State parties seek to punish anti-Trump Republicans

State parties are taking steps to punish the Republicans who voted to convict former President Trump, underscoring the deep divisions in the GOP over whether to move on from a tumultuous era.

Sens. Richard Burr (R-N.C.) and Bill Cassidy (R-La.) both have been censured by their state parties for voting to convict Trump of inciting a mob to attack the Capitol — a break from the majority of their caucus who voted to acquit.

State parties in Nebraska, Pennsylvania and Maine plan to discuss punitive measures against Sens. Ben Sasse (R-Neb.), Pat Toomey (R-Pa.) and Susan Collins (R-Maine), who also voted to convict.

State parties already censured Reps. Liz Cheney (Wyo.) and Tom Rice (R-S.C.) for their votes to impeach Trump. The former president’s allies in the House tried to strip Cheney of her leadership post and have already begun campaigning against her.

“The censures from the state parties are just a reflection of where the party is at,” said one former Trump adviser. “When these senators voted against Trump, they knew exactly what the fallout would be, so you’re definitely going to see this civil war playing out.”

GOP strategists are growing concerned about the possibility of an ugly primary season between Trump loyalists and those who believe the party must move past the former president.

Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska) is the only GOP senator facing reelection in 2022 who voted to convict Trump, and the former president’s allies say a primary challenge for Murkowski is all but assured.

“Republicans need to stop re-fighting the losing battles of yesterday and focus on tomorrow,” said GOP strategist Colin Reed. “To regain relevance – and more importantly the ability to govern – Republicans must focus their energy outward, not on each other. Until we do, we’ll just be shouting in the wind, and President Biden and the Democrats will relish every minute of it.”

Trump’s advisers say it’s too early to begin talking about who will be primaried, but the effort is expected to be run out of the new firm launched by Bill Stepien, Trump’s former political adviser, who has teamed up with White House veterans Nick Trainer and Justin Clark.

State party leaders have defended the punitive moves, saying they came from a groundswell of outrage from grassroots conservatives.

The North Carolina GOP’s central committee voted unanimously on Monday evening to censure Burr, arguing that the impeachment trial was unconstitutional in and of itself because Trump is no longer in the White House. 

In an interview with CNN on Tuesday, the North Carolina party’s chair Michael Whatley said that he had been in contact with “hundreds of volunteers and activists” in the wake of Saturday’s Senate vote and had heard widespread disappointment with Burr’s vote. 

In Pennsylvania, county Republican parties moved fast to condemn Toomey over his impeachment vote, while the state GOP is planning a meeting to discuss “actions related to the impeachment vote,” according to a notice shared with committee members, signaling that a potential censure of Toomey may be on the table.

Toomey and Burr are both retiring at the end of their terms, so there may be little risk for either senator.

Others who have crossed Trump face more difficult questions.

Sasse, 48, has been seen as a potential GOP presidential candidate, though it is difficult to see his path forward in a party dominated by Trump. His state party was primed to censure him even before the Saturday vote — a move that appears even more certain now. 

In a statement, Nebraska GOP Chair Dan Welch said the party was “disappointed” in Sasse’s vote, echoing assertions that the impeachment trial was “clearly unconstitutional.”

Sasse has been unapologetic, telling NPR on Tuesday that by hewing so closely to Trump, his party is prioritizing “short-term” political plays. 

“I think it’s important to give a frank assessment of where the party of Lincoln and Reagan is right now,” said Sasse, who was elected to his second term in November. “I think there’s a whole bunch of stuff the party of Lincoln and Reagan needs to do to persuade people we have a 2030 agenda, not a 20-minute Twitter agenda.”

In Alaska, Republicans say the rank-and-file are furious at Murkowski. At the same time, the state recently passed a ballot measure to implement an open primary in which the top four candidates from any party move on to the general election, all but ensuring Murkowski will get out of the primary. Alaska GOP strategists say that makes Murkowski a lot more likely to win reelection, despite the anger from Trump’s base.

“Republican districts are widely passing resolutions condemning her vote for impeachment and suggesting she find a home in another party,” said Art Hackney, a veteran GOP operative in the state. “There is a lot of anger towards her among Republicans but that may well make no difference with Ballot Measure Two in place.”

In Louisiana, Cassidy’s vote to convict Trump was one of the biggest surprises of the trial.

The Executive Committee of the state GOP voted unanimously to censure Cassidy in the hours after his vote.

Cassidy just won reelection in 2020 by running close to Trump and featuring him prominently in his ads.

“People outside of Louisiana have no idea how strong Trump is here,” said Bernie Pinsonat, a veteran political pollster in Louisiana. “I think Cassidy’s relationship with Republicans in Louisiana is fractured and might not be able to be repaired. We’ve never seen a senator win reelection and then immediately alienate most of the people who elected him.”

Not all of the state parties are reacting with punitive measures.

In Utah, where Sen. Mitt Romney (R) voted to convict and Sen. Mike Lee (R) voted to acquit, the state GOP released a statement praising its senators for voting their conscience and expressing their independence.

“The differences between our own Utah Republicans showcase a diversity of thought, in contrast to the danger of a party fixated on unanimity of thought,” the state party said. “There is power in our differences as a political party.”

Frustrated grassroots conservatives in Utah passed around their own article of censure, saying Romney had “embarrassed the state of Utah” and “misrepresented himself as a Republican.”

The top brass at the Maine GOP hasn’t publicly addressed Collins’s vote to convict Trump. But in an email to state Republican committee members on Saturday, party chair Demi Kouzounas told state GOP officials to “be prepared for an emergency state committee meeting in the near future,” a sign that the party could be readying a censure of Collins.

“I understand many of you are upset after what happened today as are we, and many of you have reached out to me,” Kouzounas wrote, later adding: “Rest assured, we hear you, we understand how you feel, and we will be having an open and robust discussion about it as a committee.”

Tags 2022 midterm elections Alaska Ben Sasse Bill Cassidy Bill Stepien Capitol breach Donald Trump Impeachment Joe Biden Lisa Murkowski Liz Cheney Louisiana Maine Mike Lee Mitt Romney Nebraska Pat Toomey Richard Burr Susan Collins Tom Rice Utah
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