In the wake of Donald Trump’s loss at the polls and his supporters’ storming of the U.S. Capitol two months later, Republicans across the country have grappled with whether to continue embracing the controversial former president.

In Louisiana, party leaders have answered with a resounding yes.

On Feb. 13, two weeks after penning a column that declared there was no “major schism” in the party over Trump, Louis Gurvich, the chairman of the Louisiana Republican Party, gathered the six other members of the party’s executive committee on a hastily arranged conference call. The state’s senior U.S. senator, Bill Cassidy, a Baton Rouge Republican, had just crossed what they saw as a line in the sand, breaking with Trump in the most visceral way possible by voting to convict him in the impeachment trial.

There was no discussion or dissent from the executive committee’s members, who include, among others, the former longtime party chair Roger Villere and Lenar Whitney, the Republican national committeewoman known for her bombastic remarks. The call ended minutes later, after the committee agreed unanimously to censure Cassidy.

In the broader state GOP, however, a divide has emerged over whether denouncing Cassidy was appropriate or whether such actions reflect an abandonment of Republican principles in favor of fealty to the party’s most recent standard-bearer.

Regardless of how that debate is resolved, Republican activists say Cassidy’s vote to convict Trump has energized an existing effort to change Louisiana’s unusual election system and move to closed-party primaries. In a state where Republicans are dominant, some believe that will lead to more conservative — and pro-Trump — candidates getting elected to office.

State Rep. Barry Ivey, a Baton Rouge Republican with an independent streak and a knack for policy details, said he is aware Trump is a “hypersensitive issue.” But he said he respects politicians who do their “due diligence.” While he said he hasn’t studied Trump’s impeachment enough to formulate an opinion, he said he can’t fault Cassidy for convicting the ex-president. He recognizes that many if not most of his brethren see it otherwise.

Bill Cassidy's vote to convict Trump draws swift, harsh backlash from Louisiana Republicans

“We’ve lost ourselves in ‘What does it mean in my mind to be a Republican Party?,'” Ivey said. “Ideas change things. Unfortunately, politics have just evolved into a food fight. All we do is lob grenades at the left. We don’t actually talk to them and ask them what they believe and why. ... If you know how to insult, if you know how to attack the left, you’re the hero.”

Cassidy was one of only seven GOP senators to vote to convict Trump, and his vote stunned many Republicans in Louisiana. The president carried the Pelican State with 58% of the vote in November, and Republican politicians, Cassidy included, have routinely tied themselves to Trump on the campaign trail, capitalizing on the president’s fervent local base of support.

Cassidy actually did even better than the president in November, defeating 14 other candidates handily in the nonpartisan primary and taking 59% of the vote. The next time he would face voters, if he chooses to run again, would be in 2026.

In a call with reporters this week, Cassidy acknowledged the brutal criticism he has received over impeachment but said he’s “such at peace with that vote.” He also took aim at the state party committee that censured him, suggesting it doesn’t represent the broader electorate. 

Just weeks before the censure vote, Gurvich, the party chair, had published a column that slammed the media for “furiously promoting a narrative of raging levels of conflict within the Republican Party between pro and anti-Trump factions.”

In an interview, Gurvich said he still doesn’t believe such a rift exists in Louisiana’s party. He called the historic censure vote of Cassidy a “disagreement” over process, not ideology. Gurvich argued the impeachment trial was unconstitutional because it targeted a former president and said it was “poorly done” by Democrats.

“There is no doubt Donald Trump still commands great influence over the party,” Gurvich said. “I think he will likely continue to exert great influence over the party.

“I think he’s just very popular. That’s what it’s about. But the Republican Party is a party of conservative views. We all abide by those views.”

A doctor who worked in the state’s charity hospital system for years, Cassidy had earned a reputation as a policy-oriented ally of the Trump administration over the president’s four years in office, advising the president on health care issues.

Eddie Rispone, a businessman and GOP megadonor who ran a close race for governor in 2019, spent time on the campaign trail with Trump. He noted that Cassidy had a “really good relationship” with the president.

“Every time I was around the president with Bill, the president was very complimentary of Bill,” Rispone said. “Bill felt ... the president did a lot for health care, a lot for the country. I don’t think it’s a matter of policy with the president.”

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Rispone’s campaign in 2019 garnered attention outside Louisiana largely because he tied himself so closely to Trump, testing the limits of nationalization of state elections. His first statewide TV ad was titled “Eddie stands with President Trump” and featured Rispone saying he “supported President Trump against Hillary, gave him money, put a bumper sticker on my truck and I support our president more than ever against these liberal lunatics running now.”

Rispone said Cassidy “made a mistake” by voting to convict Trump. But he also doesn’t think censuring him was appropriate, saying he’s “not going to chastise him in public.”

Rispone, who recently announced and then abandoned a challenge to Gurvich, also said he’s “not sure” what the state GOP stands for anymore. He said in December that the party had been “out-worked and out-spent” in recent elections, and he argues that Republicans should focus more on winning statewide races as opposed to condemning their own elected officials.

Still a supporter of Trump, Rispone said the Louisiana GOP should have 100,000 registered Black voters, not the 22,000 it has now. With the state already having passed strict laws on red-meat Republican issues like abortion and guns, Rispone said his priorities are efficiency in government and education.

State Sen. Franklin Foil, a Republican who serves in Cassidy’s old seat in Baton Rouge, said he got some calls after Cassidy’s controversial vote from residents who thought Foil was a U.S. senator. “Emotions were running high on both sides,” he said.

Foil also said he “wouldn’t have come up with the same decision he did, but I don’t think he necessarily needs to be censured either.”

“I think a lot of Trump's policies are good for the party, and I like the fact he was able to bring a lot of new voters to the Republican Party,” Foil said. “But we need to be a big tent and welcome anyone who agrees with the general Republican philosophy of smaller government and fiscal restraint.”

The tent’s size could be affected by proposed changes to Louisiana’s elections. For years, some Republican activists have been seeking to junk the state’s “jungle primary” system — which allows voters of all parties to choose from among candidates of all parties — in favor of closed party primaries. State Sen. Sharon Hewitt is leading the latest charge, heading a task force on the issue ahead of the spring legislative session.

Hewitt, a Slidell Republican often mentioned as a potential gubernatorial candidate, said the effort isn’t the result of Cassidy’s actions and that she wants to create a system that will hold up over the years.

Still, she thinks “there is more wind in the sails” now.

“I’ve heard from a lot more people since the Cassidy vote that have an interest in closed party primaries,” she said.

Closed primaries are typically found in states with two competitive parties, said Ed Chervenak, a longtime political analyst who serves as head of the University of New Orleans Survey Research Center. In Louisiana, Republicans hold a near-supermajority in the Legislature and all but one statewide elected office.

“It is safe to say that if the state moved to closed primaries, this would give the activists more of a say over who wins the primary,” he said. “The fear among many Republicans today is not that they will lose to a Democrat but that they will face a challenge in the primary and be outflanked by someone more to the right of them. That’s a much greater possibility in a closed primary than it is in the nonpartisan primary currently in use in Louisiana.”

As that debate plays out, the tug-of-war over the GOP’s identity will continue. Chervenak said he can’t recall “such devotion by a party to any single individual” the way the modern Republican Party has sworn its allegiance to Trump. He argues the GOP used to stand for “conservatism, limited government, fiscal responsibility, individual autonomy and rights and free enterprise.”

“Today, however, the primary organizing principle behind the Republican Party is loyalty to Donald Trump,” he said. “No matter how conservative you are in your philosophy and your values, if you do not accept Trump as your lord sovereign, you will be ostracized by the Republican Party. That’s not a healthy situation for the party or for our democracy.”

State Rep. Blake Miguez, the head of the state House Republican delegation, said closed primaries — where only Republican voters could select the candidate that would represent the party in the general election — would give Republicans a “strong voice with their elected officials.”

“Lately, Cassidy hasn’t wanted to listen to that voice,” said Miguez, who is considering a bid for attorney general in 2023.

“Trump is well-liked in Louisiana,” Miguez said. “Any politician or elected official that doesn't recognize their constituency base supports what Trump stands for is not being true to his constituents.”

When asked about the effort to close Louisiana’s primaries, Cassidy didn’t mince words. For one, he said, it would cost Louisiana more money. But more importantly, he suggested, it would lead to Republicans nominating candidates who can’t win in a general election.

“So it costs more money and works against your self-interests,” Cassidy said. “It seems like a stupid idea.”

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