‘Get on the team or shut up’: How Trump created an army of GOP enforcers

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There and elsewhere, state party chairmen have been at the center of a series of resolutions to reprimand or reprimand GOP lawmakers deemed insufficiently loyal to Trump.

In red states, blue states, and swing states, these leaders—almost all of whom were elected during the Trump presidency or immediately afterward—redefine the traditional role of the state party chairman. They emerge not only as guardians of the former president’s political legacy, but as key enforcers of Trumpism within the GOP.

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Running for a new term in 2024 looks set to be a boon for him, but it also risks tying the party’s fate too closely to an ex-president whose political brand is toxic to many voters.

“It’s purity tests, 100 percent,” said Landon Brown, a Wyoming Republican state legislator whose state party chairman Frank Eathorne earned Trump’s public approval for reelection this year after state party Rep. Liz Cheney had censored her vote to impeach Trump. “When it comes to the party, what I’ve come to see, especially in the last four to five years… it’s much more of a hard line, defined, ‘If you don’t vote this way, you’re not a Republican. ‘”

Open warfare by state party presidents against elected officials was once rare, and disagreements were usually kept discreet in the interest of party unity. Top party leaders were in charge of party building and fundraising, and were used to showing respect to state senators and governors, or working diligently to advance their political interests.

But Trump’s penchant for intra-party conflict and demands for absolute loyalty changed the equation. As president-elect, he personally intervened in an attempt to oust an Ohio state president who had criticized him. When he endorsed Eathorne’s reelection in April, Trump cited Eathorne’s role in disapproving of Cheney. In his March endorsement of David Shafer, the party chairman of Georgia, Trump said, “No one in Georgia has fought harder for me than David!”

Shafer had even gone so far as to join a lawsuit against the November election results, suing his own state’s Republican election official. The state party formally reprimanded Brad Raffensperger, Georgia’s Republican secretary of state, at his convention last month.

Between Trump’s still dominant hand on the party and a GOP base that remains intensely loyal to the former president, the need for state party chairmen to intertwine his interests with the party’s — fear that if he doesn’t does, supporters can become alienated. This is despite Trump’s failure to win a second term and losing Republican majorities in Congress while on hold.

“The party has been taken over by people elected since he became president, who basically said, ‘Get on the team or shut up,'” said Allen Weh, a former New Mexico Republican Party chairman and ally. from Trump. .

Those dynamics have increased the importance of party presidents as political actors — in some cases rivaling those who are actually on the ballot. The presidents have considerable latitude in their states — from recruiting candidates to deciding which candidates to invite to plum lectures, to allocating money for voter registration and other programs. Several Republican state parties have completely canceled their 2020 presidential nomination contests, isolating Trump from the long-term challengers, including in South Carolina. There, former state governor Mark Sanford couldn’t even get a hearing.

Bill Weld, a former two-term Massachusetts governor who became president in 2020, also ran into a wall in his home state. The state party changed the way it allocated delegates to presidential candidates to ensure that in 2020 Trump would not lose even a single delegate to the former state governor, who won reelection in the 1990s in a landslide.

Jim Lyons, the pro-Trump chairman of the state party, has clashed bitterly with moderate GOP government Charlie Baker, who has made it clear that he is not a fan of Trump. Baker — one of the country’s most popular governors — has not announced his intentions for 2022, but a Lyon ally and former co-chair of the Trump campaign in Massachusetts, Geoff Diehl, has already announced his intention to run for office. for governor.

John Thomas, a Republican strategist who works on House campaigns across the country, said the pro-Trump stance of the vast majority of state party chairmen across the country is likely to have a “direct impact” on recruiting. of candidates and the allocation of resources for the party. the midterm elections.

“Party chairmen, that’s one of their main jobs recruiting candidates, so often party chairmen will recruit them to their image or ideological worldview,” Thomas said. “So I think it’s safe to say, like in Oklahoma, that they don’t go to recruit candidates who look like [Utah Sen.] Mitt Romney.”

In addition, he said: “Party chairmen can decide where to invest in things like voter registration and stuff. So if they have a particular incumbent that they don’t like that doesn’t align with Trump’s worldview, they can also punish incumbents and potential challengers.”

Ultimately, Trump himself could be the biggest beneficiary of the party’s fluctuating makeup if he runs for another term in 2024. Republican National Committee chairman Ronna McDaniel pledged neutrality when she was re-elected to her post after Trump’s defeat. But outside of Washington, it’s a different story.

“Having a network of state party presidents is a huge advantage,” said Matt Moore, former chairman of the Republican Party of South Carolina. “State seats have huge megaphones. They choose annual dinner speakers, who are featured in little things like weekly newsletters. They have a lot of power.”

Drew McKissick, South Carolina’s current GOP chairman, who has been endorsed by Trump for reelection not once or twice this year, but three times, said Trump is “definitely in a position, because of his experience and the new people and manpower that will be available.” he has brought into the party, to have an incredible number of people supporting him.”

McKissick said, “He understands the importance of the actual party structure.”

The pro-Trump constellation of state party GOP chairmen largely reflects the sentiment of a Republican electorate that remains overwhelmingly loyal to Trump. And fervent support for the president has benefited parties across the country, with participation increasing at the local level. Georgian Republicans saw record crowds at local organizing rallies earlier this year, with many of the newcomers raving about Trump and outraged by the election results. The number of activists and volunteers who have volunteered to join local parties in South Carolina has roughly doubled since McKissick was first elected in 2017, he said, to about 10,000 today.

While GOP registration in Massachusetts is dwindling, Lyons said Trump has been goading Republicans at the grassroots level.

On a local level, dozens of activists who run local GOP operations have held district or county posts long before Trump was elected. That has led some presidents to say that the idea that the party has changed drastically under Trump has been exaggerated. Jennifer Carnahan, the chairman of the Minnesota Republican Party, said the party has remained largely unchanged at its core since Trump was elected. Although Trump brought “new people” into the party, she said, “A lot of these people have been around for decades, right? … I would say that the core heart of the Minnesota GOP activist base is largely these really committed individuals who are just a love our party, our values.”

But public criticism of Trump is almost unheard of at every level within the ranks of the state party’s leadership — and largely unsupported within a party operation Trump has shaped for more than four years. The Attention Now Oklahoma GOP Chairman John Bennett Is Getting supporting a primary challenge to US Senator James Lankford is just the most recent example.

In Alaska on the weekend, state party officials endorsed a primary challenge to Senator Lisa Murkowski, who was critical of Trump. Before that it was Kelli Ward, the bombastic chairman of the state party, undermine Ducey in Arizona. Eathorne, Wyoming’s party chairman, was at the Capitol in Washington on the day of the Jan. 6 riots. he said he only participated in peaceful protests.

Wyoming’s state legislator, Brown, objected to the state party’s disapproval of Cheney, calling on Eathorne to resign after the state party’s chairman brought up the idea of ​​separation earlier this year.

“I will not attend state party meetings while he is still in office,” Brown said. “It’s an echo chamber in our state party.”

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