It is no secret that the Republican Party has taken a hard right turn toward antidemocratic extremism. Former President Donald Trump attempted a coup in order to stay in office, and his minions have doubled down on their embrace of radical gerrymandering, voter suppression, and schemes to eliminate nonpartisan oversight of elections.
But New Hampshire’s newly nominated Republican candidate for the US Senate has taken the Republican war on democracy to a new low.
Don Bolduc, a retired special forces general who on Tuesday won his party’s nomination to take on Democratic Senator Maggie Hassan, had campaigned as an unapologetic supporter of Trump’s “Big Lie” about the results of the 2020 presidential election—along with a panoply of other conspiracy theories. Facing harsh scrutiny following his primary win, Bolduc is now scrambling to appear more rational, telling a Fox News interviewer Thursday that he has suddenly come to the conclusion that “the election was not stolen.”
But Bolduc has not backed off what may well be his most antidemocratic stance: He wants to repeal the 17th Amendment to the Constitution, which established an elected US Senate.
Bolduc boldly announced in a debate in August that, while he wants New Hampshire voters to elect him to the US Senate, he also wants to take away their right to participate in future Senate elections. Under the retired general’s plan, democracy would be discarded and senators would be named by the state’s Republican legislators.
That’s how members were selected before the Constitution was amended in 1913 to take the selection process away from partisan legislators and establish the direct election of US senators. Bolduc is enthusiastic about taking giant leap backward. When another Republican primary candidate suggested that it was unlikely that the United States would hit the reverse button on this form of democracy, because “the genie’s out of the bottle on this,” the eventual nominee said, “The genie’s not out of the bottle—you can stuff that genie’s head right back in there, throw his body in there, and put the cap on it.”
Bolduc’s nomination, which Republican strategists acknowledge will make what they expected to be a very competitive race in New Hampshire tougher for their party, brings new attention to the frontiers of antidemocratic agitation within the Republican Party. And to why the idea appeals to right-wing voters within the party.
To be clear, doing away with the direct election of senators would make a Senate that is already skewed to the right—because of the advantage given to small states—dramatically more so. The upper chamber of the Congress would be more likely to bow to corporate pressure on issues ranging from climate policy to labor rights to protecting Social Security. And it would be dramatically more likely to bend to social conservatives in debates over abortion rights, LGBTQ rights, and voting rights.
How do we know this? Simple math. Thanks to gerrymandering and the heavy emphasis that conservative donors have placed on state legislative races, Republicans currently control 62 percent of the nation’s state legislative chambers. Indeed, in many states where Democrats win statewide races for the US Senate, the legislatures are overwhelmingly Republican.
Were the 17th Amendment to be repealed, Hassan would not be a senator. Neither would Jeanne Shaheen, Hassan’s Democratic colleague from New Hampshire, where Republicans control the legislature and the governor’s office. Senator Sherrod Brown, the populist Democratic senator from Ohio, would be gone. So would Arizona Democrat Mark Kelly, Montana Democrat Jon Tester, Georgia Democrats Jon Ossoff and Raphael Warnock, and Wisconsin Democrat Tammy Baldwin. In all those states, Republicans have complete control of legislative chambers. It’s also likely that in states such as Virginia, where Republicans control at least one house, Democratic senators such as Mark Warner and Tim Kaine could be in trouble.
By any measure, the US Senate—where seats are now evenly divided between the two parties—would become overwhelmingly Republican without the 17th Amendment. This would be despite the fact that Democrats outpolled Republicans by more than 25 million votes in the three election cycles where actual voters chose the current Senate: 2016, 2018, and 2020.
Legislatures controlled by hyper-partisan, right-wing Republicans would also, in all likelihood, reject relatively moderate Republicans—moving the Senate Republican Caucus even further to the right. And legislatures controlled by Republicans or Democrats would almost certainly be less likely to select independents such as Vermont’s Bernie Sanders and Maine’s Angus King.
This is about more than just partisan politics. There’s no reason to doubt that right-wing billionaire donors, who already have tremendous influence in statehouses, would get more subservient senators in the orgy of backroom deal making that would come with the end of the direct election of the Senate.
Overturning the 17th Amendment may seem far-fetched, even to many Republicans. But it has been a longtime goal of right-wing ideologues—particularly the polemicists of the John Birch Society—and in recent years it has been moving into the conservative mainstream. The idea was popular with some sections of the Tea Party movement. Former Texas governor Rick Perry has griped that the move to direct election of senators “took the states out of the process.” Utah Senator Mike Lee has described the 17th Amendment as “a mistake.” And the conservative American Legislative Exchange Council has, in recent years, entertained proposals to repeal the amendment.
What was once a fringe fantasy is being taken ever more seriously by conservative strategists who recognize that the GOP’s prospects are always going to be better in gerrymandered legislative chambers than in high-turnout statewide elections. That doesn’t mean the United States is on the verge of a turn toward legislative plutocracy. For one thing, there is no evidence that Americans—in New Hampshire or other states—are in favor of the change.
But as Republican legislators move closer to the numbers they need to demand a “convention of the states” to enact a “Balanced Budget Amendment,” which would constrain the federal government by effectively dictating budgeting priorities, it is wise to be wary of those who seek to constrain democracy itself. Starting with Don Bolduc.