The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

He was prepared to kill Jan. 6 rioters. Now MAGA voters may give him a Senate seat

Two close Republican friends saw their careers go different ways after the Jan. 6 attack on the Capitol

House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) talks to Rep. Markwayne Mullin (R-Okla.) on Jan. 6, 2021 in Washington. (Katherine Frey/The Washington Post)
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After helping police barricade the doors at the back of the House chamber, Rep. Markwayne Mullin (R-Okla.) saw the commotion at another door as an officer pulled out his gun to warn rioters not to break in.

Mullin prepared for battle.

“If they breach that door, we’re going to engage them really quick and that engagement would be whatever it took to stop them,” the conservative lawmaker recalled in an interview two months after the Jan. 6, 2021, attack. “And I know I was prepared.”

After that attack, Mullin’s colleague Rep. Rodney Davis (R-Ill.) voted to certify Joe Biden’s victory over Donald Trump, then introduced legislation to create an independent commission to investigate the attacks.

On Tuesday, Republican voters in central Illinois punished Davis for his transgressions against Trump in the primary election. In Oklahoma, GOP voters rewarded Mullin by giving him the top slot in the initial ballot for the nomination to the Senate, the clear favorite in the Aug. 23 runoff in the Trump-loving state.

One just wanted an independent investigation into the insurrection; the other actually looked through broken glass and threatened to kill one of the rioters.

Davis’s political career, for now at least, is over. Mullin, however, seems poised to become a conservative star in the more rarefied air of the Senate. Both Republicans declined offers to discuss their careers and GOP politics in the post-Jan. 6 world.

Friends since they entered Congress together a decade ago, Davis and Mullin form a case study in how image, not necessarily actual votes and action, increasingly determine political outcomes — particularly in Republican primaries.

How voters perceived both lawmakers’ reaction to the Capitol attack might have determined their political fates.

To be sure, Mullin has been more conservative, representing rural eastern Oklahoma while Davis’s original district was a battleground. Davis has a lifetime rating of 53 percent from the American Conservative Union, while Mullin received 83 percent over that same time.

But Mullin is not a fire-breathing right-winger: His 79 percent rating in 2021 ranks just below the 82 percent mark for the average House Republican.

He presents, however, as a man ready to do battle with liberal enemies. Built like an NFL linebacker, Mullin, 44, won a wrestling scholarship to Missouri Valley College and dabbled in pro mixed martial arts competitions. An enrolled member of the Cherokee nation, he left college to take over his family’s plumbing company and became wildly successful with several spinoff business, including a steakhouse.

For almost 10 years he has run a workout group each morning the House is in session, popular with Republicans and Democrats alike.

While his official biography makes no mention of the military, Mullin hinted at having some sort of intelligence training. He sat for a nearly 30-minute oral history of the Capitol attack in March 2021, explaining that his background allowed him to recognize early “something was happening” based off movements by Capitol Police.

“I’ve been in these situations before,” he said, referencing “overseas” work, declining to explain further. “I would prefer not.”

Davis, 52, is a more traditional lawmaker. He still lives in Taylorville, where he grew up ― less than 30 miles southeast of the state Capitol in Springfield and for 16 years ran the district office of a longtime congressman, John Shimkus. New district lines in 2012, combined with an incumbent’s sudden retirement, allowed local party officials to choose Davis as their nominee in a different district.

After a few close calls in elections, Davis became a close ally of House leaders and became the top Republican on the House Administration Committee — a normally quiet outpost where top members gain chits with colleagues by getting them better offices or parking spaces.

But the insurrection thrust that committee, with its oversight of Capitol security and election laws, into a spotlight it had never seen. Davis’s initial work with Democrats, including being one of 35 Republicans to vote for an independent Jan. 6 commission, gave way to a more partisan posture when the commission proposal died in the Senate.

House Democrats voted to create a select Jan. 6 committee, and House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) picked Davis and four others to be seated on it. But when Democrats blocked two staunch conservatives from serving, McCarthy pulled all his members.

In the meantime, Democrats in Illinois gerrymandered new district lines and thrust Davis into a primary with Rep. Mary E. Miller (R-Ill.), a fiery pro-Trump conservative who won her first congressional race two years ago.

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With no visible perch on the select committee to defend Trump, Davis tried other ways to appeal to conservatives. He promised to investigate the investigators, using his Administration Committee to probe the select committee.

The new look did not fit Davis, an amiable lawmaker who counts Democrats as some of his closest friends. Miller won Tuesday by more than 15 percentage points.

Mullin had no such worries about how voters viewed his connection to Trump.

When the dust settled on Jan. 6 and the House reconvened, he stood with 138 other Republicans to oppose certifying Biden’s victory.

Last August, Biden administration officials blocked his attempt to sneak into Afghanistan to rescue stranded citizens on a helicopter mission with tens of thousands of dollars in cash. So when Sen. James M. Inhofe (R-Okla.) announced earlier this year that he would resign in December, Mullin jumped into the crowded race as a new conservative icon.

Six weeks before Tuesday’s initial vote, Mullin introduced legislation to expunge the House’s impeachment vote against Trump one week after his supporters stormed the Capitol.

He won almost 44 percent, more than 90,000 ballots ahead of the former state House speaker, who he will face in the August runoff.

“We’re not even close to being done,” Mullin told supporters in Tulsa. “In fact, the real fight starts tomorrow.”

Yet the closest Mullin has come to a real public fight came in the House chamber almost 18 months ago.

No lawmaker did more than Mullin to hold back the Trump-supporting rioters, risking his own safety at times. He helped police pull a desk and other furniture in front of the back door and stood there yelling at the insurrectionists after they shattered windows and prompted police to draw weapons fearing shots had been fired.

“You almost died,” Mullin recalled telling a rioter, in the C-SPAN interview. “Is it worth it?”

Another agitator spoke up, and the lawmaker said he threatened to kill him: “I’d put you down.”

When the rioter said it was their House, Mullin responded: “It’s our House, too, and we’re not going to let you come in.”

Other Trump-aligned Republicans have hailed Ashli Babbitt as a martyr, after a policeman shot her when she tried to climb through a window that would have put her steps from the House floor.

How Ashli Babbitt went from Capitol rioter to Trump-embraced ‘martyr’

Not Mullin, who believed the officer’s decision saved lives. He walked over to the officer and hugged him.

“Sir, you did what you had to do,” Mullin recalled saying in the C-SPAN interview. “And I mean that.”

As other lawmakers raced to a secure location through the Capitol basement, Mullin went to the police “triage center” and shook 50 hands in a scene that looked like “stuff you see overseas.”

“Broken noses, busted-up faces, broken arms, busted heads,” he said.

Mullin described the police as “absolutely heroes” for fighting hand-to-hand combat and only firing a single shot that day.

“It could have been so much worse,” he said, concluding his C-SPAN oral history.

Despite their different career arcs, Davis and Mullin still have nothing but public praise for the ex-president.

“I’d like to congratulate Congresswoman Miller and President Trump on their victory tonight. This was a hard-fought campaign,” Davis said in a statement Tuesday.

And, as he explained in his new legislation, Mullin wants to wipe Trump’s record clean from the attack.

“This resolution will expunge this second impeachment, hereby clearing the name of Donald J. Trump as history tells it,” he said.