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What Josh Hawley's Electoral College objection really means for Republicans

CNN logo CNN 12/30/2020 Analysis by Chris Cillizza, CNN Editor-at-large
Donald Trump wearing a suit and tie: WASHINGTON, DC - NOVEMBER 20: U.S. President Donald Trump speaks to the press in the James Brady Press Briefing Room at the White House on November 20, 2020 in Washington, DC. U.S. President Donald Trump held his first press conference in over a week to make an announcement on prescription drug prices as he continues to challenge the results of the 2020 Presidential election. (Photo by Tasos Katopodis/Getty Images) © Tasos Katopodis/Getty Images WASHINGTON, DC - NOVEMBER 20: U.S. President Donald Trump speaks to the press in the James Brady Press Briefing Room at the White House on November 20, 2020 in Washington, DC. U.S. President Donald Trump held his first press conference in over a week to make an announcement on prescription drug prices as he continues to challenge the results of the 2020 Presidential election. (Photo by Tasos Katopodis/Getty Images)

Missouri Republican Sen. Josh Hawley's announcement Wednesday that he will formally object to the Electoral College results will trigger an existential choice -- in the form of a vote on the House and Senate floors -- for Republicans: Do you stand with President Donald Trump's wild falsehoods about the 2020 election or do you take the side of facts?

"I cannot vote to certify the Electoral College results on January 6 without raising the fact that some states, particularly Pennsylvania, failed to follow their own state election laws," Hawley said in announcing his decision. "At the very least, Congress should investigate allegations of voter fraud and adopt measures to secure the integrity of our elections. But Congress has so far failed to act."

Hawley is the first senator to formally object to the results, in which President-elect Joe Biden defeated Trump with 306 electoral votes to 232. Hawley joins Rep. Mo Brooks, an Alabama Republican, in his plans to object, which means that there will be a formal debate in both chambers about the debunked claims made by Trump and his allies regarding widespread voter irregularities and fraud in the election. And then, following that debate, there will be a vote.

This is a disaster for Republican leaders on both sides of the Capitol.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky has been desperately trying to defuse the rhetorical bombs being thrown by Trump on his way out of office -- the latest being the President's demand that $600 stimulus checks be increased to $2,000 -- in hopes of protecting his vulnerable incumbents up in 2022 from difficult votes that could come back to haunt them in a primary or a general election.

"What Hawley will have accomplished is put a big target on back of Senate Rs, similar to 2010-14 era," tweeted The Washington Post's senior congressional correspondent Paul Kane. "Lots of Rs up in '22 (Blunt, Portman, Grassley, Hoeven, Thune, Young, Lankford) now could face MAGA primary challenges unless they vote w/ Trump, against their own beliefs."

That's exactly right. Trump has already been very outspoken in his disappointment with Republican senators who he doesn't believe have been supportive enough of his attempts to overturn the election.

"Our leaders (not me, of course!) are pathetic" he tweeted on Tuesday. "They only know how to lose! P.S. I got MANY Senators and Congressmen/Congresswomen Elected. I do believe they forgot!"


Video: GOP lawmaker: This is why Trump continues election rhetoric (CNN)

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Given that positioning, is there any doubt that Trump will cast this vote on the Electoral College as a pure loyalty test for every single Republican senator and House member? And will seek to punish those who vote against him?

You only need to look as far as Georgia's Brian Kemp for the answer.

Kemp was (and is!) a stalwart supporter of Trump, who the President praised in November 2018 as someone who has "been successful all the way up the line" and would "bring it to heights you wouldn't believe."

But Kemp's refusal to bend -- or even break -- state election law to overturn Biden's win in the state has meant that he has become persona non grata for Trump. The President has actively encouraged a primary challenge -- in the form of Rep. Doug Collins (R) -- to Kemp in 2022 and on Wednesday went as far as to call for Kemp's resignation.

Every single elected Republican in Washington has seen what Trump has done to Kemp. (And what Trump did to former Arizona Sen. Jeff Flake and soon-to-be former Michigan Rep. Justin Amash.) And not one of them wants to join that ignominious hit list.

Which is why they have spent the weeks following the election ducking reporters' questions about Trump's fact-free and increasingly erratic claims about the 2020 election. Or mumbling something about how the President has every right to have his legal complaints heard. (Trump and his team have lost 59 of the 60 election cases they have brought, according to The New York Times.)

But Hawley's announcement on Wednesday means that there will be no more escape routes for any Republican in the House or Senate. There will be a vote on whether or not to affirm the Electoral College vote count.

(Sidebar: What's Hawley's motivation here? Presidential ambition, plain and simple. He's had his eye on running for president since he was elected to the Senate in 2018, and this move is a totally transparent play to appeal to both Trump and the Trump base.)

And it's a vote where both the facts and the stakes are clear.

The facts are these: Despite ample time since November 3 to find proof of voter fraud and widespread wrongdoing, Trump and his legal team have uncovered absolutely nothing other than wild conspiracy theories that simply don't hold up under even the most basic scrutiny.

The stakes are these: If Republicans in the House and Senate don't vote to affirm the Electoral College results -- given the utter lack of any facts that suggest there was anything close to the fraud Trump is alleging -- they will fundamentally undermine the idea that the vote is sacred and that the peaceful transition of power is sacrosanct.

If Republicans choose Trump over country, it's not the sort of thing you can just undo. Nor is the damage such a vote would do something that can be fixed.

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