Republican National Power Struggle Goes Local in Rural Pennsylvania


BUTLER, Pennsylvania. Zach Scherer, a 20-year-old auto salesman and Republican activist from Butler County in Pennsylvania, has decided to run for district commission this year, a move that would normally mean seeking the support of the local Republican Party. leaders.

In Butler County, an unusual question arose: which Republican Party?

Last spring, the officially recognized Butler County Republican Committee was splintered by right-wing grassroots insurgents and then splintered again by insurgent power struggles. There was a lawsuit, interference from the state Republican Party, and a dispute over a booth at a local farm show.

Butler, the rural county in western Pennsylvania where Donald J. Trump received almost twice as many votes as Joseph R. Biden Jr. in 2020, now has three organizations claiming to be the true tribune of the local Republicans. They all consider the rest illegal.

“Basically, there is no committee,” said Al Lindsay, a four-year local party veteran who was fired as committee chairman last year.

Partisans in Pennsylvania agree on one thing, if not more: Their struggle is a microcosm of a nationwide struggle for control of the Republican Party that began with Trump but flared up over the party’s weak performance in the midterms. .

That fight has played out in national arenas, such as Kevin McCarthy’s multi-day battle for Speaker of the US House of Representatives and a bitter fight for the GOP National Committee chair ahead of this week’s meeting.

But it is also being actively fought at the state and county levels, as Trump supporters and right-wing activists who have taken control of party organizations in recent years face resistance from rivals who blame them for the party’s defeats in November.

Such conflicts often take place out of the view of even local news outlets. But they are likely to affect the ability of state parties to raise money, recruit candidates, determine a presidential nominee in 2024, and generally map out ways to overcome the party’s post-Trump malaise.

“We believe we will change our national scene by changing our local committees,” said Bill Halle, leader of one of Butler’s two rebel factions.

The current controversy is directly linked to Mr. Trump’s defeat in 2020, when his ruthless claims of a stolen election divided Republican leaders between those who supported Mr. Trump’s cause and those who wanted to move on.

In several bitterly contested states, state party leaders have vociferously supported his campaign statements and backed Republican candidates who earned Mr. Trump’s support by doing the same. But many of these candidates were extremist or eccentric politicians who would lose in November, and their nomination has been staunchly divisive.

In Michigan, major GOP donors backed down after state party co-chairman Mechon Maddock took the unusual step of openly supporting opponents of an election endorsed by Mr. Trump ahead of the party’s nominating convention. All of these candidates lost the GOP debacle in November.

In Georgia, Brian Kemp, a Republican governor seeking re-election, has gone so far as to form his own political organization separate from the state Republican Party, whose chairman, David Schafer, supported Trump-approved Republican candidates in the primary. Mr. Schafer is one of the targets of a special grand jury investigating whether Mr. Trump and his allies interfered in the 2020 election.

“I think it’s inexcusable,” Jay Morgan, chief executive of the Georgia Party in the 1980s, said of Mr. Schafer’s handling of the party. Mr. Morgan, who now works as a lobbyist in Atlanta, said he did not recommend any of his corporate clients to donate to the state. “It breaks my heart,” he said.

Mr Shafer did not respond to a request for comment.

In Nevada, several former party officials called on current chairman Michael McDonald to step down after the party backed several losing candidates who denied the election.

“The Republican Party could be great here; it really is possible,” said Amy Tarkanian, a former chairman of the Nevada Republican Party, who was expelled from her district’s Republican committee after endorsing the Democratic Attorney General candidate last summer. “But they made themselves irrelevant because of their toxicity.”

How Times reporters cover politics. We expect our journalists to be independent observers. Thus, while Times employees may vote, they are not permitted to support or campaign for candidates or for political reasons. This includes participating in marches or rallies in support of a movement, or donating or raising money for any political candidate or election campaign.

Republican officials from Michigan, Georgia and Nevada did not respond to requests for comment.

In the days following the 2020 election, influential Trump allies such as Stephen K. Bannon, who hosts the popular War Room podcast, promoted a “precinct strategy”: a Tea Party-era plan to take over local party committees by manipulating activists for low office. levels that are often left unfilled.

District committees usually have a say in state party affairs, support local candidates and campaign, and sometimes appoint electoral workers. The precinct strategy was to use the committees to wrest control from longtime party leaders who were seen by right-wing activists as weak or scornful of their ambitions.

“For years, the establishment has been saying, ‘I may not be what you want me to be, but I’m not a Democrat, so you have to support me.’ It ends up being an excuse to ignore the base,” said Sam Faddis, leader of a statewide coalition of self-described “patriotic” groups in Pennsylvania. Former CIA operations officer Mr. Faddis appeared frequently on Mr. Bannon’s podcast.

In Butler County, a predominantly working-class area of ​​farmland and aging steel mills north of Pittsburgh, the cause was supported by Mr. Sherer, who voted for the first time as a high school student in 2020. Angered by what he considered to be a stolen election, he formed a group called the Butler PA Patriots, which soon found a place in Mr. Faddis’ state coalition.

After watching videos of Mr. Bannon promoting his electoral strategy, he began recruiting local candidates. “I told them what we want to do,” he said, “which is to take power in the Republican Party.”

His group scouted potential candidates by identifying “super voters” — registered Republicans who voted in two consecutive elections — and polling them on their personal Facebook and Telegram networks. Cory Check, a 20-year-old member of the Patriot group who was running for committee in his township, said he hired one candidate for committee after spotting a cardboard figure of Mr. Trump in front of her house and knocking on the door.

Mr. Scherer’s Patriot group advocated for a common cause with Mr. Galle, a revived evangelical pastor who recently fell out with Mr. Lindsay and other local committee leaders.

Both Mr. Halle and Mr. Lindsay agree that their disputes were not so much about ideology, but about what best to use the party apparatus. Mr Halle saw it as a means to remake the state party, whose compromises on Covid quarantines, mail-in voting and responses to claims of 2020 electoral fraud he considered unacceptable. Mr. Lindsey, who calls himself a vocal opponent of abortion and advocates an investigation into the 2020 election results in Butler County, saw it mainly as a means to get Republicans elected.

“Our opponents were the Democrats—or so we thought,” Mr. Lindsay said. “These people were not interested. They were interested in attacking the Republicans.”

Led by Mr. Lindsay, the county committee sued to block Mr. Halle, Mr. Scherer and others from registering their own organization under the same name. In the spring primary, the rebels won a majority of county committee seats, but months of tangled procedural battles and legal wrangling ensued.

Things came to a head in August when members of the old and new guards fought over the committee booth at the Butler Farm Show, prompting the event’s security chief to intervene – an episode that, to the chagrin of Republican activists, happened in full view. County Democrats’ own booth.

Later that month, the State Party intervened and recognized Gary Vanasdale, a local lawyer backed by Mr. Halle’s group, as the legitimate county chairman. But the insurgency quickly splintered after the victory. Mr. Halle continued to run the corporation as a sort of shadow party, accusing Mr. Vanasdale of “fraudulently using our name” and demanding that he hand over party assets.

Meanwhile, the Butler County United Republicans, a third group made up of longtime party members including Mr. Lindsay, have also emerged and won the support of some Republican officials in the county.

Jondavid Longo, mayor of Slippery Rock and a member of the Republican committee, said in an email that the group “is trusted by legitimate candidates and leaders to get the job done and deliver tangible results for the Republican Party.”

Mr. Vanasdale said he welcomed the energy of other groups, but was quick to point out that only his committee had been formally recognized as a state-party.

“There is only one NFL,” said Mr. Vanasdale, a youth football coach. “There are a bunch of other leagues that want to compete with this. They all promote football. It suits me”.

Some called for unity. “WE ARE ALL REPUBLICANS,” Mr. Sherer wrote in an email to members of the two rebel factions in September, ahead of the midterm elections, “and it’s time to work together to fight RINO” – Republicans in name only – “the establishment and liberals running our country and state.”

But others on the right see the current turmoil as a difficult but necessary step in the Republican Party’s transformation. They blame the party’s sluggish support and donor support for the party’s loss to more right-wing candidates in November. (The Pennsylvania Republican Party declined to comment.)

“The establishment in Pennsylvania is not shy,” Mr. Faddis said. “Look what they did to Mastriano.” Doug Mastriano, the state’s right-wing leader, won the Republican primary for governor last year but lost the general election to Democrat Josh Shapiro.

Mr. Faddis said his coalition is educating activists in more Pennsylvania counties about polling place strategy to build on last year’s local victories. “We are absolutely trying to keep all the groups in the state moving in the same direction,” he said.

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