RALEIGH, North Carolina — In an emergency vote Monday night, North Carolina’s Republican Party voted unanimously to censure U.S. Sen. Richard Burr, just two days after the retiring Republican cast a “guilty” vote in former President Donald Trump’s second impeachment trial.
Burr, 65, is in his third term in the U.S. Senate and served five terms in the U.S. House after being first elected in 1994.
He was one of seven Republican senators to vote guilty in Trump’s impeachment for inciting an insurrection related to the deadly Jan. 6 attack on the U.S. Capitol by Trump supporters. The 57-43 vote did not meet the 67-vote threshold for conviction in the Senate.
The vote was by the party’s central committee, which consists of about 30 of the party’s top officials.
“We felt it was important for the party to make a statement that we disagree with the vote,” said North Carolina GOP Chair Michael Whatley, who said he spoke with more than 100 party leaders and activists in the state since the impeachment vote. “The overwhelming sentiment was disapproval of the senator’s vote.”
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Whatley said it was the first censure since he became party chair about 18 months ago.
After Monday night’s vote, Burr called it a “truly sad day” for state Republicans.
“My party’s leadership has chosen loyalty to one man over the core principles of the Republican Party and the founders of our great nation,” he said in a statement.
The Jan. 6 breach at the Capitol came as members of Congress and then-Vice President Mike Pence were certifying President Joe Biden’s Electoral College victory.
Burr was critical of Trump on that night and voted to certify the election results in Arizona and Pennsylvania.
He also twice voted that the impeachment trial was not constitutional, given Trump’s status as a former president by the time the trial began in the Senate.
But Burr said once the Senate voted to proceed he had to weigh the evidence presented. Whatley and other Republicans have taken issue with Burr voting guilty after deeming it unconstitutional.
Burr said “the facts are clear” about what happened after months of Trump promoting “unfounded conspiracy theories to cast doubt” about the election, directing supporters to go to the Capitol and failing to call for an end to the assault.
“The President bears responsibility for these tragic events. The evidence is compelling that President Trump is guilty of inciting an insurrection against a coequal branch of government and that the charge rises to the level of high Crimes and Misdemeanors. Therefore, I have voted to convict,” Burr said in a statement on his vote.
“I do not make this decision lightly, but I believe it is necessary.”
Burr announced during the 2016 campaign that he would not run again.
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Burr’s vote was met with immediate condemnation Saturday from several North Carolina Republicans, including the chair of the North Carolina GOP and a candidate running for Burr’s seat in 2022. Wake County Republicans issued an official censure on Monday, too.
The North Carolina GOP’s censure vote was arranged Sunday and held by Zoom on Monday night.
Kyshia Lineberger, a voting member of the North Carolina GOP’s central committee, said the unanimous vote was sad, but emphasized that it’s time to move forward.
“The senator that you have worked to elect and spent a lot of hours canvassing for and donating to and supporting, it’s a serious thing to vote to censure that same senator,” Lineberger said. “This is something that no one takes lightly. It’s not something anyone in the party wants to do. It’s the real only recourse we have to send a message to a sitting official of displeasure.”
A censure is a public reprimand. There is no punishment for Burr related to his position in the Senate.
“It’s not going to have any impact on anything and it further takes them off what is supposed to be their mission of electing more Republicans,” said Doug Heye, a former Burr staffer and communications chief for the Republican National Committee. “What message does this send at a time when the party is hemorrhaging voters?”
Nearly 6,000 North Carolinians changed their party affiliation away from Republican in the two weeks after the Jan. 6 attack on the U.S. Capitol, The Raleigh News & Observer previously reported. The state was not alone. Nearly 140,000 Republicans in 25 states changed their affiliation, according to an analysis by The New York Times.
“Censuring one of your own because you didn’t like how he voted on one thing isn’t going to win back any of those voters,” Heye said. “It sends a sign that party leadership is still showing fealty to the exiled king. This isn’t about any policies, isn’t about anything that has to do with conservatism. It’s all about loyalty to one man.”
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Sen. Thom Tillis, who won a second term in 2020, voted not guilty Saturday in the impeachment trial. But, in a post-trial statement outlining his vote, Tillis said “a not guilty verdict is not the same as being declared innocent. President Trump is most certainly not the victim here; his words and actions were reckless and he shares responsibility for the disgrace that occurred on January 6.”
Tillis defended Burr, his fellow North Carolina Republican senator, and his guilty vote on Monday night.
“Richard Burr is a great friend and a great senator who has a distinguished record of serving the people of North Carolina,” Tillis in a statement when asked about the censure. “He voted his conscience.”
But the censure, in its swiftness and level of support, demonstrated just how much influence Trump — who carried North Carolina in 2016 and 2020 — holds over the party even after his electoral loss.
His support could be critical in the open 2022 Republican primary to fill Burr’s seat.
U.S. Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, a close ally of Trump, said Burr’s vote could make Lara Trump — a Wilmington native and Trump’s daughter-in-law — the Republican nominee for U.S. Senate if she chooses to run. She is considering it.
Former U.S. Rep. Mark Walker of Greensboro is already a declared candidate. He called Burr’s vote “wrong” and said he’d be a “true conservative champion” in a fundraising appeal posted after the vote.
Another potential Senate candidate, U.S. Rep. Ted Budd, made it clear he is in the Trump camp moving forward.
“I disagree with Sen. Burr’s vote, and the hardworking volunteers of the NC GOP are rightfully upset by it,” Budd said. “All of us in elected leadership are accountable to our consciences, the Constitution, and our constituents. The sooner we unite behind our conservative ideals the better. So, let’s get to work building on the timeless principles of America First.”
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Republicans in North Carolina notched a series of wins in 2020 — sweeping statewide judicial races, in addition to victories by Tillis and Trump at the top of the ticket. Despite the censure and any fissures opened by the impeachment process, Whatley said, his party is unified.
North Carolina Democratic Party Chair Wayne Goodwin, though, sought to frame the battle over Trump as a “civil war.”
“It says a lot about the fractures that have been exposed by the Trump trial vote,” Goodwin said in a telephone interview. “The 2022 primary election and more and more of the general election itself is going to be a vote on whether the Republican Party itself is going to become even more aligned with Trumpism or shed that.”
At least two of the other Republican senators to vote guilty face censure from their state parties — Bill Cassidy in Louisiana and Ben Sasse in Nebraska.
Story by Brian Murphy, The News & Observer. Staff writer Lucille Sherman contributed to this report.