As Democrats plot to overturn Iowa result, it’s déjà vu all over again

Pelosi dusts off Tip O’Neill playbook in attempt to unseat Rep. Mariannette Miller-Meeks

Many Democrats fail to see the irony of rejecting the certified victory of Rep. Mariannette Miller-Meeks while crying foul over GOP objections to certain states’ certified presidential results, Winston writes.  (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photo)
Many Democrats fail to see the irony of rejecting the certified victory of Rep. Mariannette Miller-Meeks while crying foul over GOP objections to certain states’ certified presidential results, Winston writes. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photo)
Posted March 24, 2021 at 6:00am

For me, the Democrats’ current attempt to oust Mariannette Miller-Meeks, the duly elected and certified Republican congresswoman from Iowa’s 2nd District, isn’t your garden variety power grab. It’s déjà vu all over again. 

During the 1984 election cycle, I was an opposition researcher at the National Republican Congressional Committee when House Democrats, led by Speaker Tip O’Neill and Majority Leader Jim Wright, conspired to steal the seat of what became known as Indiana’s Bloody 8th District from the duly elected and certified Republican winner, Rick McIntyre.

Indiana’s 8th was one of the races in my researcher portfolio that year, so the seating of Democratic incumbent Frank McCloskey in defiance of the state’s certification of McIntyre is still vivid not just for me but for many Republicans who saw it as nothing less than a brazen power grab that disenfranchised thousands of voters.  

But it worked. McCloskey was seated on a mostly party-line vote. Mission accomplished.

What Democrats didn’t anticipate was the effect this indefensible abuse of power would have not only on congressional Republicans but eventually voters across the country. O’Neill’s decision to disenfranchise the voters of Indiana’s 8th District poisoned House collegiality and saw the rise of Newt Gingrich and the Democrats’ loss of the House in 1994, ushering in the first Republican majority in 40 years. So maybe the moral of the story is, “Be careful what you wish for.”

The Democrats’ power move did something else. It was the fight over Indiana’s 8th that first planted the bitter seeds that have given us the destructive partisanship now driving politics in America, and especially on Capitol Hill. It has given us one acrimonious Supreme Court nomination after another, with each one growing pettier and more personal.

The country has paid a steep price for the Democrats’ destabilizing decision to overturn an election at a time when their party held a 70-seat majority. It sent the country down the path of heightened partisanship that has escalated to this day.

Opening the gates

So what should Iowa voters expect when Nancy Pelosi’s nine-seat majority after the 2020 election meant that the Democratic majority on any vote could be upended by 5 switches? We know the answer. Reach back into the old playbook for Indiana’s 8th, and dust off the “rule” that says when Democrats are in the majority, even by a razor-thin margin, the House is empowered to supersede the will of the people when it is politically necessary. Translation: when Speaker Pelosi’s power is threatened.

In the 1984 election, McIntyre won by 34 votes after several reviews of the count and certification by the state of Indiana. McCloskey objected. In 1985, O’Neill conjured up a three-person recount task force made up of two Democratic House members and one Republican, chaired by Leon Panetta. Democrats on the task force stopped their recount when McCloskey took the lead by four votes and the Democratic-controlled House promptly seated him. So much for free and fair elections.

In 2020, Miller-Meeks won Iowa’s 2nd District by six votes after the final recount and certification by the state’s bipartisan canvassing board. Her opponent, Democrat Rita Hart, opted to leapfrog the Iowa courts knowing that she didn’t have a winning case, admitting, “There was only one way that we could get the result that we need, and that is to take this to the Committee on House Administration.”

Thanks to Pelosi, Hart got the sympathetic welcome she wanted. Pelosi put the reliably partisan Zoe Lofgren, chair of the House Administration Committee, in charge of Hart’s request for the chamber to overturn the election, kick Miller-Meeks to the curb and seat Hart instead. Pelosi ignored the criticism that erupted both in Iowa and D.C., declaring imperiously, “The House decides who it will seat.” What happened to that “by the people” thing?

That isn’t likely to sit well in Iowa, where even The Des Moines Register editorial board, hardly known for its conservatism, has called on Hart to concede, arguing that “Iowa doesn’t need more partisan bile infecting its politics.” It went on to say, “All Iowans should welcome Miller-Meeks as a new member of Iowa’s congressional delegation.”

For thee but not for me

But has the question of fairness even been a part of Pelosi’s deliberations on the fate of Iowa’s 2nd District? Or is everything on the table when her majority is at stake, even overturning an election?  

Democrats fail to see the irony of their speaker and her lieutenants, who cried foul in December when some Republicans objected to the Electoral College state certifications of Joe Biden as the next president, now claiming the right to overturn the state certification of Miller-Meeks in Iowa.  

Back then, refusing to accept state-certified election results was called unpatriotic and worse. Earlier this month, Lofgren actually issued a 2,000-page “review” of the social media posts of members who objected to the Electoral College certification or, as she put it, those “who voted to overturn the 2020 presidential election.” Maybe she forgot that members of her own party registered similar objections after the 2004 and 2016 presidential elections.  

Public outcry and Republican outrage notwithstanding, it may be up to a few centrist Democrats, who understand what happened after the debacle in Indiana’s 8th, to save their party from itself by voting to defend the long-standing role of states to certify elections at every level. For those supporting HR 1, they might consider that a party so easily willing to overturn an election is not the party to “reform” our election system.

The controversy in Iowa’s 2nd shouldn’t be a controversy at all. The rules were followed. Miller-Meeks won fairly, was seated and was sworn in by Pelosi herself, and that’s where she should remain.

The Des Moines Register editorial board acknowledged its policy disagreements with Miller-Meeks but said she “has shown herself to be smart, hardworking and thoughtful, and we believe she will serve Iowans well.” This 24-year Army veteran, doctor and public health expert will do exactly that but only if Pelosi respects the voters of Iowa’s 2nd and puts Tip O’Neill’s playbook back on the shelf.  

The day after the vote to seat McCloskey, Dan Balz wrote in The Washington Post that “Democrats have predicted that most House Republicans will forget the episode quickly and move on to such pressing issues as the budget.”

He went on to quote Rep. Olympia Snowe, R-Maine: “I don’t think the Democrats should rest on the idea that it ends today. If anything, it’s just beginning.”

It was.

David Winston is the president of The Winston Group and a longtime adviser to congressional Republicans. He previously served as the director of planning for Speaker Newt Gingrich. He advises Fortune 100 companies, foundations, and nonprofit organizations on strategic planning and public policy issues, as well as an election analyst for CBS News.