WASHINGTON — A year after supporters of former President Donald Trump stormed the U.S. Capitol and clashed with police in a deadly attempt to overturn an election, Northwest lawmakers reflect a deep national rift over the events of Jan. 6, 2021.
Democrats describe the events as an attack not only on Congress, but on the very foundations of American democracy, the culmination of weeks of false claims by Trump and his allies that the vote had been rigged.
“January 6th was a horrifying day for our country — a day we cannot forget or ignore,” Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., said in a statement.
“Americans — our fellow citizens — tried to stop our democratic process with brute force in order to overturn a free and fair election, simply because they did not like the outcome. That is not how democracy works in this country. We use our voices and votes to decide elections, not violence.”
While many Republicans have decried the violence of Jan. 6, they have largely kept quiet as Congress marks the somber anniversary, and have continued to raise doubts about U.S. election systems.
“One year later, it’s important to remember that what happened on January 6th in the nation’s capital was disgraceful and un-American,” Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers, R-Spokane, said in a statement.
“The events of that day also reaffirmed for me the importance of the work we do in the nation’s capital every day to build trust, better relationships, and plow the hard ground to get things done on behalf of the American people,” she said.
Rep. Russ Fulcher, a Republican who represents North Idaho, said in a statement, “The events of Jan. 6, 2021, were wrong and perpetrators should be legally held accountable,” while accusing House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., of using a congressional investigation into the attack for political gain.
While McMorris Rodgers said she believes President Joe Biden was legitimately elected, she added she still has “concerns about election integrity,” a term Republicans have used to lend credence to Trump’s claim that state-level reforms to make voting easier during the COVID-19 pandemic led to massive voter fraud that tilted the election in favor of Biden.
Trump-appointed judges, GOP election officials and numerous audits have found no evidence to support that allegation.
After saying a day earlier she planned to object to the election results, McMorris Rodgers reversed course and voted to certify the results following the Capitol siege.
Some Democrats say their Republican colleagues’ responses to the events of Jan. 6 over the past year — including explicit or tacit endorsements of the “big lie” that Trump was the victim of a rigged election — have widened an already vast divide between the parties.
“I think the impact is going to go down in history,” said Rep. Pramila Jayapal, D-Seattle, “because of what happened on that day, but also because of what didn’t happen in the aftermath of it, and what is continuing to happen in terms of people continuing to promote the ‘big lie’ and the challenge to Joe Biden’s legitimacy as president.”
Rep. Suzan DelBene, a Democrat whose district stretches from the Seattle suburbs to the Canadian border, said that while the atmosphere in Congress was already divisive when she was first elected a decade ago, it has deepened in the past year.
“It is harder to partner across the aisle with many of my colleagues denying a violent event we all lived through,” she said in a statement. “There’s a general sense of distrust between members, and I’m not sure how we heal those divisions without acknowledging what happened on that day.”
Some Northwest Republicans spoke out against Trump’s actions in the immediate aftermath of the violence, but they have since muted their criticism amid polls showing most GOP voters support the former president’s claims. Central Washington Rep. Dan Newhouse, one of 10 House Republicans who voted last January to impeach Trump for inciting the violence, did not respond to questions for this story.
Cornell Clayton, director of the Thomas S. Foley Institute of Public Policy and Public Service at Washington State University, said Newhouse’s reticence speaks to the pressure Republicans face to kowtow to Trump if they want to stay in office.
“I think you can understand it, given where his party is at,” Clayton said. “If he takes a principled stand for democracy, he knows he’ll lose his seat.”
Just two House Republicans, Reps. Liz Cheney of Wyoming and Adam Kinzinger of Illinois, serve on a panel investigating the Jan. 6 storming of the Capitol. Both have faced strong rebukes from their party, and Kinzinger has said he will not seek re-election.
Jayapal called Cheney, a staunch conservative, “not somebody that I agree with on policy issues, but somebody who has been incredibly courageous.”
“I would hope that in a similar situation, I would do what was right and not what preserved my election,” Jayapal said, “because we may have no democracy left if people continue to prioritize their re-elections and not speak the truth.”
Another Republican who voted to impeach Trump, Rep. Jaime Herrera Beutler of southwest Washington, lamented how the focus on election fraud allegations have stolen the spotlight from issues that could help Republicans get elected.
“We have ongoing problems in this country that demand Congressional attention,” Herrera Beutler said in a statement, citing rising inflation and violent crime, labor shortages and an influx of illegal drugs into the United States. “And yet, too much of the public and too many politicians spend their time on misinformation about the last presidential election. It’s a distraction that keeps too many people from addressing the problems we face today.”
Both Newhouse and Herrera Beutler are facing primary challenges from fellow Republicans who have backed Trump’s claim that the election was stolen from him.
Clayton said that while American society has been polarized over matters of policy, the nation finds itself divided on the basis of identity, with Democratic and Republican voters defining themselves less by what they are for than by whom they are against.
“What happens in that kind of polarization is, not only do we form our identities by demonizing the other side,” Clayton said, “but we also become more fanatical and more extreme internally.”
For many Democrats, the events of Jan. 6 marked a fundamental breakdown in American values.
“The hallmark of our country has been free and fair elections,” said Sen. Maria Cantwell, D-Wash., recalling how she and other senators returned to the Senate floor after police cleared rioters from the Capitol.
“We were being escorted back in that night by the military, and I just kept thinking of my father and my uncle who both served in World War II, and I thought of all the things they fought for,” she said. “They fought for us to have a government where you didn’t have to get escorted by the military to do your job.”
As GOP-controlled legislatures in 19 states imposed new voting restrictions in 2021, Democrats have pinned their hopes of making voting easier on federal legislation, but passing such a bill would require all 50 Democratic senators to agree to scrap a filibuster rule that lets the minority party block legislation. Democrats have framed a federal election bill as a necessary way to counter state-level voting restrictions.
“If we are to learn from January 6th, then we cannot sit by and just hope our democracy survives,” Murray said in a statement. “We have to send legislation that protects every American’s right to vote to the President’s desk, and I’m committed to using every legislative tool available to get this done and make sure our democracy stays a democracy.”
But Sen. Mike Crapo, R-Idaho, said such a move “will only further erode public confidence and trust in our election system.”
“Those responsible for January 6 should continue to be held accountable by the legal system to the fullest extent of the law,” Crapo said in a statement, “but we must not abandon our entire elections process in the wake of unacceptable violence and a highly heated political climate.”
Moderate Democratic Sen. Joe Manchin of West Virginia has proposed a compromise bill that would make voting easier while implementing a nationwide voter ID requirement, a measure many Democrats have resisted. McMorris Rodgers said such a requirement would address some of her concerns about the election system.
“The federal court system found that there was no mass voter fraud, but I strongly believe we must do more to preserve the integrity of our elections, including voter identification, in order to re-establish confidence in our voting system,” she said.
In statements, McMorris Rodgers, Fulcher and Herrera Beutler all pointed blame at Democrats for what they saw as double standards, pointing to polls showing Democratic voters believed the 2016 election was unfair and comparing the events of Jan. 6 to the racial justice protests that erupted across the country in 2020, some of which turned violent.
“Violence is never the answer,” McMorris Rodgers said. “That’s why we must also examine the violence that swept across the nation last summer as rioters looted and burned cities like Seattle and Portland, events that cannot be ignored as we assess the factors that led to an attack on our capital.”
“Both parties have sowed too much mistrust about our electoral system,” Herrera Beutler said, citing polls showing mistrust among both Democrats and Republicans after their candidates lost presidential elections. “In both cases, the public has been egged on by politicians who know better. It’s playing with fire, it’s undermining our democracy, and it needs to stop.”
Rep. Kim Schrier, a Democrat whose district stretches from Wenatchee to the Seattle suburbs, rejected that comparison.
“Hillary Clinton conceded immediately,” Schrier said, referring to the 2016 race. “That is our democracy — that whoever gets the most electoral votes wins the election — so there is no comparison. We have a former president and leaders in his party who continue to insist that the last election was not a legitimate election.”
Clayton said the effort of Trump and his allies to discredit the 2020 election is unprecedented.
“There’s always been contestation around elections,” Clayton said. “But the level of organization and effort to overturn the 2020 election … and the insurrection itself, there’s nothing comparable to that in American history, going back to the Civil War. And to try to draw moral equivalencies is just fundamentally dishonest.”
Sen. Jim Risch did not respond to questions for this story, but his spokeswoman, Marty Cozza, said the Idaho Republican stands by statements he made a year earlier.
Speaking on the Senate floor on Jan. 6, 2021, Risch called the assault on the Capitol “unpatriotic and un-American in the extreme,” adding that the votes of 147 of his fellow GOP lawmakers “showed there is deep distrust in the integrity and veracity of our elections.”
Risch and Crapo voted to certify the election results. Fulcher was the sole Republican from either Idaho or Washington who voted to contest the outcome.