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18 December 2020

Republican senators have finally congratulated Joe Biden – but it’s too little, too late

Even now, most of Donald Trump’s supporters still believe the president-elect “stole” the election. 

By Emily Tamkin

On 14 December, Joe Biden officially became the 46th president-elect of the United States. The electoral college met and cast 306 votes in his favour. In a twist, this was the same number won by Donald Trump in 2016, and which his team hailed at the time as a “historic” victory and a “blowout”. 

Republican senators have finally formally recognised Biden’s win, but only after leaving it to the courts to decide that Trump’s claims of electoral fraud were baseless – rather than doing it themselves – and after remaining silent while the president’s team blasted state and local election officials for allegedly mishandling the election.

“Our country has officially a president-elect and a vice president-elect,” the Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell said.

McConnell also asked Senate colleagues to avoid shenanigans – namely, challenging the electors’ votes – when Congress meets on 6 January to ratify the election. He reportedly warned that if anyone objected to the election results, Republican senators would have to vote down the objection, which would make them look as though they were voting against Trump. And appearing to vote against Trump, risking his anger as well as that of his supporters, is not something most Republican senators want to do. 

His number two in the Senate, the majority whip John Thune, said that “in the end at some point you have to face the music. And I think that once the electoral college settles the issue today, it’s time for everybody to move on.” Shelley Moore Capito, a senator from West Virginia, echoed this, saying: “It’s time to turn the page and begin a new administration.”

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Speaking earlier this week, the Republican Senator for Texas John Cornyn added that “while it’s no fun to lose”, since the electoral college had voted for Biden, he believed Republicans’ “hands are tied”. 

Even the Russian President Vladimir Putin, whom Biden has called a “thug” and who said he would hold off congratulating Biden until “legal procedures” were resolved, came out and wished “the president-elect every success”.

But the potential threat to the legitimacy of Biden’s presidency does not vanish here. At least one congressman, Mo Brooks, a member of the House from Alabama, is still planning on trying to convince Congress to overturn the result of the election. If another senator joins Brooks in this quest, Congress will debate the matter and then vote on whether or not to disregard a state’s submission. It is not yet known whether any member of the Senate will do so.

Either way, the United States is not out of the electoral woods. McConnell may be in control of his party in the Senate. But Trump, after McConnell made his statement, tweeted that the Republican Party needs to learn how to fight (though he did not specify for what), that it is “too soon to give up” and that “people are angry”. McConnell allowed Trump to spread rumours and lies for weeks, without contradiction from Senate leadership in his own party. 

The Biden presidency will almost certainly face a backlash because of it; millions of Americans may not believe he is the legitimately elected president. Some 68 per cent of Republicans believe the election was stolen, according to a Fox News poll, which also found 77 per cent of those who actively voted for the president thought he won. According to a CBS poll, that number is even higher: 82 per cent of Trump voters believe the election was illegitimate, and almost half believe that, regardless of what the electoral college had to say, Trump should refuse to concede. 

The way Republican senators handled – or failed to handle – Trump’s lies appears to have led people to continue to believe the election result cannot be trusted, which will very likely have an impact on the extent to which Biden is able to govern. Whether the tepid approach of McConnell and his fellow Republicans towards Trump’s tactics have consequences for their own party, too, will also become apparent in 2021.

[See also: How Donald Trump’s self-interest could hurt Republicans in Georgia]