The fight over the Florida recount isn't about the precise size of the GOP majority in the Senate. It's about the electoral future of the Republican Party and the fate of President Trump in 2020.
In presidential elections, the Republican share of the popular vote has been shrinking for decades. Ronald Reagan won re-election in 1984 with 58.8 percent of the vote. A line drawn between that result and Trump's Electoral College-aided victory would slope consistently downward, with only a modest uptick between George W. Bush's own Electoral College- (and Supreme Court-) aided victory in 2000 and his re-election in 2004. By 2016, the Republican nominee prevailed with a popular-vote total (46.1 percent) just slightly higher than the total won by 1988's losing candidate, Democrat Michael Dukakis (45.6 percent).
That makes the Republican hold on the presidency extremely precarious, dependent most recently on fewer than 80,000 votes scattered across three Midwestern states that flipped to the GOP after several cycles in the Democratic column. If the results of last week's midterm elections are any indication, all three states are trending back toward the Democrats. Without those states, Trump's already narrow path to re-election becomes (short of an unforeseen surge in support from another part of the electorate) close to impassable.
That is, unless Republicans make a little mischief of the kind they urged (unsuccessfully) on Martha McSally in her Arizona Senate contest with Democrat Kyrsten Sinema and are now giddily employing in Florida.
When the Democrat is pronounced the clear winner on the night of Election Day, there is little that Republicans can do. But when the outcome is very close, the final tally of mailed in and provisional ballots trends toward the Democrat, and/or a mandatory recount is triggered by the narrowness of the result, the GOP roars into action — hurling unsubstantiated accusations of voter fraud, insisting that the (incomplete) GOP-friendly count publicized a few hours after polls closed is somehow more legitimate than the final vote total, and insinuating that the outcome of a legally prescribed recount will invariably be marked by outright corruption that benefits the Democrat.
We've heard variations on all of these charges from Republicans over the past week — from the president himself, from a long list of right-wing media propagandists, and from Florida Gov. Rick Scott, who also just so happens to be overseeing the recount of the election in which he ran for a Senate seat and finished with a razor-thin lead. And of course, all of them were originally floated and repeated ad nauseam through the multi-week mess that was the attempted Florida recount in 2000.
Then as now, the goal was to halt the counting of votes before the Republican candidate falls behind, even if it means ignoring the ballots of voters from heavily Democratic districts. These are districts, incidentally, that often happen to have high minority populations and are forced to contend with concerted and coordinated attempts to place obstacles in the way of voting. (Think of understaffed polling places in urban areas, where voters wait for line for hours, while wealthier, whiter, and more Republican citizens in the suburbs stroll in and out in a matter of minutes.)
This response to a possible narrow defeat of Republicans is just one more weapon in the growing GOP arsenal of techniques to win political power at any cost, even if doing so shreds the rule of law and spreads contempt for democracy among the Republican rank-and-file. Another such weapon is the kind of gerrymandering that produced an outcome in North Carolina last Tuesday in which Democratic congressional candidates received more than half of the votes but won just one quarter of the contested seats. (Gerrymandering in Pennsylvania produced similarly lopsided results in 2016. A judicially mandated redrawing of districts this year produced a much fairer outcome.) Yet another weapon is active voter suppression designed to hold down the vote total for Democrats.
But when it comes to the presidency, it's Bush v. Gore that provides the playbook. When a statewide contest is close, with precious electoral votes at stake, Republicans will do everything they can to freeze a lead when they have it or eliminate one when they have a shot at overtaking it. This isn't ordinary political hard ball. It's potentially a frontal assault on the basic integrity of democratic norms and procedures. Precisely because it's so unorthodox, the claims made to justify it need to be amped up, which is why the president of the United States has taken to spreading outright lies about voter fraud in Florida.
In a world where the ability of Republicans to win the presidency while playing by the rules is in rapid decline, this is our future. The GOP will continue to compete fairly in elections only as long as the party has a realistic expectation of winning. Once Republicans become convinced that victory requires leaving fairness behind, most will not hesitate to adopt new, more "flexible" rules that give them an edge, affording them a chance to hold onto power despite their dwindling support in the electorate.
The honorable Republican is fast becoming an endangered species. The only question is how long it will take until he goes entirely extinct.