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Why Republicans Are Punishing Their Own Politicians

It's one thing to try to impose discipline within the party; punishing members of the other party involves a different set of dynamics. Plus, can you fire a non-appointee?

U.S. Sen. Thom Tillis
U.S. Sen. Thom Tillis (TNS)
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Why Republicans Are Punishing Their Own Politicians: Solomon Yue has represented Oregon on the Republican National Committee for more than two decades. Earlier this month, Yue survived an attempt to recall him from the RNC, driven by complaints that Yue, who was born in China, is influenced by its communist party and there are “serious questions as to his loyalty.” Yue denied the allegations. His family fled China and he said last year that “Calling me a communist is like calling a Jew who survived Auschwitz a Nazi.” But he kept his position only because the 80-50 vote fell short of the Oregon GOP’s supermajority requirement for an ouster.

Yue’s example is unusual, but it’s part of a recent wave within the Republican Party to discipline officials and politicians. Delegates at the North Carolina GOP’s convention this month voted to censure U.S. Sen. Thom Tillis for his positions on same-sex marriage, immigration and gun control. Last week, the Colorado Republican Party’s executive committee passed a resolution reprimanding two state legislators and two local officials who signed a letter protesting the Montana House’s decision to bar a legislator from the floor. Ottawa County, Mich., Commissioner Jacob Bonnema has been censured in recent days both by the county GOP and the county commission itself due to an intraparty dispute with other local officials.

There’s nothing new about any of this. Politicians are regularly censured or removed from positions of power, such as committee chairmanships, when they stray from party orthodoxy. But there has been a lot of activity along these lines of late. One reason may be that the Republican Party is home to differing viewpoints and party officials are attempting to impose greater coherence, suggests Michael Ting, a political scientist at Columbia University. “Maybe what we’re seeing is an effort to keep people in line, driven by the greater dispersion of beliefs and preferences within the party,” Ting says.

Compared to parties in most democracies, there are relatively few levers that American political parties can pull to keep members in line. The days when the GOP or the Democratic Party could punish people financially are pretty much over. Candidates used to rely heavily on party support to reach donors, but now super PACs and online fundraising have made them much more independent.

Censure resolutions are generally meaningless, even if approved. What parties are doing is pretty obvious – express displeasure when individuals stray too far from the herd on key issues. (That is, when what’s involved is ideological differences, as opposed to personality conflicts.) “Parties are not corporations, in the sense of having coherent goals,” Ting says. “They’re branding operations. We can view these efforts at discipline as part of the effort to give voters, particularly their supporters, a more consistent picture of what they’re about.”
Adam Schiff
Adam Schiff (TNS)
There’s More to the Story: It’s one thing to try to impose discipline within the party. Punishing members of the other party involves a different set of dynamics.

Last week, the U.S. House voted to censure Adam Schiff, a California Democrat, for his role in investigating former President Donald Trump as the former chair of the Intelligence Committee. The action takes place after Tennessee’s Republican House majority voted to expel two Black lawmakers for taking part in a gun control demonstration on the state House floor, as well as the Montana House’s vote barring state Rep. Zooey Zephyr, who is transgender, from the House floor for the remainder of the session after she made remarks comparing a ban on gender-affirming care to “torture.”

Both cases led to complaints that Republicans were acting to stifle free speech and dissent from Democrats who are members of marginalized communities. “This is a watershed in the democratic backsliding we’ve seen in recent years,” says Andrew Garber, a democracy counsel with the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University’s law school. “Ten years ago, the idea of expelling legislators because they are passionate about an issue is something we wouldn’t have seen.”

Garber is co-author, with fellow Brennan Center counsel Robyn Sanders, of a report that took a historical look at legislative expulsions. Since the late 18th century, only 122 state legislators have been expelled. A majority of cases involved bribery, corruption or other crimes. Occasionally, legislators are banned for defaming their peers. That happened in April, when Republican state Rep. Liz Harris was removed from her seat by the Arizona House for her role in spreading false claims about bribery of state officials by Mexican drug cartels. In recent years, a number of legislators have been removed for sexual harassment or misconduct.

“Not once in the last 100 years have legislators removed their colleagues solely based on what those colleagues said or believed,” Garber and Sanders write.

Justin Jones and Justin Pearson, the two legislators who were expelled in Tennessee, were restored to their positions within days by their respective local governments. To keep their seats, though, they are having to run in special elections set for Aug. 3. Zephyr was unable to convince a court to hear her complaint that her expulsion was improper, with a judge citing separation of powers. “The real issue is that a legislature should not be allowed to exercise power in a way that violates fundamental rights,” notably free speech, says Sanders.

If parties mete out punishment in order to clarify their own brands, that can end up cutting both ways. Jones, Pearson and Zephyr have all seen their political profiles increase dramatically. Schiff, who is running for a U.S. Senate seat in a competitive Democratic primary next year, is wearing his censure from House Republicans as a reverse seal of approval. “To my Republican colleagues who introduced this resolution: I thank you,” Schiff said. “You honor me with your enmity. You flatter me with this falsehood.”

Can You Fire a Non-Appointee?: Who should administer elections in Wisconsin? It’s a serious question, but it’s turned into a weird, Kafkaesque joke.

The members of the Wisconsin Election Commission agree that Meagan Wolfe, the election administrator, should stay in her job for another term. (Her current term expires tomorrow.) Her biggest supporters, however, abstained from Tuesday’s vote to reinstate her. Opposition to Wolfe, drummed up by election conspiracists, means that she faces a rough road to confirmation in the state Senate. Some commissioners concluded her chances of keeping the job would be better if she’s not reappointed, since the state Supreme Court ruled last year that agency officials can stay in their jobs unless replacements are confirmed.

That kind of convoluted gamesmanship didn’t sit right with all the commissioners. Don Millis, a Republican who chairs the commission, said that keeping in place an unappointed, unconfirmed administrator would only fuel skepticism about election administration. “Sometimes people become a lightning rod and fairness has very little to do with it,” he said, according to the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel. “At this point, it behooves the commission to follow regular order to give the Senate a chance to decide it one way or another.”

The Republican majority in the state Senate decided to force the issue. On Wednesday, the Senate approved a resolution that finds that Wolfe has been reappointed, since she received the votes of three commissioners. That sets up the process for a hearing and a vote on her nomination, which she’s expected to lose, and thus be fired. The commission’s own rules, however, require a two-thirds vote, which sets up an inevitable legal battle in which commissioners will argue Wolfe was never, in fact, appointed, and therefore can’t be fired.

“The Wisconsin State Senate cannot legally entertain confirmation for a vacancy that does not exist, nor on an appointment that is not before them,” tweeted Melissa Agard, the Democratic leader in the Senate. “WEC has not made an appointment, so there is no appointee before the Senate about which a confirmation vote can be conducted.”
U.S. Supreme Court
U.S. Supreme Court (Shutterstock)
Odds and Ends: Twice this month, liberals have applauded when the Supreme Court maintained the status quo. It happened when the court preserved part of the Voting Rights Act and it happened again Tuesday, when the court rejected the so-called independent state legislature theory, which holds legislatures can do whatever they want with regard to regulating federal elections and don’t have to answer to state courts. Some commentators are nervous, however, that the ruling opened the door to federal courts second-guessing state courts when it comes to election decisions, based on an unspecified standard of transgressing “ordinary judicial review”…

Yusef Salaam appears to have won a seat on the New York City Council in Tuesday’s vote. Salaam was one of the so-called Central Park Five, a group of Black teenagers falsely convicted of raping a white woman in a notorious 1980s case…

India Walton, who defeated Buffalo Mayor Byron Brown in the 2021 Democratic primary (only to lose to his write-in campaign in the fall), lost by a 2-to-1 margin against Zeneta Everhart in Tuesday’s primary for a city council seat. Walton will still appear on the November ballot, however, allowing her to nurse hopes for a Brown-style comeback.

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Alan Greenblatt is the editor of Governing. He can be found on Twitter at @AlanGreenblatt.
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