The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

They rallied in D.C. on Jan. 6. Now they’ll join Congress.

Some Democrats say they are concerned by the election wins of Derrick Van Orden and George Santos

Wisconsin 3rd District congressman-elect Derrick Van Orden is one of two newly elected House members who were at the Jan. 6, 2021, rally in Washington, though he says he did not participate in the riot that happened at the U.S. Capitol. (Peter Thomson/La Crosse Tribune/AP)

As Republican Derrick Van Orden celebrated his victory with raucous supporters Tuesday night, he vowed to work with the Democrat he’d just defeated in a House race in western Wisconsin, saying, “We have to get back to a place where we represent everyone.”

That bipartisan message was all the more remarkable given the journey that Van Orden has taken to Congress.

Van Orden was at President Donald Trump’s “Save America” rally on Jan. 6, 2021, and then joined the crowd that marched down the Mall toward the Capitol, saying in a television interview that “I went there to stand with them, to stand up for electoral integrity.”

Van Orden said he never entered the Capitol, which was ransacked that day by a pro-Trump mob seeking to overturn the results of the 2020 election. But in two months, he will do so as one of at least two Jan. 6 rally attendees turned congressmen. The other, George Santos — a New York Republican who won in a district in Queens and Long Island — has described enjoying the “front-row spectacle” of an “amazing” Jan. 6 rally crowd on the Ellipse.

Tracking which 2020 election deniers are winning, losing in the midterms

While the Republican Party suffered surprising losses in the midterms, including defeats of many who bought into Trump’s false election claims, the arrival of freshman lawmakers who had come to Washington as pro-Trump activists on that violent day underscores the extent to which the House Republican caucus remains a haven for election deniers. As of Saturday, at least 150 election deniers were projected to win House races, compared with the 139 who voted against certifying President Biden’s election on Jan. 6, 2021.

Van Orden and Santos stand out because of their presence at Jan. 6 events and subsequent election victories, which Rep. Pramila Jayapal (D-Wash.) called “horrific and bone-chilling.”

“It is very difficult to serve with people who took part in any way, shape or form in what happened on Jan. 6,” said Jayapal, who was trapped in a House gallery with several dozen other members when rioters tried to enter the chamber. “There’s a very physical reaction for many of us who were trapped there and who went through a lot of traumatic experiences.”

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Van Orden and Santos declined a request from The Washington Post to discuss their actions on Jan. 6.

Rep. Ron Kind, a Wisconsin Democrat who did not seek reelection this year in the district where Van Orden prevailed over Democrat Brad Pfaff, doubted Van Orden’s pledge to be bipartisan.

“His worldview of things is that Democrats are the enemy that needs to be fought and contest[ed] every step of the way,” Kind said. “He will not be interested in working with Democrats.”

Others noted that the House already includes dozens of Republicans who voted against certifying Biden’s election on Jan. 6 while echoing Trump’s falsehoods, further complicating hopes of comity.

“If they want to get anything done, with a small majority in Congress, you have to have bipartisan efforts,” said Rep. John Katko, a New York Republican who voted to impeach Trump over the insurrection and did not seek reelection.

In interviews, outgoing GOP Reps. Tom Rice (S.C.) and Fred Upton (Mich.) defended their votes to impeach former president Donald Trump after the Capitol attack. (Video: JM Rieger/The Washington Post)

Rep. Tom Rice (R-S.C.), who lost his primary after voting to impeach Trump, faulted other Republicans who blocked impeachment and voted against certifying Biden’s election.

“There’s a whole lot of folks in Congress, not just people who are coming,” who bear responsibility for not holding Trump accountable, he said. That, in turn, led to Republicans underperforming in this year’s midterm elections, he said.

Neither Van Orden nor Santos has spoken in depth on the campaign trail about their actions on Jan. 6.

Van Orden, a former Navy SEAL with tours in Iraq and Afghanistan, has described how his service imprinted on him the importance of democracy, telling a podcast that watching Iraqis vote for the first time “made me more proud as an American and as a SEAL than I’ve really ever been.” He is the author of “Book of Man: A Navy SEAL’s Guide to the Lost Art of Manhood.”

Van Orden said he got into politics in 2019 after Kind did not respond to his email asking the congressman’s position in Trump’s first impeachment trial. (Kind said his office responds to every email.)

After Kind beat Van Orden in 2020 — the result was 51.3 percent to 48.7 percent — Van Orden followed some in his party who suggested Trump may have lost due to fraud.

Four days after the election, Van Orden tweeted, “There is plenty of anecdotal evidence pointing to voter fraud in key states. Hold Fast.” On Nov. 12, 2020, he tweeted about a Trump-backed Wisconsin recount effort: “Every legal vote needs to be counted. We are a Constitutional Republic, not a Banana Republic.” Van Orden did later ask that his name be removed from a lawsuit seeking to overturn Biden’s victory in Wisconsin, tweeting on Dec. 1, 2020, that it was added without his permission.

Van Orden has also tweeted that Democrats are using the same techniques that have “been used historically by the most oppressive and criminal regimes in world history,” and more recently said that while “there are many God-fearing Christians who are Democrats, there’s not a single God-fearing Christian that is a leftist.”

On Jan. 4, 2021, wearing a red-and-blue tie, white shirt and dark suit, Van Orden filmed himself in D.C. walking to the Capitol. “We’re here to support voter integrity” he said in a video. On Jan. 6, he arrived late for Trump’s “Save America” rally on the Ellipse, his attorney later told the Federal Election Commission, and stayed on the “periphery” of the crowd. When the crowd, urged on by Trump to stop Congress from certifying Biden’s victory, began marching to the Capitol, Van Orden “decided to walk down the mall to the Capitol and wait for people to march there,” he wrote in an op-ed.

As thousands streamed toward the Capitol, Van Orden wrote, he and two friends “stood on the parapet that lines the perimeter of the grounds.” Van Orden said he left “when it became clear that a protest had become a mob.” He tweeted at 4:35 p.m. to denounce the riots as “unlawful political violence.”

“We never went on the Capitol grounds,” he told News 9 in Wausau, Wis., later that week.

However, a photo published six months later by the Daily Beast shows Van Orden smiling in front of one of the Olmsted Lanterns, which the website of the Architect of the Capitol describes as being on the Capitol grounds. The Daily Beast reported that to get to that site, Van Orden would have had to go beyond police lines. Van Orden has not questioned the authenticity of the photo or that it was taken on Jan. 6. Van Orden did not respond to the Daily Beast’s questions about the trip, the publication said.

Santos, a 34-year-old Wall Street investor who lost a 2020 bid for Congress to Democrat Thomas Suozzi, also went to the Ellipse on Jan. 6 to watch the rally at which Trump falsely said that he had won the election and that he would join protesters marching to Capitol Hill. Santos said on a podcast hosted by Trump’s daughter-in-law, Lara Trump, that it “was the most amazing crowd, and the president was at his full awesomeness that day. It was a front-row spectacle for me. And despite everything everybody says, I think Donald Trump will not go away.”

He said he did not go into the Capitol. Newsday reported he was filmed this year saying he wrote a “nice check to a law firm” to help get rioters out of prison and comparing the actions of those imprisoned to “breaking into your own house and being charged for trespassing.”

On the campaign trail, both Santos and Van Orden avoided discussing Jan. 6. When News 18 in Eau Claire, Wis., last month asked Van Orden about his actions on Jan. 6, he refused to comment, instead highlighting inflation.

Van Orden faced a complaint filed by Wisconsin Democrats with the FEC that alleged he improperly used $4,022.72 in campaign funds in relation to his Jan. 6 trip. His attorney argued that he’d gone to D.C. for political meetings, and that even if Van Orden’s sole purpose was to attend the rally, it would have been a legal use of campaign money. The FEC dismissed the complaint, citing the small amount at stake.

Now, Van Orden and Santos will face colleagues who were inside the Capitol as the rally took place, followed by the deadly riot. Jayapal said she was particularly upset about Santos’s comparison of rioters to someone arrested for breaking into their own house.

“This is actually the people’s house,” she said. “It’s the country itself. This was an insurrection, not forgetting your key and breaking glass to let yourself in.” She said that “writing a check to get people out, saying they didn’t do anything wrong,” was equivalent to condoning the violence that happened that day.

They’ll join a fractured Republican caucus in a House that is poised to have a narrow margin, whichever party ends up in control.

Rep. Susan Wild (D-Pa.), who was among the members in the chamber on Jan. 6, said Van Orden and Santos “are going to find themselves with considerably less muscle power than they thought they might have, given the direction of the election.” She said that “they will be freshman members of Congress with a whole lot of learning to do and I seriously doubt that I’ll have much interaction with them, which is just fine with me.”

Katko said he hopes — whatever their past actions — that they’ll consider joining the consensus-seeking Republican Governance Group that he chaired until recently. Katko, who said he will remain on the board, said that the group has grown from 19 members a few years ago to 46, and that the close election results should swell the ranks further.

“We got a lot of people coming in that would be part of that group, and that’s going to play a very, very, very important role,” Katko said. “You hear a lot about the House Freedom Caucus,” an assemblage of some of the House’s most conservative members, “but the fact of the matter is that the leadership’s going to need to rely on pragmatists to get things done.”

Alice Crites and Marianna Sotomayor contributed to this report.

The 2022 Midterm Elections

Georgia runoff election: Sen. Raphael G. Warnock (D) won re-election in the Georgia Senate runoff, defeating Republican challenger Herschel Walker and giving Democrats a 51st seat in the Senate for the 118th Congress. Get live updates here and runoff results by county.

Divided government: Republicans narrowly won back control of the House, while Democrats will keep control of the Senate, creating a split Congress.

What the results mean for 2024: A Republican Party red wave seems to be a ripple after Republicans fell short in the Senate and narrowly won control in the House. Donald Trump announced his 2024 presidential campaign shortly after the midterms. Here are the top 10 2024 presidential candidates for the Republicans and Democrats.

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