Republican Rep. Tom Reed of New York, issued a statement calling the Capitol Building riot an “insurrection,” and saying, “The American people can rest assured that we will finish our work, certify the results of the 2020 election, and ensure a peaceful transition of power.” (Rep. Reed retired last week, facing accusations of sexual misconduct by a former lobbyist, and quickly became a lobbyist with the firm Prime Policy Group.) A week later, the caucus called on President Trump to denounce the Jan. 6 riot. 

In the months after the 2020 election, dozens of legal challenges to the presidential election outcome had been brought and were almost entirely dismissed for lack of evidence or standing, according to a tracker by Democratic election lawyer Marc Elias cited by USA Today. Despite the lack of legal evidence of large-scale election problems, the six GOP reps largely stood by their votes to challenge the outcome.

  • In a statement on Jan. 7 of last year, fourth-term Rep. Bost said the Arizona and Pennsylvania results failed in his view to meet a constitutional standard for fair elections. Bost is a member of the conservative House Republican Study Committee and the Republican Main Street Partnership, which says it seeks to write bipartisan legislation on kitchen-table issues.
  • Second-term Rep. Cline, who had joined an unsuccessful lawsuit brought by Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton, did not initially do anything more to explain his Jan. 6 votes publicly, though he did decry the Jan. 6 violence in social media posts. Cline had been a member of the conservative House Freedom Caucus in the previous Congress.
  • Sixth-term Rep. Bill Johnson’s statement ahead of the Jan. 6 vote invoked allegations that Pennsylvania disregarded its state election laws.
  • In a Jan. 7 statement, second-term Rep. Meuser of Pennyslvania mentioned “unlawful acts” and “inaccurate vote tallies,” even though dozens of judges had dismissed the pro-Trump legal cases. Meuser is also a member of the Republican Study Committee.
  • In December 2021, fifth-term Rep. Tom Rice became the first Republican member to say they regret their vote to sustain the election objections, though his argument to Politico was apparently because Trump bore responsibility for the Capitol Building attack—Rice said the election still had “real issues,” which is not supported by the conclusions of more than 60 election-related lawsuits.
  • About a month after Jan. 6, Rep. Smucker, now in his third term in Congress, wrote in an op-ed that his objections to his state’s Electoral College votes came not from concerns over voter fraud, but rather from “the unconstitutional measures taken by unelected bureaucrats and partisan justices in the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania which have caused millions of our state’s voters to question the election.”

Sludge asked the Problem Solvers Caucus how it reconciles its principles supporting the will of the American people with its six GOP members’ votes on January 6 and the morning after, and did not receive a response. In a May statement, the group supported legislation establishing a commission to investigate the Jan. 6 Capitol Building incursion, though the body has been rejected by Republican House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy.

The current incarnation of the Problem Solvers Caucus was founded in early 2017 by the “dark money” centrist group No Labels, which an investigation in the Daily Beast reported has been funded by Republican megadonors like billionaire Trump supporter John Catsimatidis and hedge fund founder Nelson Peltz. Former Progressive Caucus chair Rep. Mark Pocan of Wisconsin said he was “duped” by No Labels years ago when coming into office, calling it a “corporate organization working against Democrats with dark, anonymous money to advance power for special interests.”

Last year, a group of Problem Solvers played a major role in blocking the Democrats’ sweeping budget reconciliation bill, the Build Back Better Act. Caucus members Reps. Carolyn Bordeaux, Jim Costa, Jared Golden, Vincente Gonzalez, Josh Gottheimer, and Kurt Schrader were among the nine centrist Democrats who called for a legislative pause on the sweeping budget plan, citing concerns over the package’s spending amounts. Problem Solvers co-chairs Reed and Gottheimer, with other caucus members, were also active in campaigning for a tax break that would have overwhelmingly benefited wealthy earners.

One of the items on the Problem Solvers Caucus’ agenda for this Congress is election security, but the spirit of bipartisanship has proven lacking on this front, with House Republicans voting unanimously against the For the People Act in March 2021. The nonpartisan Brennan Center for Justice detailed last year how the bill would have modernized voter registration and addressed election security, which the Problem Solvers Caucus claimed was among its principles. After a vote on the election access and government reform package H.R. 1 was blocked in the Senate, a compromise Freedom to Vote: John R. Lewis Act was passed in the House in January, also with zero Republican votes in favor. That bill, too, was filibustered by Senate Republicans.

It might seem like most members of the Problem Solvers, a caucus of moderate lawmakers seeking consensus, would hail from highly-competitive congressional districts. This perception does not bear out. Among Democrats in the Problem Solvers Caucus, the majority are not in congressional districts that the Cook Political Report rates as competitive this year. Six Democratic reps are in seats rated as toss-ups (Golden, Horsford, Lee, Luria, Slotkin, and Spanberger), while three are in districts favored to go to Republicans (Malinowski, Murphy, and O’Halleran). Blue Dog Kurt Schrader, now on the ropes as primary votes are counted in the Oregon Fifth Congressional District, was running in a district rated as lean-Democrat, while Josh Harder of California’s district has trended to likely Democratic. 

It’s no surprise that the anti-democratic beliefs of Trump’s “Big Lie” are being embraced by more mainstream conservatives. The “Stop the Steal” movement’s organizing groups share some wealthy funders with the “Tea Party” movement of 2009, many of whose vocal supporters claimed that Obama’s presidency was illegitimate because of groundless claims that he was born abroad.

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