State-level Republicans wracked by division after Trump’s loss

Getty Images/iStockphoto/Julia Nikhinson/The Hill illustration

Long-simmering tensions between Republicans at the state level are spilling into plain sight as conservative activists loyal to former President Trump look to cement their hold on the GOP.

With Trump now settling into his post-presidency, the grassroots activists whom he inspired — many of whom now hold sway over state and local Republican parties — are ratcheting up pressure on Republicans they deem too moderate or insufficiently loyal to the former president and his political legacy.

Over the weekend, the Arizona GOP narrowly reelected Chairwoman Kelli Ward, a polarizing figure who was among Trump’s biggest boosters in the state.

The party also passed a trio of resolutions censuring three of Arizona’s most prominent Republicans — Gov. Doug Ducey, former Sen. Jeff Flake and Cindy McCain, the widow of the late Sen. John McCain. Flake and McCain endorsed President Biden ahead of the November election.

Meanwhile, the Wyoming Republican Party rebuked the state’s lone congresswoman, House Republican Conference Chairwoman Liz Cheney, after she voted to impeach Trump earlier this month, issuing a statement calling Cheney’s vote “a true travesty for Wyoming and the country.”

And in Michigan, the state GOP moved to replace a Republican member of the State Board of Canvassers after he voted to certify the results of the Nov. 3 presidential election, consequently affirming Biden as the winner of the state.

“You win by being inclusive, you win by expanding the appeal of the party,” one veteran Republican operative said. “I’ll tell you, I wouldn’t count on the state parties to do that right now.”

In no state are the internal GOP divisions more clear than in Arizona, once a reliably red state where Democrats have racked up a series of high-profile victories in recent years.

In November, Biden became only the second Democratic presidential candidate in more than 50 years to carry the state, while Sen. Mark Kelly (D) defeated former Sen. Martha McSally (R), giving Democrats control of both of the state’s Senate seats for the first time since 1953.

Despite the Republican losses, the state GOP still decided to go with Ward as its chair on Saturday, but only after a first ballot failed to yield a clear winner.

The party also voted to censure Ducey, McCain and Flake, citing Ducey’s decision to impose emergency rules amid the coronavirus pandemic and McCain’s and Flake’s past criticisms of Trump. The censures are largely symbolic and have little practical effect on the three.

In a sign of deeper trouble for the GOP in Arizona, more than 8,000 registered Republican voters requested to change their party affiliation to Democrat, independent or Libertarian in the period from Jan. 6 to 20.

Glenn Hamer, the president and CEO of the Arizona Chamber of Commerce and a former executive director of the state GOP, said that the recent defections among Republican voters in the state “should set off every alarm bell” for the party.

“There’s nothing terribly unusual for a party, whether it’s the Republican Party or Democratic Party, having a degree of dysfunction or lack of unity,” Hamer said. “Parties are notorious for going through phases where they’re building and phases where they’re exercising more so-called purity. What’s unusual here is the degree of the dysfunction in Arizona, and the resulting hemorrhaging of Republican voter registrations.”

Hamer said that Republicans’ political future in Arizona will come down to the strength of individual candidates, rather than the state party apparatus, noting that Ducey, for example, managed to win reelection in 2018 by a more than 14-point margin, even as Democrat Kyrsten Sinema flipped one of Arizona’s two Senate seats blue.

“It’s important not to overstate the importance of a state party,” Hamer said. “They can get you 1 to 3 points if they have their act together. The candidate running for office is still far and away the most important unit.”

But, he added, “Parties are supposed to do three things: register voters, get out the vote and amplify the messages of actual elected officials and those candidates running for office under the party’s banner. And this is a party that has failed miserably on all accounts.”

Nationwide, Republicans are plagued by with deep internal divisions and competing visions for the direction of the GOP after four years with Trump as its center of gravity.

Some of the party’s leaders are hoping to blunt the now-former president’s influence over the GOP, citing his loss in the 2020 presidential election as well as the dual defeats of former Sens. Kelly Loeffler (R) and David Perdue (R), who hitched themselves closely to Trump in two runoffs in Georgia this month.

Trump loyalists, however, are eager to exert the political power they have gained over the past four years and reprimand those they see as having crossed the former president, who, despite his loss, won more than 74 million votes in the election.

In an unusual rebuke of a Republican member of Congress, the Wyoming GOP issued a point-by-point criticism of Cheney’s vote to impeach Trump for his role in inciting an insurrection at the U.S. Capitol earlier this month. Another Republican lawmaker, Rep. Fred Upton (Mich.), received a censure from the Allegan County GOP last week for his impeachment vote.

“We believe Congressman Upton’s vote is a betrayal of his oath of office and the core values of the Allegan County Republican Party,” the Allegan GOP’s executive committee said in the censure resolution.

Saul Anuzis, a Michigan-based Republican strategist and a former chair of the state GOP, acknowledged that the Republican Party as a whole is experiencing “growing pains” in the wake of Trump’s presidency.

But he said that state parties, especially in electoral battlegrounds, will be better served if they bring together disparate factions of the GOP — establishment Republicans and Trump-aligned activists — rather than seek ideological and political purity among their members.

“The party in general is having growing pains,” Anuzis said. “This kind of conservative populism that’s less about issues like defense and more about America First — that’s a new leg that we’ve never stood on, so now you have to bring that group in and integrate them into the party.”

The Michigan Republican Party is poised to tap Ron Weiser, a former ambassador to Slovakia and state GOP chair, to the party’s top post early next month. Meshawn Maddock, an activist who helped organize an effort to bus Trump supporters to Washington for a Jan. 6 rally that devolved into a riot at the U.S. Capitol, is expected to serve as co-chair.

Anuzis said that the expected elevation of both Weiser and Maddock should be welcomed by Republicans. Weiser, an experienced fundraiser, will “bring some stability to the party,” while installing Maddock as his co-chair could help engage the activist base that remains loyal to Trump, Anuzis said.

“I think that the Trump wing, the American First wing, is a growing part of the party, a sustaining part of the party,” he said. “In other words, this is not just a Trump phenomenon. He just brought it into the forefront.”

Tags David Perdue Donald Trump Doug Ducey Fred Upton Jeff Flake John McCain Kelly Loeffler Liz Cheney Mark Kelly Martha McSally
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