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Nearly five months after the election, Democrat Rita Hart withdrew her contest Wednesday asking Congress to investigate Republican U.S. Rep. Mariannette Miller-Meeks' six-vote win of Southeast Iowa's 2nd Congressional District.
'Despite our best efforts to have every vote counted, the reality is that the toxic campaign of political disinformation to attack this constitutional review of the closest congressional contest in 100 years has effectively silenced the voices of Iowans,” Hart said in a statement. 'It is a stain on our democracy that the truth has not prevailed and my hope for the future is a return to decency and civility.”
The news came just hours after U.S. House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy came to Davenport to show support for Miller-Meeks and decry Democrats' attempts to potentially overturn the state-certified results in one of the closest federal races in U.S. history. And it follows weeks of persistent House GOP attacks and fundraising efforts attacking Hart's challenge as an effort to 'steal” the election as part of a power grab to pad House Democrats' narrow majority.
The National Republican Congressional Committee began airing ads this week targeting Iowa's lone Democrat in Congress, U.S. Rep Cindy Axne, over a House panel's ongoing review of the 2nd District outcome.
Some moderate House Democrats in competitive districts in recent weeks have expressed reservations at the prospect of the Democratically-controlled House reversing a state-certified election and unseating Miller-Meeks. Particularly, some said, after bashing Republicans for trying to overturn former President Donald Trump's electoral defeat to President Joe Biden.
'It's been counted, recounted and a bipartisan (state) election board had voted” to certify the razor-thin results, McCarthy told reporters in Davenport before Hart's announcement. 'It's time to move on.”
Miller-Meeks, a former state senator from Ottumwa, edged Hart, a former state senator from Wheatland, by six votes out of nearly 400,000 cast in the Nov. 3 election. The seat was last held by Dave Loebsack, an Iowa City Democrat who retired.
Hart's campaign was challenging the results, claiming that 22 ballots were legally cast but not counted following a districtwide recount in all 24 counties due to errors by election workers.
Miller-Meeks and Republicans argued Hart should have taken up any issues in Iowa courts - not the U.S. House.
'States and state law needs to guide elections,” Miller-Meeks told a radio audience following the news of Hart's withdrawal. 'We all know the rules and we all should have to play by the rules, not change the rules if we don't get the result we need.”
Hart argued she did not go through the courts because Iowa election law does not offer enough time for a sufficient appeal process, providing roughly a week for a panel of judges to hear the case, establish rules of evidence and potentially another recount the entire district.
Hart's campaign argued that Iowa law prevented legally cast but wrongly rejected ballots from being included in the recount. Iowa Code states recount boards may consider only ballots considered by county canvass boards, even if made aware of legally cast ballots excluded from the initial count.
Hart also argued the process was marred by discrepancies and inconsistencies in how ballots were examined from county to county.
'Since Election Day, and throughout this entire process, my mission has been about ensuring the voices of Iowans who followed the law are not silenced,” Hart said in her statement. 'I am saddened that some Iowans' votes will not count through no fault of their own. The work of ensuring it does not happen again will continue beyond this campaign.”
Miller-Meeks, in statement, thanked Hart for ending the challenge.
'I know how extremely difficult it is to lose an election, but for the people to have faith and confidence in the election system and Iowa laws, it was gracious of her to concede at this time,” said Miller-Meeks, who has been serving provisionally in the House while the contest continued. 'I look forward to continuing to work to represent the people of Iowa's Second District.”
Miller-Meeks called the end of the contest 'a tremendous relief” as she arrived at a vaccination clinic at the Washington County Department of Public Health. She said Hart 'did the right thing” rather than 'drag the whole country through another contentious process.”
Nonetheless, Miller-Meeks acknowledged the election results show an evenly divided district.
'We are about as evenly divided as you can get,” she said. 'For those people who supported me, it's a relief and validation for them. For those who did not support me, I will truly work hard to be a congresswoman for everybody in the 2nd District.”
Iowa Democratic Party Chair Rep. Ross Wilburn called Hart 'a selfless and dedicated public servant” whose 'efforts to ensure that every legal vote was counted in the 2nd District race are a reflection of her dedication to the people of Iowa,”
'Over the past few months, we've seen dangerous, and frankly undemocratic rhetoric from Iowa Republicans who refused to let this bipartisan process take its course and decide the closest congressional race in 100 years,” Wilburn said in statement. 'At the same time, we've watched a coordinated effort in Iowa and across the nation to make voting more difficult and discourage people from participating in the democratic process. Like we have been throughout this process, we remain firmly committed to protecting the right to vote, making sure every legal vote is counted, and protecting the democratic process for everyone, regardless of who they vote for.”
Republican Party of Iowa Chairman Jeff Kaufmann, however, said in a statement that Hart's withdraw 'should signal to every Iowan that the fight to take back the House and Senate in 2022 has begun.”
James Jennings of the Southeast Iowa Union and Rod Boshart of The Gazette Des Moines Bureau contributed to this report.