Trump-allied GOP chairs turn on fellow Republicans
State Republican Party chairs who have bought into former President Trump’s lies of widespread election malfeasance are turning their fire on fellow Republicans who have acknowledged the reality of Trump’s defeat, in a turn that has longtime party leaders and strategists worried about the future of the conservative coalition.
For most of modern political history, a state party chair’s role has been confined to raising money and building an organization that can contact voters and elect candidates. Their job is much more often to promote those who win primaries than to wade in on behalf of a specific contender during those primaries.
But in the age of Trump, some party leaders are as eager to talk about the perceived turncoats within their own ranks as they are to go after the opposition party.
In Arizona, state Republican Party Chair Kelli Ward has carried out a long-running feud with Gov. Doug Ducey (R), as well as members of the state legislature who do not fully support the state Senate’s so-called audit of nearly 2.1 million votes cast in Maricopa County last year.
Asked in an interview in May about state House Majority Leader Ben Toma and state Sen. Paul Boyer, two Republicans who oppose the recount, Ward laughed.
“They both will face primary challenges if they decide to run again and they stand to be replaced by actual Republicans,” Ward told The Hill. She said Ducey “isn’t standing up and fighting against critical race theory … isn’t standing up fighting for election integrity.”
In Oklahoma, new state Republican Party Chairman John Bennett addressed a rally organized by pastor Jackson Lahmeyer (R), who is challenging Sen. James Lankford in next year’s Republican primary.
Bennett told reporters last month he would support Lahmeyer because Lankford withdrew an objection to the certification of the 2020 presidential election results after the Jan. 6 insurrection. Bennett told The Oklahoman that just because a candidate is a Republican doesn’t make that candidate “the right pick.”
In Texas, state Republican Party Chairman Allen West said over the weekend he would leave his post to challenge Gov. Greg Abbott (R) in next year’s primary. West did not mention Abbott in his announcement, though the former Florida congressman said he would work to secure the southern border “to ensure that Texas is for Texans.”
And several state Republican parties, from Ohio to North Carolina to Michigan and Washington, have voted to censure or otherwise rebuke the Republican members of Congress who voted to impeach or convict Trump for his role in the Jan. 6 insurrection.
The new agitators, all elected to their posts after Trump won the White House, are a reflection of the priorities of a Republican base that is interested more in fealty to the deposed president than in standard conservative doctrine.
“State party chairs are elected by the grassroots. They are not accountable to the elected officials, they are accountable to the grassroots, and if they don’t do what the grassroots want them to do, they won’t be chair for very long,” said Chris Vance, a former chairman of the Washington State Republican Party who became an independent shortly after Trump won election. “Today’s base of the Republican Party is, are you loyal to Trump? This activism of Trumpist state party chairs is driven by the same thing that’s driving the entire party.”
Even some Trump-backing Republicans see a danger in the internal warfare now consuming key state parties. While Lankford is unlikely to lose in a state where no Democrat has carried even a single county in a presidential race since Al Gore in 2000, the Arizona legislature is in Republican hands by the slimmest of margins, and Democrats harbor hopes of competing in Texas in the near future.
“When Republican chairmen take their eye off the ball from building the party, raising money and ensuring a party machine infrastructure to elect more Republicans, then I think it’s a mistake and misguided,” said Saul Anuzis, a former Michigan Republican Party chairman who backed Trump’s reelection. “The idea of taking on the likes of Gov. Abbott or Sen. Lankford or other conservative to mainstream Republicans is a huge waste of resources and time.”
The Republican Party today is much more homogenous than it was in decades past, where conservative Southerners and libertarian Westerners formed coalitions with more liberal Northeasterners in the mold of Nelson Rockefeller — just as the Democratic Party is less heterogeneous than its past coalition of conservative Southerners and moderate and liberal Northerners.
But to maintain a winning coalition, Anuzis said Republicans had to continue the marriage of Trump’s most ardent backers and those who want to move past a defeated former leader.
“If we are to win a governing majority, we need a party that can grow and accept traditional Republicans, those part of the three-legged stool coalition of defense, social issues and economic conservatives, as well as the new MAGA voters and Tea Party activists of late,” he said. “Our goal should be to grow the party, win elections, ultimately elect a governing majority that can legislate policy.”
Trump has made that task all the more difficult as he presses state legislators, governors and local officials to find nonexistent evidence that he won an election he clearly lost.
In recent days, Trump has issued statements through his political action committee condemning the “RINOs,” or Republicans in name only, both generally and by name. On Sunday, he addressed those who “have no idea what this movement is all about. In fact, they are perhaps our biggest problem.”
In the last month, Trump has used the statements to attack Ducey; his former attorney general, William Barr; Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.); Michigan state Sens. Mike Shirkey (R) and Ed McBroom (R); Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska); and Pennsylvania state Sens. Jake Corman (R) and David Argall (R). At the same time, he has named President Biden only twice, and Vice President Harris once.
The state Republicans who have adopted Trump’s approach, Vance said, are putting the broader party’s chances of reclaiming seats in the coming midterm elections at risk.
“They are doubling down every day on a Republican-only strategy. In some places that works. In Arkansas and West Virginia and places like that. But not in most of the rest of the swing states and swing districts,” Vance said. “They are pushing the party farther and farther away from suburban, moderate independents.”