When former President Donald Trump spoke at the Conservative Political Action Conference on Sunday, he singled out for retribution each of the 17 Republicans in Congress who voted to either impeach or convict him for his conduct leading up to the deadly Capitol riot on Jan. 6.
Trump's taking aim at fellow Republicans is nothing new. In fact, it was a defining feature of his outsider bid for the GOP nomination in 2016. But now, Trump is the party’s ultimate insider — especially after having reshaped the grassroots GOP apparatus, at a local and state level, in his image.
With Trump seeking to remain the most influential voice in GOP politics heading into next year's midterms, potentially launching another presidential bid in 2024, it’s those state and local leaders who are working to help maintain his standing in the party by taking aim at detractors and anyone seeking to shift the GOP in a different direction.
Most notably, these state and local parties launched a barrage of censures or other forms of condemnation not long after a violent pro-Trump mob — inspired by the former president’s lie about a stolen election and egged on that day by Trump himself — stormed the Capitol intent on disrupting Congress as it formalized President Joe Biden’s win. Many of the efforts were aimed at the small number of Republicans who voted in favor of impeachment or conviction after House Democrats moved swiftly to impeach Trump on the charge of "incitement to insurrection."
In Louisiana, the state GOP censured one of its U.S. senators, Bill Cassidy, moments after he voted to convict Trump. North Carolina's state GOP passed a similar measure aimed at Sen. Richard Burr just days later.
In Illinois, Larry Smith, chair of the LaSalle County Republican Party and a leader in the effort to censure Rep. Adam Kinzinger after he voted to impeach Trump, told NBC News that local GOP leaders in his state are “overwhelmingly still pro-Trump,” and that the detractors amount to “a splinter group by comparison.”
“I think they're stunningly naive or have completely misread the tea leaves,” he said of Republicans who believe they can leave Trump behind.
He pointed to comments from Kinzinger in The Atlantic in which the lawmaker expressed hope that the segment of the GOP base ready to move past Trump could grow to 35 or 45 percent by the midterm elections.
It's "just dazzling that they think that will erode, because I don't see that at all,” he said.
Not all of the condemnations were a direct result of an impeachment vote. In Arizona, the state GOP censured Gov. Doug Ducey for certifying Biden’s victory there last fall. And in Kentucky, a number of local GOP chairs have censured or rebuked Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell for blaming Trump for inciting the deadly riot — though he voted to acquit him.
Jeff Timmer, a former chairman of the Michigan GOP who backed Biden last fall, said that rather than representing the mainstream GOP, the group of 17 Republicans "are the extremists in the party."
"It's the Marjorie Taylor Greenes and Matt Gaetzes and Jim Jordans and these local party and state party organizations censuring the folks who stood against the insurrection, stood for the Constitution and the rule of law — they are the mainstream," he said. "And this talk of a serious divide in the Republican Party, it just isn't real."
The resolutions have served as a warning to those in the party who would prefer to chart a new course following Trump’s defeat last fall — the vast majority of the party’s rank and file have no interest. As a result, any such internal civil war-type reckoning is, at the moment, looking increasingly unlikely.
For example, House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, who got into an expletive-filled argument with Trump as the siege was going on, said that Trump shared some responsibility for the riot. Weeks later, the California Republican was visiting Trump at his Mar-a-Lago estate in an effort to patch things up. As for McConnell, who eviscerated Trump after the riot, he told Fox News last week that he would support Trump if he is the GOP’s 2024 presidential nominee.
"I don't know about unity. I would say, it’s more of a forced unity," Don Thrasher, chair of Kentucky’s Nelson County GOP and a leader in efforts to condemn McConnell, told NBC News, adding that if the people Trump named in his CPAC address don't come out and support him, "I think they probably will be removed at some point."
This effort to quell detractors is by no means all-encompassing within the GOP. In Kentucky, an initial effort by Nelson and some other county chairs to pass a resolution insisting that McConnell stand by Trump was rejected by the state party. And in Utah, the state GOP issued a lengthy statement saying there is room for both Sens. Mitt Romney’s and Mike Lee’s stance on impeachment within the party. Most primary races are also still a long ways away.
Wisconsin GOP Chair Andrew Hitt previously told NBC News that while a candidates’ closeness to Trump would likely be a key factor among certainly constituencies, "it doesn't seem to be a predominant question over the entire electorate or over the entire Republican electorate."
Already, Trump has endorsed a primary challenge to one of the Republicans who voted to impeach him, backing former White House staffer Max Miller against Rep. Anthony Gonzalez of Ohio.
“Get rid of them all," Trump said Sunday of those Republicans who condemned his conduct. “The only division is between a handful of Washington, D.C., establishment political hacks and everybody else all over the country.”
Among Republicans, the idea that there is little division is borne out in recent polling. A Suffolk University/USA Today poll from late last month showed that more than 3 in 4 Trump voters would back him in 2024 if he ran.
With most GOP voters sticking by Trump, grassroots leaders are seeking to tamp down on the idea that the party is morphing into a cult of personality. They say Republicans stand by Trump not necessarily out of love for him but because he is seen as the only viable GOP leader willing to carry out the economic and cultural agenda he promoted.
In Nebraska, where the state party recently passed a resolution calling on Sen. Ben Sasse to make “an immediate readjustment” following his vote to convict Trump, one Republican told NBC News: "If you had a vessel that carries Trump's agenda that was not so easily pigeonholed as a rude man on Twitter or a crass, substance-less, reality TV star, we might have gone a different way."
"It's such a struggle to hear that we're a cult of personality about Trump,” this Nebraska Republican said. “I can't stand Trump in many instances, but I love what he was able to do on the issues that matter to us."
There are other signs that Trump’s politics, and the issues he promoted, may be more popular than the former president himself. The CPAC straw poll of more than 1,000 attendees found 95 percent support for continuing to advance Trump’s agenda, but a lower number — 68 percent — who said they wanted to see Trump run again. Some of those who want the party to move beyond Trump, like Gonzalez and Rep. Liz Cheney of Wyoming, have called on the GOP to embrace aspects of the president’s agenda while shutting the door to extremists.
Cheney, who is the House Republican Conference chair, making her the highest-ranking Republican to vote in favor of impeachment or conviction, said at a Reagan Institute event last week that the GOP has to "make clear we aren't the party of white supremacy."
At the grassroots, Republicans say the embrace of Trump is about simple math. He garnered the most votes of any Republican presidential candidate in history, though he supercharged his opposition as well. And while he is the first president since Herbert Hoover to lose the House, Senate and White House within his first term, these leaders point to the GOP’s control over more statehouses and its having picked up a number of House seats in 2020 as evidence that Trumpism is the way forward.
Those who ask about whether the party will move on from Trump "either want the party to go in a different direction or don't understand arithmetic," Drew McKissick, the South Carolina GOP chairman whom Trump endorsed last week for another term, said. "This is about growth."
Yet, as Timmer noted, one result of Trump’s strong grip on the party is that many who oppose him are simply leaving it behind.
"The party will become even more Trumpy after Trump has left the White House than it was during his term," he said. "Because so many people who identified with the Fred Uptons or Mitt Romneys are saying, 'Enough.' If you can't stand up and say insurrection and lethal overthrow of the election was a bridge too far, there is no hope."