Justin Amash could hurt Joe Biden badly in the election — but not for the obvious reason

If there's an Electoral College tie, everything could go awry

William Vaillancourt
Monday 04 May 2020 17:41 BST
Biden has a chance of taking the presidency from Trump, but the Electoral College could change everything
Biden has a chance of taking the presidency from Trump, but the Electoral College could change everything (AP)

Since Rep. Justin Amash (I-MI) announced he was forming an exploratory committee to pursue the Libertarian nomination for president, there has been plenty of chatter about such a move harming Joe Biden’s chances of defeating President Trump in November. If Amash indeed gets on the ballot in a handful of swing states, he very well could siphon off some voters who otherwise would have opted for Biden. But what’s more certain at this point is that Amash’s decision hurts the former vice president in a different way.

By declining to defend his House seat, the former Republican is making it much more difficult for Democrats to obtain a majority of House delegations – the 50 groups of representatives who would choose the next president should there be an Electoral College tie.

There are 64 scenarios in which neither Trump nor Biden reaches the 270 electoral vote threshold. If no electors switch sides when they gather in the Capitol to formally elect the president – such a turn of events would be extremely unlikely given the magnitude of the occasion – the focus would then shift to the newly-elected House members. Each state’s delegation, no matter its size, would cast one vote, with a majority of votes needed for either Trump to win a second term or for Biden to become president-elect.

Republicans currently hold a slight edge in state delegations with 26; Democrats have 23, while one state – Pennsylvania – is split. When Amash defected from the GOP in 2019 and became an Independent, Michigan’s Democratic congressmen suddenly outnumbered their Republican colleagues, seven to six. By deciding not to run for reelection, Amash is essentially handing his seat back to his former party, as Michigan’s third congressional district is solidly Republican, with Amash having fought off his challenger in 2016 by more than 20 percentage points. If he defended his seat as a third-party incumbent, however, the likelihood of a Democrat winning because of a fractured conservative vote would be much greater.

The main takeaway here is that Michigan’s delegation is one of several that could flip blue, red, or become split all because of a single House race. Disregarding “safe” blue and red delegations like Vermont and North Dakota, there are a number of states which are each within one: Iowa, New Hampshire, Maine, Florida, Pennsylvania, Arizona, Colorado, Nevada, Minnesota, Kansas and Wisconsin (depending on the result of a special election this month to fill former Rep. Sean Duffy’s seat). Some are more likely to change hands than others.

Democrats have an eye on Pennsylvania, for instance, where the Democratic Congressional Coordinating Committee has targeted three GOP seats. Rep. Scott Perry is trying to hold onto the tenth district – rated a toss-up by The Cook Political Report – after squeaking out a win in 2018 by fewer than 8,000 votes. In PA-01, a “lean GOP” district, Rep. Brian Fitzpatrick is seeking a third term after fighting off a Democratic challenger by about 9,000 votes out of nearly 180,000 cast.

Democrats also have their sights on a few districts in states they could win back, or at least settle for a split. In Florida, where Republicans hold a 14-13 edge, the DCCC is looking to wrestle away the 15th district from Rep. Ross Spano, a freshman who won the district’s closest race since 1992. In Kansas, meanwhile, the party will likely make a run at the second district, which encompasses the state capital and the University of Kansas. Rep. Steve Watkins, another freshman, won the blue-trending district in 2018 by a mere 2,000 votes. If the GOP loses there, the Sunflower State’s delegation shifts from 3-1 to 2-2.

In most of the aforementioned states where the balance of power is slim, Democrats are defending their delegations. In Maine’s second district, where Trump earned an electoral vote in 2016, Rep. Jared Golden in 2018 became the first member of Congress to win a seat through a ranked choice voting system; the Republican incumbent he beat, however, initially received more votes. In Iowa, likewise, the party is looking to preserve two narrow midterm pickups in districts Trump carried four years ago.

In short, Democrats need all the help they can get. The University of Virginia’s Center for Politics considers it likely that the GOP hangs onto its slim delegation lead when the new House members take office in January. Another element working against Democrats is how the District of Columbia would not participate in the contingent election despite the fact that it – like six other states – has three electoral votes, none of which have gone to a Republican since it began voting for president in 1964. But that’s an argument for another day.

It will be difficult for Democrats to pick up three delegations, and slightly less so to muster a 25-25 split. But it is not impossible. With half a year until the election, it’s hard to do anything more than speculate about the outcome of the key House races that would allow either to happen.

Many things will change in the coming months, but it’s undeniable that holding onto Michigan would be crucial for Democrats if neither party’s candidate obtains a majority of electoral votes. Amash, who apparently abhors the prospect of another four years of Trump and of a Biden administration, isn’t making it easy for them.

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