But Cassidy, who just started a six-year term after being reelected by a 40-point margin, did not appear bothered by the threat of grass-roots anger back home, joining a growing list of lawmakers who have decided, for politics or principle, to buck the infrastructure at the lowest rungs of the party.
“As an impartial juror, I’m going to vote for the side that did the good job,” he said of the Democratic arguments he had heard in trial proceedings.
Since Trump left office, grass-roots Republican activists and state parties have become his vociferous defenders, condemning and censuring elected Republicans who dare to deviate in any way from full-throated support of the former president. That has created a backlash of its own, as some Republicans — even some who eventually may oppose impeachment — are pushing back against local leadership.
The resulting clashes have laid bare the division in the Republican Party, which some strategists worry will undercut the party’s chances in the 2022 midterm elections, when winning House and Senate majorities are likely to hinge on a united party that can draw out Trump’s supporters and win converts from among swing voters who were repelled by the former president’s politics.
As it stands, the party is still a long way from that sort of unity.
“I listen to Nebraskans every day, and very few of them are as angry about life as some of the people on this committee,” Sen. Ben Sasse (R-Neb.) said last week in a video addressed to his own state GOP committee, which was preparing another vote to condemn his criticism of Trump. “You are welcome to censure me again. But let’s be clear about why this is happening. It is because I still believe, as you used to, that politics isn’t about the weird worship of one dude.”
Even Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), who was just reelected, has faced censure in five counties in Kentucky, according to Don Thrasher, the chair of the Nelson County Republican Party, one of those that censured McConnell. But Thrasher said the state party, through procedural maneuvers, including votes in executive session, has so far prevented a formal statewide move against McConnell.
“These people are some dirty-trick people,” Thrasher said. “It’s just awful.”
Michael Lonergan, a state Republican party spokesman, responded by saying that Kentucky had voted overwhelmingly for Trump. “We’re proud that every one of our federal lawmakers voted against moving forward with impeachment,” he said.
In Michigan, state Senate leader Mike Shirkey (R) faced censure this month by the Hillsdale County party committee for his response to the coronavirus. After the vote, he went out to lunch with his detractors to chastise and attempt to charm them, in remarks that were recorded at the table and later posted online by one of the participants.
“You are dragging the whole damn county in a bad direction,” he told the county party leaders at one point, adding that he had stopped attending their meetings after they became a mess, though he used a more colorful word.
The meeting caused fresh divisions in the party; Shirkey was quoted as saying falsely that the attack on the U.S. Capitol was not carried out “by Trump people” but had been “staged” by other forces, possibly including McConnell, whom he blamed for the lack of security at the Capitol. (Shirkey has since issued an apology for unspecified “insensitive comment,” though he was later heard on an open mic saying he did not “take back any of the points I was trying to make.”)
In Arizona, the most powerful elected Republican leader in the state, Gov. Doug Ducey, has been openly hostile toward the recently reelected state party chair, Kelli Ward. When she led an effort to censure him last month for his support of the state’s election results, his adviser, Sara Mueller, released a statement saying the state party’s resolutions were “of no consequence whatsoever.”
“The people behind them have lost whatever little moral authority they may have once had,” Mueller said. Ducey won reelection in Arizona by 14 percentage points in 2018, even though Democrats won a Senate contest in the state that year.
Republican National Committee Chairwoman Ronna McDaniel has told other Republicans that she is not going to mediate the disputes, though she did warn that the censure of Ducey and other Republicans was unhelpful, and she condemned a statement by the Oregon GOP that compared those who voted for impeachment to Benedict Arnold, the American military officer in the Revolutionary War who defected to the British side.
The official stance of the national party, reflected in fundraising and McDaniel’s statements, is that the trial in the Senate is unconstitutional, though the national party has not tried to whip senators to support Trump. State and local party organizations elect their own members and operate with considerable autonomy under the GOP system.
Other Republican leaders have tried to look past the divisions in an effort to foster unity.
“I am already getting calls within the Republican Party at my grass-roots level that we are going to have to start working together,” the top House Republican campaign strategist, Rep. Tom Emmer (Minn.), said Wednesday. “There is some stuff that has to work its way through the system. But I am very confident that we have already started that process and we will be unified.”
That has not stopped the steady drumbeat for more resolutions of condemnation. In Illinois, the LaSalle County Republican Party recently voted to censure Rep. Adam Kinzinger (R-Ill.), who supported impeachment, after staging a protest rally at one of his local offices.
“It is all but guaranteed he is going to get primaried,” said Larry Smith, the chair of the Lasalle County Republican Central Committee. “I think this is going to be a barn burner.”
In Wyoming, Rep. Liz Cheney (R), who also backed Trump’s impeachment, has been censured by about half of the state’s 23 counties. A vote by the state party last weekend called on her to resign and suggested that there was “ample video evidence” that antifa, a far-left group, and Black Lives Matter instigated the attack on the Capitol, which was actually led by Trump supporters.
“The oath that I took to the Constitution compelled me to vote for impeachment, and it doesn’t bend to partisanship, it doesn’t bend to political pressure,” Cheney said in response during an appearance this week on “Fox News Sunday.” “It’s the most important oath that we take.”
The state central committee of the Nebraska Republican Party will meet Saturday to decide whether to censure Sasse, said Kolene Woodward, the Republican chairwoman in Scotts Bluff County. He won reelection to a new six-year term last year by a margin of 41 percentage points, despite regularly criticizing Trump during his presidency.
Numerous counties have moved to censure the senator over his criticism of Trump since the Capitol riot and for statements contradicting the former president’s false allegations of electoral fraud.
“He left us with the impression that the Trump-bashing would be over, which is why the state party went ahead and endorsed him,” said Woodward, who is a high school substitute history teacher.
She laughed off Sasse’s video statement criticizing party officials last week.
“In trashing Trump and saying we’re just blindly following Trump, there’s a big disconnect,” Woodward said. “Trump was our voice. He didn’t create us. We created him. He was our voice for our agenda in D.C.”
Rep. Fred Upton (R-Mich.) also is facing blowback for the criticism he has directed at Trump, as well as for his efforts to quarantine extremist elements of his own party. In addition to voting in favor of impeachment last month, he also was one of just 11 Republicans who joined Democrats in stripping Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-Ga.) of her committee assignments for her past incendiary statements.
Of the two votes by Upton, the one for impeachment has been more of a lightning rod in his southwestern Michigan district, said Scott McGraw, the Republican chairman in Kalamazoo County. Republican leaders, who issued a statement denouncing the vote, have been holding Zoom meetings to discuss constituent anger. Upton’s staff has been attending the meetings, and the congressman himself joined for one of the sessions.
“Fred has had this image where he’s been a little more moderate at times, and then sometimes he’s conservative or portraying himself as conservative,” McGraw said. “He’s a nice guy. We like him. I personally think he does a really good job.”
Isaac Stanley-Becker contributed to this report.