UPDATE (Feb. 16, 2021, 9:03 a.m.): This article and table have been revised to reflect Sen. Richard Burr’s censure by the North Carolina GOP Monday night.
Republicans in the U.S. House this month opted to keep Rep. Liz Cheney on the party’s leadership team despite frustration over her vote in favor of then-President Trump’s second impeachment. And Cheney and other congressional Republicans who either backed impeachment or publicly criticized Trump over his attempts to overturn the election results haven’t faced any real repercussions from their GOP colleagues in Washington.
But that’s only the story in Washington. Local and state-level Republican parties are sharply attacking and even formally censuring prominent figures in the party like Cheney who have broken with Trump. And that’s part of a broader narrative within the GOP: The party’s most-Trump and pro-Trumpism contingent and the forces in the party pushing its growing radical and antidemocratic tendencies are often not national Republicans, but those at the local and state levels.
The party’s reaction to the attack on the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6 by Trump supporters is perhaps the clearest example of this dynamic. In Washington, the attack resulted in Trump facing a backlash from a few GOP lawmakers. Outside Washington, those who criticized Trump for his role in the attack are the ones facing the backlash.
Only days after Cheney’s colleagues in Washington didn’t punish her, the Wyoming Republican Party did. They passed a formal resolution condemning Cheney for voting for Trump’s impeachment, calling for her immediate resignation and declaring the party will no longer support her politically. The official state GOP parties in Arizona, Louisiana, North Carolina and South Carolina have also censured prominent Republicans in their states for breaking with the former president, as have county-level GOP officials in Illinois, Kentucky, Nebraska, Michigan and Washington state. The Republican Party in Oregon released a resolution condemning all 10 U.S. House Republicans who voted for impeachment (none are from Oregon), compared them to Benedict Arnold and suggested the pro-impeachment Republicans were “conspiring to surrender our nation to Leftist forces seeking to establish a dictatorship.”
|Censured by a state GOP|
|Supported Biden’s …||Voted in favor of Trump’s …|
|Censured by a county GOP or multiple counties|
|Supported Biden’s …||Voted in favor of Trump’s …|
Beyond defending Trump himself, state and local Republicans are perhaps the party’s biggest advocates of the kind of white-identity politics that is sometimes referred to as Trumpism. For example, GOP officials at the state level are now trying to bar schools from using materials from the New York Times’s 1619 Project, which focuses on the central role of slavery in American history. Such bans would effectively use government power to censor part of the public discourse and silence a project hated by many conservatives because of its critical look at Trump-style white-identity politics.
Also, GOP officials in states, not those in D.C., were the ones who pioneered laws designed to make it harder for liberal-leaning constituencies like Black Americans and college students to vote. Now, GOP officials in states are aggressively trying to limit vote-by-mail programs, after a 2020 election in which Democrats won in part because of strong turnout and Democrats voted by mail at much higher rates than Republicans.
In Trump’s bid to overturn the election results, GOP state legislators, local and state party officials and GOP state attorneys general were often enthusiastically supporting his moves, while Republicans such as Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell generally didn’t condemn the effort but didn’t openly embrace it either.
“The state level is where we see the most important democratic backsliding, and it’s happening at the behest of Republican state officials,” said Jake Grumbach, a political scientist at the University of Washington who studies state politics. According to an analysis by Grumbach, the greatest predictor of whether a state has taken antidemocratic steps, such as really aggressive gerrymandering or efforts to make it harder for people to vote, is if Republicans control its state legislature and governor’s office.
U.S. states are increasingly not “laboratories of democracy,” Grumbach said, but “laboratories of democratic backsliding.”
“The latest manifestation of the ongoing crisis of American democracy was the insurrectionist mob at the Capitol,” he said. “But the democratic crisis has been brewing at the state level for years.”
I don’t mean to overstate my case. There were plenty of Republicans in Washington, mostly notably those in the Freedom Caucus in the House, that also supported Trump’s attempts to overturn the election results. And of course, Trump himself, and his team of advisers and aides, were until very recently working in Washington and breaking with democratic norms. But the growing antidemocratic radicalism of the GOP is in many ways most aggressive and best illustrated by what is happening at the local and state levels. And that dynamic raises an important question: Why are Republicans more extreme at the state and local levels compared to nationally?
This is a hard question to answer, so here are some theories, based on my own reporting and discussions with journalists and scholars who focus on state-level policy:
The GOP has more power at the state level.
To gain complete control of the federal government in Washington, a party needs a majority in the U.S. House, a 60-seat-filibuster-proof majority in the U.S. Senate and the presidency. Democrats had that briefly in 2009, but Republicans haven’t had that kind of unfettered power in recent decades. So even when Republicans had control of the White House and both chambers of Congress in Washington in 2017 and 2018, they were limited to legislation that can pass via majority vote in the Senate, such as judicial appointees and measures on fiscal policy like tax cuts that can be adopted through the “reconciliation” process. So without 60 votes in the Senate, Republicans couldn’t pass national versions of some of the changes in voting laws that they have advanced at the state level.
But at the state level, minority parties typically don’t have as powerful a tool as the U.S. Senate’s filibuster, and Republicans often have huge majorities in the state legislatures anyway, in part through gerrymandering.
So in states like Texas, where Republicans have had complete control of the government since 2003, the party can aggressively gerrymander and try to change voting rules without worrying about pushback, except from the courts. Democrats in such states have little say in the governing process or ability to defeat the GOP electorally.
Republicans at the state level “don’t feel especially constrained,” said Philip Rocco, a political scientist at Marquette University. “What do they have to worry about?”
Ari Berman, a journalist who writes extensively about voting rights, argued the wave of voting laws adopted by Republicans after they gained control of many state legislatures after the 2010 election helped foment an antidemocratic drift in the party that accelerated under Trump.
“The explosion of voting restrictions begins in 2011. Now, you are seeing another explosion of those laws,” said Berman.
There is less scrutiny of GOP activities at the state level.
America’s political media is heavily concentrated in Washington and largely focused on the White House and Congress. Much to the frustration of many Democratic Party activists, major Democratic organizations also tend to be based in Washington and often more focused on federal policy as opposed to what is happening in states and localities. So that means Republicans at the state level can take fairly aggressive actions with less of a chance of drawing a massive backlash or other negative attention.
Similarly, GOP state legislative races generally get less scrutiny and attention from the media than those for the U.S. House and GOP gubernatorial candidates get less scrutiny than Republican candidates for U.S. Senate and president.
“State politics have always had some limits on democratic accountability. But what happened after 2010 was Republicans realized they could leverage that,” said Rocco.
The party’s anti-establishment wing is disproportionately strong and its establishment wing is very weak at the local level.
The party’s more establishment wing seems to be more powerful the higher up the government ranks you go. In Washington, Republicans in the U.S. Senate are led by more traditional figures like McConnell and Sen. John Thune. (This dynamic was clear, for example, in the post-insurrection votes on the certification of the 2020 election results — a much higher percentage of Senate Republicans were willing to certify Joe Biden’s electoral wins, compared to Republicans in the House.) But at the local and state level, activists aligned with the Trump wing of the party are dominant.
In Washington, Cheney kept her leadership position in a 145-61 vote among House Republicans. But in Wyoming, the censure vote against her was lopsided in the other direction. There was not a formal roll call, but only eight members of the 74-person Wyoming GOP central committee opposed the censure of Cheney.
Why would the anti-establishment wing be more powerful at the state level than in Washington? Well, the forces that push the party in a more traditional direction are generally business groups, who would prefer a Republican Party focused on issues like tax cuts instead of “owning the libs.” Those groups have a lot of reason to invest money and energy in helping McConnell-style Republicans who can pass tax cuts and deregulation bills that can help corporations get seats in Congress. Those business groups have little incentive to get very involved in GOP politics at the state level, particularly in small states like Wyoming.
Also, members of Congress in Washington, particularly senators with six-year terms, are hard to dislodge. But there aren’t a lot of GOP officials at the local or state level as entrenched as someone like McConnell or Thune. So Trump-aligned conservatives, often with the support of the former president and his political aides, have invested deeply in state-level politics and been able to gain power fairly quickly and easily.
In Iowa, “most of the county parties are dominated by Trump supporters,” said Laura Belin, who runs the Iowa politics blog Bleeding Heartland. Belin noted that after the GOP party chair in Scott County, Iowa, a longtime Republican activist, suggested that Trump should be impeached over what happened Jan. 6, GOP activists in the county forced him to resign from his post.
Lara Putnam, a historian at the University of Pittsburgh, said that in Pennsylvania, gerrymandering has resulted in the election of very right-wing state legislators. She also said Trump’s leadership of the GOP has resulted in Mitt Romney-style Republican voters in Pennsylvania leaving the party, while those who stay or join the GOP are more tied to Trump and his political style than any kind of pre-Trump Republican ideology.
“The incumbents — those who survived the realignment election of 2018 — are now representing a solid mass of constituents who are more often ‘Trump Republicans’ than old-school/institutional ones,” Putnam said. “What this adds up to is state-level Republican representatives who are more firmly aligned with Donald Trump after his loss in 2020 than they were after his victory in 2016.”
Some of the moves by Republicans at the state and local levels, like the resolutions against Cheney and other pro-impeachment Republicans, are largely symbolic gestures that don’t mean too much. But they’re a good barometer of where state-level GOP officials fall in today’s political landscape.
And the really big, looming issue is that much of America’s election system is set up at the state level. In the 2020 cycle, some state-level Republicans, most notably Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger, put their respect for democracy values over their party loyalty and were willing to acknowledge and defend Biden’s electoral victory. But there is no guarantee Republican secretaries of state and officials in similar positions will make those pro-democracy decisions in the future.
A Republican Party that seems increasingly unwilling to abide by democratic norms could install officials in key swing states who basically won’t allow a Democrat to win any election. That possibility is real, and would present an incredible threat to American democracy.
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