Republican state parties have been lashing out at elected officials of their own party in a sign of ongoing fealty to Donald Trump.
The moves by state party officials are highly unusual and an indication of the heated internal battles the Republican party is facing in the months and years to come as it struggles with the legacy of its capture by Trump, his allies and his loyal supporters.
Some state parties have hit out at Republican senators for voting to convict Trump in his impeachment trial. Others have taken steps to reaffirm their loyalty to Trump in the aftermath of his re-election campaign loss, as other prominent Republicans look to assume larger roles at the head of the party.
Republicans are divided on whether these moves are a good idea. Some argue that Trump is still the key conduit to grassroots support within the Republican party. Others say these fights distract from what Republicans need to do to win elections with the broader electorate.
“Some of the actions by state parties – Arizona and Oregon come to mind – are just not helpful to winning elections,” said Henry Barbour, a Republican National Committee member from Mississippi.
The most recent such move came from the North Carolina Republican party which censured the state’s senior senator, Richard Burr, for voting to convict Trump at his impeachment trial. Burr joined six other Republicans and every Senate Democrat in voting for conviction. That vote failed to pass the two-thirds threshold needed to convict the former president.
Even though it was unsuccessful, the impeachment vote inflamed intra-party tensions between those who remain steadfastly loyal to Trump and those who are tired of having to swear fealty to the one-term president or feel he was guilty of inciting the mob riot at the United States Capitol on 6 January.
In Louisiana, the state party censured Senator Bill Cassidy for voting to impeach Trump. The chair of the Louisiana Republican Caucus also warned Cassidy to not “expect a warm welcome when you come home to Louisiana”. In Alaska, local Republican party chapters have voted to censure Senator Lisa Murkowski. In Nebraska, Senator Ben Sasse has been slapped with local party censures and the state party is poised to vote on censuring him during a meeting in March.
Other senators are facing the possibility of censures as well, such as the retiring Pat Toomey in Pennsylvania and Susan Collins in Maine. Some Republicans in Utah want to censure Senator Mitt Romney as well.
The censures are largely symbolic, but they underscore the deep divide between the Republican political infantry and some of its elite.
It’s not just senators or representatives who voted to impeach Trump who are in the crosshairs of state parties. In Arizona, the Republican party has censured the former senator Jeff Flake, Governor Doug Ducey and Cindy McCain, the widow of the late senator John McCain. The argument was that they were all unfairly antagonistic to Trump.
Liz Cheney, the House Republican Conference chairwoman, and Congressman Adam Kinzinger of Illinois, have both taken significant criticism from Republicans in their states over voting to impeach Trump. Both are facing tougher re-election fights than they otherwise would and both have faced censure from state Republican groups.
The Oregon Republican party condemned the set of House Republicans who voted to impeach Trump even though no Oregon Republican was part of that group.
These state parties, in other words, have transformed from groups that are umbrella organizations for all shades of Republicans, to increasingly cells for Trump even as he is out of office. The Utah Republican party stood out as an exception for accepting the divergent votes of Romney (who voted to convict Trump) and Senator Mike Lee (who voted to acquit him).
The eagerness of Republican state parties to re-establish support for Trump and dole out symbolic rebukes to other Republicans comes as leaders brace for bruising intra-party battles in the 2022 midterms and eventually the 2024 presidential battle, in which Trump has hinted he might run.
Recently, Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, the top Republican in the Senate, suggested he would get involved in primary battles where pro-Trump candidates may have a strong chance of winning the Republican nomination but then go on to lose the general election. That spurred Trump to issue a blistering statement lashing out at McConnell.
In turn, veteran Republicans worry that the feuding could further trip up Republicans and deepen the divides within the party.
Brian Walsh, who served as the communications director for the National Republican Senatorial Committee during campaign cycles that saw intense fighting between establishment and insurgent sects of the party, argued there was some value in weeding out candidates who would clearly be liabilities after the Republican-only phase of voting ends.
“When you look back at the primaries that cost Republicans seats in 2010 and 2012 one thread is that the favored candidate did not take that challenge as seriously as they should have,” Walsh said. “As was discovered in the general election, there was a lot to say about some of these really bad candidates.”