Over Donald Trump’s presidency, Sen. Bill Cassidy was always a reliable ally, voting with the president 89% of the time and taking a central role in advising the administration on health care policy.
But much of the goodwill he generated among Trump supporters in Louisiana vanished overnight.
A day after voting to allow Trump’s impeachment trial to proceed, Cassidy, a Republican, had garnered a rebuke from the Louisiana GOP, a censure from his home parish Republican Executive Committee and the ire of top party officials. A conservative talk radio host in Lafayette held “Bill Cassidy day” on his show, lobbing insults at the senator and excoriating the vote. A story on the Hayride, a right-wing Louisiana blog, declared his career effectively over.
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Since the election, Cassidy has been more willing than any member of Louisiana’s Republican congressional delegation to stray from the party line on Trump’s loss in November. He was the first to acknowledge President Joe Biden won the election, on Nov. 24th, as Trump’s campaign pushed unsubstantiated allegations of voter fraud.
On Jan. 6, the day a pro-Trump mob stormed the U.S. Capitol, Cassidy was the only Republican member of Congress from Louisiana who declined to vote to challenge the election by objecting to the certification of a state’s electors.
And unlike his fellow Louisiana senator, John Kennedy, Cassidy hasn’t shut the door on voting to convict Trump in the ongoing impeachment trial, saying he’ll judge the evidence when it is presented.
The backlash to Cassidy’s vote illustrates the rock-solid loyalty many Louisiana Republicans still have toward Trump, fealty that supersedes the party’s support for Louisiana’s senior senator.
Cassidy joined five other Republican senators Tuesday in voting to proceed with the impeachment trial, rejecting arguments that the proceedings are unconstitutional because the former president is no longer in office. Cassidy’s vote was perhaps the most surprising of the six Republicans, in that the other five are better known for bucking GOP orthodoxy. One of the six, U.S. Sen. Pat Toomey, of Pennsylvania, has already said he won’t seek re-election.
Speaking to reporters on Capitol Hill Wednesday, Cassidy conceded the reaction to his vote was “mixed.”
“To those who were negative I replied this was a Constitutional question,” Cassidy said. “Clearly it had been established it was Constitutional. It is Constitution and country over party. For some, they get it. For others, they’re not quite so sure. That’s to be expected. That doesn’t predict my vote on anything else. It does predict that I will listen to these arguments as I did to the arguments yesterday with an open mind.”
In a video message released late Wednesday, Cassidy said putting Trump above the Constitution is "not conservatism. That is not Republicanism."
The decision marked a departure from Cassidy’s vote in late January, when he sided with 44 other Republican senators in a procedural vote that sought to declare impeachment proceedings unconstitutional.
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Whether Cassidy is willing to vote to convict Trump is still unclear. He previously said Trump’s “worst-case scenario” would be if evidence emerged that the former president received warnings from the FBI that his supporters were planning to plant pipe bombs and storm the Capitol. If, on the other hand, Trump was found to have merely told his supporters to “fight,” that likely wouldn’t be enough, Cassidy said in late January.
On Tuesday, he repeated that he’s approaching the case as an “impartial juror.”
But even if he votes against conviction, Cassidy has already drawn fury from some Republicans in Louisiana.
“Bill Cassidy is a free American; he has a right to make very bad decisions,” said Rep. Clay Higgins of Lafayette, one of Trump’s most ardent defenders in Congress. “I’m a constitutionalist. I support your decision to be a journalist for a very bad newspaper.”
At a meeting at Dearman’s, a burger joint in Baton Rouge, the Republican Parish Executive Committee for East Baton Rouge Parish, where Cassidy lives, voted unanimously Wednesday to censure him. The resolution called the charge of incitement of insurrection “a sham and a cruel hoax on the American people.”
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Woody Jenkins, the chairman of the committee, said in an interview Cassidy’s vote was a “betrayal.”
“No one expects someone who is elected with strong Republican support in this state would turn against the president,” Jenkins said.
The Republican Party of Louisiana, led by chairman Louis Gurvich, said in a statement it was “profoundly disappointed” in Cassidy.
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Mike Bayham, the party’s secretary, said he is open to holding a special meeting of the 230-member Republican State Central Committee in March to take up a censure of Cassidy if he votes to convict Trump.
“I think people are angry over the procedural vote,” Bayham said. “Let’s be honest, the most relevant vote is what happens at the end of the day, at the end of this process.”
Not all Republicans are upset. Michael DiResto, a longtime Republican operative who serves on the state committee, called the attacks on Cassidy “mind-boggling.”
DiResto in an email pointed to the fact that more than 150 legal scholars of varying political stripes agree the proceedings are constitutional. While some Republicans have accused Cassidy of betraying his voters, DiResto said Republicans are often quick to point out America is a democratic republic, in which voters ask leaders to lead based on their “conscience and respect for the rule of law.”
“So let’s be clear: the real offense some folks are seeking to punish is that Sen. Cassidy is acting insufficiently loyal to one man,” DiResto said. “One man. And if that’s the case, it strikes me as the opposite of what it means to be a Republican.”
Former U.S. Sen. Mary Landrieu, a Democrat, lost re-election to Cassidy in 2014, in a campaign that saw Cassidy hammer her for her support for President Barack Obama. On Wednesday, she praised Cassidy.
“I am pleased to see that Senator Cassidy has used both his intellect and his good common sense to guide him here,” Landrieu tweeted. “Many people in Louisiana are proud of him, including me.”
John Couvillon, a Republican pollster in Baton Rouge, said he’s seen data that suggests Trump’s support is about as high as ever in Louisiana, especially in rural areas. But he noted it’s easier for a senator like Cassidy to take a vote that may be unpopular with his base when his next campaign is likely more than five years away.
Despite his recent streak of independence, Cassidy is hardly a rogue Republican. In fact, according to FiveThirtyEight, the political news publication, Cassidy actually voted with Trump more often than Kennedy over Trump’s four years, siding with the president in 89% of votes to Kennedy’s 87.5%.
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But he expresses more desire for compromise than many of his colleagues in a hyper-partisan era. On the night Cassidy was re-elected soundly to a second six-year term, in November, he sat down with reporters and immediately played up bipartisanship. He said he believes there were “Biden-Cassidy” voters, which he attributed to his willingness to cross party lines.
“I’ve worked really hard over the last six years to represent our state no matter who it was,” he said at the time. “Occasionally I’d have someone look at me and say ‘I’m a little surprised you’re helping me, you’re a Republican.’ I said, ‘I'm your senator, I'm going to help you...Sometimes it ends up paying off.”
Assuming he seeks re-election, Cassidy would next face voters in 2026, when he will be 69. He won easily in a jungle primary in November, garnering 59% of the vote. By comparison, Trump won about 58% of the vote in Louisiana.
Since winning re-election, Cassidy has joined a group of 10 Republican senators in negotiating with the Biden White House on a COVID relief package. The group sat down with Biden earlier this month.
Roger Villere, the former state party chairman who now serves as Republican National Committeeman for Louisiana, said he’s “extremely disappointed” in Cassidy. But Villere doesn’t believe the state party would censure Cassidy unless he votes to convict Trump -- which he doesn’t believe Cassidy will do.
“When you’ve got six years before your next election, that does I guess give you a certain freedom to vote your conscience,” Villere said. “But you should vote your conscience anyway.”