Censuring Chase likely deepened a GOP split and fueled her base, but it was the right thing to do

February 8, 2021 12:02 am

Sen. Amanda Chase, R-Chesterfield, railed against a resolution censuring her during the floor session of the Virginia Senate inside the Science Museum in Richmond, VA Tuesday, Jan. 26, 2021. The Senate later passed the resolution 21-9, with several senators not voting. (Pool photo by Bob Brown/ Richmond Times-Dispatch)

State Sen. Amanda Chase is a no-win proposition for the Republican Party of Virginia. That was never clearer than late last month when the Senate of Virginia undertook the rare and largely symbolic step of officially censuring her.

Her pugnacious antics, incendiary rhetoric, her trading in conspiracy theories and her Trumpist nationalism have come to embody an existential question before the GOP in Virginia and nationally.

Should the party wave off such outrageous deportment as though it’s the embarrassing drunken uncle at Thanksgiving dinner and hope it soon passes, or does it call it out?

Either way, the GOP suffers, at least in the near term.

Live and let live and the Republican Party wholly owns those actions and invites a considerable pro-Trump base to fully consolidate its hold over the party and become its brand. That could puts a statewide win, which has eluded the party since 2009, further out of reach.

Castigate her and reap the Trumpists’ wrath, perhaps hastening the schism between them and Republican traditionalists in the lead-up to Virginia’s November gubernatorial election.

In Virginia, the die was cast against Chase, who calls herself “Trump in heels,” after she voiced support for Trump loyalists who on Jan. 6 — after being exhorted to “fight like hell” by the former President at a rally — marched down Pennsylvania Avenue where some stormed the U.S. Capitol as Congress discharged its constitutional duty of tallying the Electoral College votes. Earlier, she had urged Trump to invoke martial law to remain in power. In Richmond, Chase had cursed a Virginia Capitol Police officer who had admonished her she was parking in a restricted area.

Democrats and fellow Republicans alike took aim at her in a protracted and bitter floor debate. Republican state Sen. Bill Stanley said that the censure should be a “badge of shame” for Chase, contrary to comments that she would wear it as a badge of honor. Fellow Republican Sen. Steve Newman called it “a bit of a call for help,” and GOP Sen. Mark Obenshain said Chase had exhibited “open and omnidirectional hostility to the occupants of this room.”

Chase said she was being punished over constitutionally protected political speech, and she made biting personal comments about her critics, particularly Sen. Thomas K. Norment, R-James City. She eventually denounced white supremacists in the mob that sacked the Capitol and apologized for hurting fellow senators’ feelings.

When the vote was finally taken, three Republicans joined the Senate’s 21 Democrats in adopting the censure resolution 24-9. Six Republicans, including Stanley and Obenshain, did not vote. Newman voted against censure, his floor remarks notwithstanding. Now, with no committee assignments, Chase stands stripped by the censure of her seniority, making her the lowest ranking among the 40 senators.

Unbowed, Chase sued in federal court in Richmond to overturn the censure, claiming her due process was abridged by the legislative proceeding. That keeps the dispute in the headlines as she pursues her bare-knuckle Republican gubernatorial campaign during the 2021 legislative session.

This is not just a Virginia phenomenon, although Chase’s saga unfolds in the first major electoral battleground for the GOP after Trump’s presidency but with his legacy still powerful.

Nor is the GOP establishment alone in fighting a rear-guard action against insurgencies from what was once the party’s irrelevant fringe. After a period of uneasy rapprochement in battling a common enemy ― Trump ― Democratic moderates and progressives are already clashing.

The Republican dispute, however, is already in full fury in Congress, showcasing for the world an estrangement that seems destined for separation and, possibly, divorce. It has parallels with Chase’s story in Virginia.

On Thursday, the House’s majority Democrats scheduled a floor vote on a resolution to strip firebrand GOP freshman Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene of Georgia of her committee assignments after the House GOP Conference debated privately but declined to rebuke her. One disillusioned Republican who was in the meeting said she received a standing ovation from about half of his GOP colleagues.

Greene, an outspoken Trump apostle and QAnon conspiracy fabulist, advanced claims before her election that the Parkland and Sandy Hook school shootings were staged hoaxes and suggesting that California’s devastating wildfires were started by secret Jewish space lasers. She also has “liked” social media posts beseeching violence against Democratic leaders.

Her antics, like Chase’s in Virginia, have split Republicans. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Kentucky, who broke with Trump after years spent greasing the skids for him in the Senate, denounced Greene’s “loony lies and conspiracy theories” as a cancer on the GOP.

But that’s hardly the only family feud roiling the House GOP Conference in Washington. Trump loyalists are livid at 10 Republican House members who joined the Democratic majority and voted on Jan. 13 to make Trump — with one week left in office — the only U.S. president to be impeached twice. They are particularly angry with Rep. Liz Cheney of Wyoming, the third-ranking Republican in the House and the conservative daughter of former Vice President Dick Cheney. House Republicans debated removing her from her leadership position Wednesday but declined.

Last month, Florida Rep. Matt Gaetz, a Trump devotee, took the extraordinary step of traveling more than 2,000 miles from his tropical district to frozen Cheyenne, Wyoming, to condemn Cheney, a fellow Republican, and pledge his support for a primary challenger against her in 2022.

So much for President Ronald Reagan’s “11th Commandment.”

How the GOP emerges from this is anyone’s guess. The internal strife is real and serious. Last week, dozens of Republicans who served in the administration of President George W. Bush renounced their party membership in disgust after so many of its leaders stuck by Trump’s false claims that the election was stolen from him.

It’s not just an ideological divide but a deep cultural one. Appeals to hallowed conservative verities such as a limited federal government, low taxes, robust military spending and “family values” including opposition to abortion alone no longer carry the day with many of Trump’s energized and angry legions who feel betrayed and forgotten by entrenched elites in both parties.

They deeply distrust the traditional institutions of democracy, including mainstream media, the courts, the investigative arms of government — an alliance many call the “deep state.” Some subscribe to QAnon’s cultish fictions, including the central claim that a cabal of pedophilic Satan worshippers run the world and that Trump would remain in power and bring them to justice. Among the Trump supporters arrested in the Capitol insurrection attempt was Jacob Chansley, the Arizona man photographed shirtless, face-painted and clad in horns and furs who is also known as the QAnon Shaman.

There have been premature obituaries for the Party of Lincoln before, and the party has consistently lived to laugh at them. This internal battle will determine whether the party cleaves to its traditional conservative moorings or be washed away by a tide of angry populism.

While standing against those who would bless a violent overthrow of the nation’s democratically elected representative bodies and try to seize power by force has created profound strife within the GOP, it is a necessary and right thing for the party to do.

And that’s true whether it takes place in the Capitol in Washington or the one in Richmond.

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Bob Lewis
Bob Lewis

Bob Lewis covered Virginia government and politics for 20 years for The Associated Press. Now retired from a public relations career at McGuireWoods, he is a columnist for the Virginia Mercury. He can be reached at [email protected]