The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Why Josh Hawley is atop the list of GOP lawmakers getting backlash over the Capitol riots

Sen. Josh Hawley (R-Mo.) on Jan. 6 after violent protesters stormed the Capitol. (J. Scott Applewhite/AP)
Placeholder while article actions load

More than 140 congressional Republicans voted not to seat electors President-elect Joe Biden duly won, even after the deadly invasion of the Capitol. One of them, though, has stuck out above the rest for receiving castigation over what happened: Sen. Josh Hawley of Missouri.

Hawley has become a symbol of how far the Republican Party went to stay in the good graces of outgoing President Trump’s supporters. And his critics, both on the left and a growing number in his own party, see Hawley’s positions in particular as dangerous. He’s lost major donors and supporters and a book deal; his home state newspaper said he had “blood on his hands”; thousands of law school alumni and students have pushed for him to be disbarred; and at least one Democratic senator has called on Hawley to resign.

Here’s exactly why Hawley is being singled out.

He was the first senator to sign on to challenge the results

Sen. Josh Hawley (R-Mo.) on Dec. 30 pledged to challenge President-elect Joe Biden's victory next week when Congress convenes to certify the electoral (Video: Reuters)

We knew for weeks before Congress met Jan. 6 that dozens of House Republicans were going to raise objections to states’ electors, based on baseless election fraud claims. But under the law governing this process, those challenges would immediately fall flat without a senator co-challenging the results. With a senator signing on, it halts the process of counting votes and forces the House and Senate to debate and vote on the challenges.

There was never enough support even in the Republican-controlled Senate to sustain these challenges. But Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) had urged his fellow Republicans not to give them more oxygen anyway. The election was over, and it would only force Republican senators into a politically difficult vote to say as much.

Hawley didn’t listen. He announced a week before Congress was to meet that he’d be challenging the results.

His reasoning was disingenuous for two reasons. He said Democratic challenges to electoral results aren’t out of the ordinary — that is true, but only on the House side. It had been 15 years since a Democratic senator challenged results. Her fellow Democrats voted then-Sen. Barbara Boxer (Calif.) down rather than join in. It also didn’t happen in the context of an outgoing president trying to strong-arm his way into staying in power.

Hawley argued that the results in Pennsylvania in particular — perhaps the most crucial swing state Trump lost — were in question because the state changed its voting laws for the pandemic.

Hawley argued that Pennsylvania wasn’t following “its own election laws,” despite the fact that the GOP legislature and Democratic governor agreed to change them. Hawley argued that because Pennsylvania’s top court threw out a challenge to electoral laws early on, there still could be some questions to whether the changes were constitutional.

Many states — blue and red — changed the way they vote as a result of the pandemic. Especially in heavily litigated Pennsylvania, courts upheld those changes. The courts upheld both the new voting procedures in challenges before the election and the results after Trump’s campaign attempted to challenge them. One of the Trump campaign’s most brutal legal flameouts happened in Pennsylvania, at the pen of a conservative judge.

He broke the dam for other Republicans considering presidential runs

Hawley is widely assumed to be running for president in 2024, and he appeared to calculate that hewing closely to Trump was necessary for his future political ambitions.

A few days later, Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Tex.) led 10 other senators in announcing that they would also hold up electoral college results by challenging them.

Would Cruz and others have signed on to the objections without Hawley doing it first? Possibly. Trump was in talks with new Sen. Tommy Tuberville (R-Ala.) to do it. But someone had to be first, and it was Hawley.

After the riot, he doubled down rather than back down like other Republicans

Shaken lawmakers got back together in the Capitol hours after the riot — debris still strewn about and windows still broken — to resume their legal duty to count electoral votes and confirm Biden’s win.

Fourteen senators before the invasion had signaled that they’d support challenges. Afterward, a half-dozen of those changed their minds. And it was Hawley still leading the way. Taking to the Senate floor that Wednesday night, he was unapologetic about questioning election results, despite the fact that McConnell had warned earlier in the day that if the objections overturned results, that would put democracy “in a death spiral.”

“I hope that this body will not miss the opportunity to take affirmative action to address the concerns of so many millions of Americans,” Hawley said when debate finally resumed, explaining why he was protesting Arizona’s results.

What he and others fail to mention, and what became sharply clear after the violence of Wednesday, is that the “concerns” Hawley speaks of didn’t arise because of how the election was carried out. Trump’s own former attorney general said he saw no major issues, and dozens of court challenges affirmed the results. It was Trump’s unfounded claims that the election was stolen, tacitly supported by lawmakers such as Hawley raising questions about how elections were conducted, that drove such “concerns.” They ultimately manifested in a historic breach of democracy.

“You say it and say it and say it and say it,” Biden said in the wake of the attacks, about Senate Republicans’ culpability in getting to this point. “The degree to which it becomes corrosive is in direct proportion to the number of people who say it.”

Hawley wasn’t the first GOP lawmaker, nor will he be the last, to question democratic norms without evidence in the Trump era and post-Trump era. But he made himself the most prominent, and that’s why he’s being singled out.