In Fight Over GOP, State Parties Stand as Firewall for Trump

January 29, 2021

Donald Trump has mused about forming a third party. But it's not clear why he needs one. 

As he faces an impeachment trial for inciting insurrection, state and county Republican Party committees have rushed to Trump's defense — highlighting the former president's firm control of the GOP machinery.

In swing states and GOP bastions, state and local Republican committees are stocked with Trump supporters who remain loyal. Trump critics have been pushed out or marginalized. Party committees from Washington state to South Carolina have moved to punish many of the 10 House Republicans who supported Trump's impeachment for egging on the deadly Jan. 6 raid of the U.S. Capitol. 

Trump's lock on the party apparatus is the result of a yearslong takeover of an institution he only loosely affiliated with before taking office. The effect amounts to a firewall protecting him and his far-right, nationalist politics from Republicans who argue the party needs a new direction if it wants to win elections.

"It's come to the point where you have to be with him 100 percent of the time, or you're the enemy," said Dave Millage, a former Iowa lawmaker who was pushed out as Scott County GOP chairman after calling for Trump's impeachment.

On Saturday, the South Carolina GOP will decide whether to censure Republican Rep. Tom Rice for his vote to impeach the former president. It's a move meant to scar the five-term congressman for what many of his constituents considered a betrayal, said GOP chairwoman Dreama Perdue in Rice's home Horry County.

In some cases, the state parties' defense of Trump has exposed the extent to which disinformation, conspiracy theories and views once considered fringe have been normalized in the GOP. 

In Oregon, the state party last week released a resolution passed by its executive committee that in part falsely alleged the Capitol attack was a "false flag" designed to embarrass Trump supporters. State parties in Hawaii and Texas have recently tweeted references to the QAnon conspiracy theory, which claims Trump is waging a secret battle against the "deep state" and a sect of powerful devil-worshipping pedophiles including top Democrats.

In other states, the rapid defense of Trump is notable for Republicans' willingness to double down on Trumpism even after voters rejected it. 

The Arizona state party Saturday reelected its controversial Trump loyalist chairwoman, Kelli Ward and censured Trump critics Cindy McCain, former Sen. Jeff Flake and even Gov. Doug Ducey, a Republican Trump supporter who offended the party leadership by certifying Trump's loss in the state. 

In Washington state, several county party committees have called for the removal of the two House members who voted for Trump's impeachment. Primary challengers have begun lining up to take on all 10 Republican House members who voted to impeach Trump. 

Trump's hold on state parties reflects the ex-president's continued popularity with the base and the work his political operation has done to plant loyalists in the typically obscure local GOP apparatus. His re-election campaign focused heavily on packing state and county committees with devotees to avoid the spectacle of 2016, when many in the party's machinery fought Trump's nomination. 

Chuck Coughlin, a Republican strategist in Arizona, said he is troubled by what Ward's victory says about the party's inability to shake Trump, the first Republican presidential candidate to lose the state since 1996. 

Ward pushed for Trump to "cross the Rubicon" in challenging the results election, he said, a reference to Julius Caesar's military push toward Rome that sparked a civil war and dictatorship.

"The party as it's currently defined today, as the party of Trump, cannot win statewide elections in Arizona," he said. "A smart party would try to figure out how to be more inclusive and not exclusive."

"Literally, this is idol worship." 

But Trump brought in millions of new voters to the party with his populist approach. And Republicans should welcome those voters decision to stay involved, even when Trump is not on the ballot, argued Constantin Querard, a conservative Republican strategist in Arizona. 

"Without Trump, some of them will go home, but some of them will stick around forever," he said. 

Republicans' worry, however, is that the newcomers drive away other potential Republican voters. 

Nearly 5,000 Arizona voters dropped their GOP voter registration in nine days after the Capitol attack, state figures show. In Pennsylvania, another state Trump lost, nearly 10,000 voters registered as Republicans had dropped their GOP affiliation as of Monday, according to state data.

On Wednesday, the Oregon state house Republican caucus distanced itself from the "false flag" claim in a statement and tried to shift attention to economic issues. "The election is over. It is time to govern," said the statement, signed by 23 representatives.

"That's the challenge in this period, can the state-level people rein it in?" said Christopher Nichols, director for the Center for Humanities at Oregon State University.

Trump's hold on the party structure isn't likely to ease soon. In many cases, supporters are elected to posts with multi-year terms and positioned to keep rising. 

In Michigan, an establishment Republican fundraiser Ron Weiser is favored to become the next state party chairman. But to bolster his bid for the post, he picked a No. 2 with Trump credentials. 

He chose Meshawn Maddock, a conservative activist who organized Michigan's 19-bus delegation to the Jan. 6 "Stop the Steal" rally and has posted images of Michigan's Democratic Gov. Gretchen Whitmer altered to resemble Adolf Hitler.

If Weiser wins, Maddock will be next line for chairwoman in the battleground state.


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