The Republican National Committee’s censure last month of GOP Reps. Liz Cheney and Adam Kinzinger was a historical rarity — national parties almost never reprimand their own officeholders. But in many ways it was the culmination of what’s been happening at the state level. State and local parties are increasingly disciplining their officeholders, and it’s mostly happening on the Republican side.
It’s typical for the losing party in a presidential race to undergo some sort of period of self-reflection after its loss, trying to come up with a narrative that will help guide it in future elections. But what Republicans have gone through since 2020 is something of a departure, with many in the party arguing that former President Donald Trump didn’t actually lose. Moreover, these election deniers haven’t just tried to delegitimize the 2020 election results, they’ve also spearheaded an effort to rebuke Republicans who have said Trump lost.
One of the key tools these Trump supporters have used is the censure. A censure is something governing bodies (often legislatures) use to issue official statements of condemnation or disapproval. Censures have a long history in this country. The U.S. Senate, for example, censured President Andrew Jackson in 1834 for effectively shuttering the Bank of the United States. The Senate has also censured nine of its own members, and in 2021, the U.S. House of Representatives censured its 24th member, Rep. Paul Gosar of Arizona, for, among other things, posting an anime video of himself killing a fellow member.
Yet the censure is, by definition, a symbolic act: It does not actually remove anyone from office or strip anyone of power. In fact, the censure has historically carried little weight, although it can signal to the officeholder that they are losing standing with their party and that their renomination is likely in jeopardy. And until recently, censures were also relatively rare.
State parties have issued a number of censures since the beginning of 2021. Take Arizona, a state that has made headlines for its frivolous investigations into the accuracy of the 2020 presidential election. In early 2021, Republicans in the state censured three Republicans for, among other things, failing to support Trump: former Sen. Jeff Flake, Gov. Doug Ducey and Cindy McCain, the widow of the late Sen. John McCain. Democrats in the state haven’t been as quick to censure as Republicans, but in January 2022, the Arizona Democratic Party censured Sen. Kyrsten Sinema for her refusal to change filibuster rules in order to pass voting rights measures.
It’s not just state parties, either. Censures aren’t as well documented at the county level, as there are more than 3,000 counties in the U.S. versus just 50 states, but I found in a search of nearly 7,000 newspapers using NewsBank, a news research database, an explosion of censures, especially in 2021, at the county level.
The pattern is pretty striking. Censures by county parties were until recently a rare event, affecting somewhere between zero and three people per year, I found. Most were issued over relatively modest local or factional party disputes. Republicans in Bexar County, Texas, for example, censured then-state House Speaker Joe Straus for blocking a number of conservative bills in 2017. In Mohave County, Arizona Republicans censured state Rep. Paul Mosley in 2018 for “conduct unbecoming” after he tried to abuse his position as a state legislator in order to get out of a traffic ticket.
But starting in 2020, the types of censures county parties issued shifted — both censures issued in 2020, for instance, had to do with COVID-19 mask mandates. In 2021, I found, there was just a dramatic increase in county-level censures, especially among Republican county parties. Republican county parties censured 23 GOP officeholders in 2021 compared to Democrats’ five, and what’s more, most Republican censures were tied in some way to the 2020 election, the subsequent Jan. 6 insurrection or the ensuing fallout.1Although censures are still relatively rare events — I found just 34 of them in more than 3,000 counties over the past seven years — the uptick in the last year signals a growing form of radicalism among local party committees. All of this points to yet another signal of a Republican Party undergoing a purge. Parties often wage ideological fights in their primary contests, but primaries take time. In this rash of recent censures, we’re seeing county party leaders trying to more emphatically assert which faction of the party is in charge, and as I’ve documented above, that could dramatically reshape the GOP at its most fundamental levels of government