Some Republican leaders are pushing back against the conservative Freedom Caucus in statehouses

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JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. (AP) — On the first day of Missouri's new legislative session, Senate President Pro Tem Caleb Rowden tried to cajole colleagues into congeniality with a rhetorical question: “Will we focus on principled progress or political pandemonium?”

Progress was intended. But pandemonium ensued.

Within days, a newly formed Freedom Caucus — modeled after one in Washington, D.C. — ground the chamber to a halt with demands that Republican leaders act faster on GOP priorities. Tempers flared. Insults flew. And Rowden penalized prominent Freedom Caucus members by stripping them of their committee chairmanships and prime Capitol parking spots.

In state capitols around the country, Republican legislative leaders are pushing back against a growing network of conservative lawmakers attempting to pull the party further to the right with aggressive tactics aimed not at Democrats but at members of their own party. The infighting has put a spotlight on Republican fissures heading into the November elections, even as former President Donald Trump has been consolidating party support.

The conservative Freedom Caucus gained attention in the fall — when some of its members helped topple U.S. House Speaker Kevin McCarthy — but it's been active in the U.S. House since 2015.

An outgrowth of the group, the State Freedom Caucus Network, launched in 2021 in Georgia. With the recent addition in Missouri, it now counts chapters in 11 states, with designs to keep expanding. Unlike the loose affiliations of like-minded lawmakers that exist in many states, new State Freedom Caucus chapters are founded only by invitation from the national group — and come bankrolled with staff to help screen legislation, craft strategy and generate publicity.

Caucus members portray themselves as the Republican Party's true conservatives, often pressing colleagues into uncomfortable votes on amendments, blocking or slowing debate to make a point and clashing with Republican legislative leaders.

“We’re willing to stand up and not be silenced by these guys,” said Missouri state Sen. Bill Eigel, a Freedom Caucus member running for governor who has rankled Senate leaders with his lengthy and impassioned rhetoric.

In Missouri, the Freedom Caucus has pushed a measure that would make it harder to amend the state constitution with citizen ballot initiatives, such as one backing abortion rights. Eigel and other caucus members stalled the Senate from working for a month while seeking to force the proposal to be brought up for debate.

Elsewhere, Freedom Caucus members have backed restrictions on transgender medical procedures and called for state National Guard troops to be sent to the Texas-Mexico border to help deter migrants.

But it's their tactics, rather than their policies, that have ruffled GOP leaders.

Frustrated by their obstruction, Rowden recently denounced Missouri's Senate Freedom Caucus members as “a small group of swamp creatures” trying to “destroy the institution” while announcing he was stripping some of their parking perks and committee leadership.

Like in Missouri, Idaho's top Republican senator removed certain Freedom Caucus members from committee leadership posts last November and denounced their disparaging rhetoric against other senators.

For a year now in South Carolina, Freedom Caucus members have been excluded from the House Republican caucus — since they refused to go along with party rules that bar them from campaigning against other Republican members.

Meanwhile in Georgia, the Senate Republican caucus booted an outspoken Freedom Caucus member who tried to pressure colleagues into impeaching a Democratic prosecutor for indicting Trump. The Georgia Senate GOP caucus said in a statement last September that Sen. Colton Moore had caused “unnecessary tension and hostility” and put his colleagues "at risk of personal harm” through his public pressure campaign.

Moore remains excluded from the Republican caucus, though the Senate has since launched an investigation into whether Fulton County District Attorney Fani Willis misspent state money in her prosecution of Trump and others. Moore said the investigation validates his efforts, which he said probably are "a lot more aggressive” than those used in the past.

In various states, Freedom Caucus members are exposing "that there are a lot of Republicans in state legislatures who are enabling bigger government and locking arms with the Democrats to do so,” said Andrew Roth, president of the State Freedom Caucus Network. “And when they’re finally being called out on it, they react punitively.”

Despite such conflicts, Roth said Freedom Caucus members have had a hand in passing anti-abortion legislation in Wyoming, changing Louisiana's congressional primaries and blocking Democratic Arizona Gov. Katie Hobbs' nominee to lead the Department of Health Services, among other things.

But some Freedom Caucus' actions have failed. In Montana, the group's petition to call a January special session on property tax cuts recently fell short of the needed threshold. A chapter in Mississippi folded after most of its members either retired or ran for other offices.

Still, Freedom Caucus chapters remain active in politically divided Pennsylvania, Democratic-led Illinois and Republican-led South Dakota.

In the early weeks of South Carolina's legislative session, group members have been at the center of Republican tensions. Freedom Caucus members accused Republican colleagues of watering down a bill restricting treatments for transgender youths by tabling amendments like one requiring immediate parental notification from teachers when children change gender identities. Other Republicans saw the Freedom Caucus amendments as a bad-faith effort to grab attention and force difficult votes.

In a new twist, the South Carolina Freedom Caucus issued its own response to the Republican governor’s State of the State address last week. Republican Rep. Adam Morgan, the chair of the 16-person group, railed against what he called the state’s “liberal Republicans.” Morgan, who recently announced a bid for Congress, also derided a House GOP caucus rule barring campaigns against fellow Republicans as a “crony loyalty pledge.”

Some Republicans, including state Rep. Micah Caskey, have fought back — at least rhetorically. Caskey accused the Freedom Caucus of “political terrorism for their own selfish narrow ambitions.”

“They have bamboozled people into believing that their fiery rhetoric and preference for anarchy is conservative,” Caskey said. ”The reality is that they are an obstruction and an annoyance to achieving conservative policy aims.”

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Associated Press writer James Pollard contributed from Columbia, South Carolina. Pollard is a corps member for the Associated Press/Report for America Statehouse News Initiative. Report for America is a nonprofit national service program that places journalists in local newsrooms to report on undercovered issues.