WASHINGTON — Months after Donald Trump left the Oval Office, Republicans at the state and local level are cementing their loyalty to the one-term president, assuring that Trump will remain the party’s future despite his November defeat.
From espousing his discredited election conspiracy theories to threatening to secede, state and local officials are increasingly leaving aside community issues to reflect Trump’s ongoing hold of the national GOP.
The extension of Trump’s dominance in the GOP down to local leaders compounds the party’s consolidation behind an uncompromisingly right-wing, grievance-oriented politics that centers conspiracy theories and threats to democratic legitimacy.
“What is historically new is the orientation of all local and state politics towards distant national and ideological issues. This is polarizing and disabling,” said Timothy Snyder, a professor of history at Yale University who studies authoritarianism. “Local and state government is meant to handle local and state issues.”
One Trump grievance that has worked its way into state and local parties: the 2020 election. In Colorado, state GOP chairwoman Kristi Burton Brown was reelected after making repeated claims there are “very valid questions still being asked about the 2020 election.”
In Arizona, the GOP-controlled state Senate launched a months-long audit of 2020 presidential election in the state’s most populous county, a move strongly opposed by Maricopa County Republican officials as its justifications are rooted in baseless conspiracy theories.
Since Trump’s loss in the state, Arizona Republicans have alleged a number of false election fraud conspiracy theories as reasons for his defeat. The state GOP has launched a third ballot audit, which is now being conducted by the firm Cyber Ninjas, whose chief was a strong proponent of the “Stop the Steal” campaign that came to a head at the Jan. 6 riot at the U.S. Capitol.
Fourteen states have passed laws making it harder to vote since last November, with dozens more bills under consideration, speaking to the grievances Trump and his most loyal supporters aired in 2020. Critics argue they will lead to voter suppression, most often of minority voters.
“At this moment in the Republican Party, his presence is dominating,” said Matt Terrill, a partner at Firehouse Strategies who served as chief of staff to Marco Rubio’s presidential campaign.
Many of the changes among local Republicans have trickled down from national shifts.
Last month, Rep. Liz Cheney, R-Wyo., was removed from House GOP leadership over her denunciation of Trump’s lies, while Sen. Mitt Romney, R-Utah, was booed by a crowd at a Utah Republican Party event.
House Republicans’ decision to oust Cheney from leadership “was not an aggressive move to ‘purge’ non-Trump elements, but simply a function of the reality that most Republican elected officials and rank-and-file voters support Trump, and it’s hard to have someone in party leadership who doesn’t,” said Patrick Ruffini, a Republican strategist and co-founder of the polling firm Echelon Insights.
“That’s why you see most Republicans making a toned-down case that Cheney was not on message and not a team player, rather than this being an all-out effort to punish disloyalty to Trump,” he continued.
Republican lawmakers who supported impeaching the former president, like Sen. Bill Cassidy, R-La., and Reps. Peter Meijer, R-Mich., and Adam Kinzinger, R-Illin., have also been reprimanded by their state and local parties.
“The idea that there’s a serious factional battle between pro-Trump and anti-Trump forces is overplayed. The lion’s share of Republicans support Trump to at least some degree,” Ruffini said.
“The real divide is not between people who support Trump and those who don’t, but between those who support Trump and think he should be the model moving forward and those who support Trump but think that he was not very disciplined and are open to new leaders,” he added. “It’s a more subtle distinction than the Liz Cheney fight would suggest.”
State parties rally around Trump-like vision, ponder secession
The situation amounts to a party both still enthralled with its former president and continued standard-bearer, while also reflecting the resentments of its most loyal supporters, analysts said.
In Michigan, Meshawn Maddock, the co-chair of the state Republican Party, recently called for the state to secede from the U.S. “to escape Michigan Democratic Gov. Gretchen Whitmer’s tyrannical rule” over the state.
Maddock repeatedly spread conspiracy theories about the COVID-19 pandemic and election fraud conspiracy theories in the run-up to and aftermath of the 2020 election, claiming that Democrats in the state stole the election from Trump.
Her co-chair, Ron Weiser, in March called Whitmer and other Democratic leaders in the state “witches” and suggested “assassination” as a warranted response to the two Michigan GOP congressman who voted to impeach Trump in 2021, Reps. Peter Meijer and Fred Upton.
Weiser later said his remarks, which were captured at a meeting of GOP party leadership with conservative base voters, were taken out of context.
In Oklahoma, former state representative John Bennett’s election as head of the state GOP caused backlash from local Democrats and Muslim Americans who denounced comments Bennett has made calling Islam a “cancer in our nation that needs to be cut out.”
Bennett, who in 2016 said former Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton should be put to death by “firing squad,” was also an ardent proponent of Trump’s many election conspiracy theories.
Besides false claims of election fraud, many elected officials around the country have openly begun to ponder secession or forms of violence.
In December, after the Supreme Court declined to hear a Texas lawsuit attempting to overturn the election, state GOP chair Allen West openly considered secession from the country as a response.
“Perhaps law-abiding states should bond together and form a Union of states that will abide by the constitution,” West said in a statement.
A longstanding push by Republican-leaning counties in Oregon and California to secede from their states and be incorporated into Idaho also regained traction after the 2020 election, with some state GOP politicians citing election fraud in their reasoning.
The Oregon GOP issued a January statement calling the violent ransacking of the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6 a “false flag” operation orchestrated to “surrender our nation to Leftist forces seeking to establish a dictatorship void of all cherished freedoms and liberties.”
GOP candidates jockey for Trump-loyal base
Candidates across the country competing for GOP nominations must now increasingly fight to prove their pro-Trump credentials on policy, temperament and values in pursuit of a conservative base of voters still receptive to Trump’s style of politics.
“The base of the party right now appears to be uniting behind President Trump and his rhetoric,” Terrill said, adding that it is very clear who is driving party policy and strategy: “It’s been those GOP base voters, it’s been those primary voters.”
Ambitious Republican politicians jockeying for that loyal base have taken to imitating Trump’s style and repeating false claims about the election as signs of loyalty to the former president’s “America First” worldview.
In Virginia, the Republican candidate for governor, Glenn Youngkin, cast doubt on the legitimacy of the 2020 presidential election until after he won the nomination. The former private equity executive continues to make calls for “election integrity” an integral part of his campaign.
In Ohio, former state treasurer Josh Mandel, who is the party’s frontrunner vying for the GOP nomination to replace Sen. Rob Portman, R-Ohio, in the Senate, recently told a crowd of supporters that the 2020 election “was stolen from Donald Trump.” Mandel contended, “my squishy establishment opponents in this race won’t say those words. But I will.”
In perhaps the most illustrative cases, the scions of some of the GOP’s most storied political dynasties have pivoted from their family’s traditional brands and toward Trumpism.
George P. Bush, whose father Trump defeated in the 2016 GOP presidential primary, has made repeated positive comments about the former president for years and is now courting Trump’s endorsement ahead of a primary challenge for the GOP Texas attorney general nomination.
Ronna McDaniel, chair of the RNC and niece to Sen. Mitt Romney, was unanimously re-elected to her post days after the Jan. 6 Capitol riots. In her acceptance speech, McDaniel condemned the violence at the Capitol while thanking Trump for his continued support of her candidacy.
McDaniel also did not acknowledge Trump’s election loss, only briefly referencing the upcoming “transition of power.”
One party, under Trump
Polls consistently find Trump remains a popular figure within the party. Over half of Republicans said Trump is the “true president” in a recent Reuters/Ipsos poll, while a February USA TODAY/Suffolk poll found most GOP voters still firmly behind the former president.
“It is not something that all of a sudden happened or is totally new,” Terrill said of the conservative base’s preferences. “What we’re seeing taking shape right now is only unveiling and unpacking what has been taking place in the party for some time. In 2010, you saw the rise of the Tea Party and along the way you’ve seen these base voters in the party leaning in different directions and in 2016 you certainly saw the election of Donald Trump,” he said.
“The big issue for Democrats right now is recognizing that while they may think the Republican Party is divided they might be more unified than they realize,” Terrill continued.
Given Trump’s current centrality to the party, Terrill said, it is very likely he’d win the GOP primary again in 2024 should he run. “This is a defining moment for the party in terms of which direction it goes.”
Follow Matthew Brown online @mrbrownsir.