By Jeremy Herb, CNN
The day after the January 6 attack on the US Capitol, three local Republican officials in Pennsylvania’s Lancaster County announced they were leaving the GOP. Among them was Ethan Demme, a lifelong conservative who had previously served as the youngest Republican Party chairman in this deeply red corner of southeast Pennsylvania.
Disgusted by the denial of the 2020 election and the violence at the Capitol, Demme and his two colleagues sent a joint letter on January 7 to the county GOP chair saying the party they once knew was “gone and has left us behind.”
Twenty miles away, in the northwest corner of the county, Stephen and Danielle Lindemuth had just returned from a daylong bus trip to Washington, where they attended then-President Donald Trump’s “Stop the Steal” rally. Rather than turning them off, the events in Washington energized the Lindemuths and sparked a yearlong journey into politics that ended with each being elected to local office.
Both Stephen, a pastor and substitute teacher, and Danielle, a secretary for the church group that organized the January 6 bus trip, won seats in November on the local school board, despite several local Republican officials endorsing their Democratic opponents. Stephen also won his campaign to be an election judge.
The story of their path into Republican politics – and Demme’s departure from the GOP – reflects the larger battle raging inside the Republican Party. Over the past year, those who continue to support Trump’s election lies that fueled the violence at the Capitol have solidified their position inside the GOP, while Republicans who remain horrified by the insurrection now find themselves alienated from the party — if not cast out altogether.
The politics of Lancaster County over the past year shows how Trump’s election lies morphed into anger over a range of issues at the local level, from mask mandates to debates over Critical Race Theory and defunding the police. Interviews with more than 20 Republican and Democratic elected officials, party leaders and activists in Lancaster County reveal how this pattern of political grievance fueled Republican turnout in typically mundane off-year municipal races, reversing Democrats’ electoral gains during Trump’s presidency.
“It just seems there is a through line, that the people who were ‘Stop the Steal’ are also the people who don’t like these government mandates on masks, and then it carries out to the school board,” said Michael Corradino, a dean at a Lancaster County community college who ran as a Democrat to be a township election judge after learning Stephen Lindemuth had no opposition. Lindemuth won handily.
Lancaster County is a microcosm of the forces that have reshaped the GOP in the year since January 6. Its collection of mostly Republican-run local townships surround the Democratic-leaning city of Lancaster. The county’s rural, rolling farmland, with a sizable Amish population, is a frequent stop for Republican presidential campaigns and its voters reliably back Republicans for higher office.
But the county is also indicative of the turn the party has taken toward national populism and, in some cases, extremism. Lancaster is 81% White, according to the latest Census data. It’s home to a White nationalist group that launched a political party a little over a year ago, according to local Lancaster newspaper LNP. Of the roughly 60 Pennsylvania residents who face charges for rioting at the Capitol, three are from Lancaster County, including two accused of violence.
The county is also near the districts of two elected Republicans who were instrumental in helping Trump try to subvert the election — US Rep. Scott Perry and state Sen. Doug Mastriano, who both hail from districts west of Lancaster and participated in Trump’s efforts to pressure the Justice Department to support his false claims about election fraud.
As they have around the country, Democrats in Lancaster County tried to mobilize against what they say is a serious threat to democracy. In the local school board race, the Lindemuths were opposed by two Democrats, Kristy Moore, a teacher, and Sarah Zahn, who runs a local music business. The pair raised tens of thousands of dollars for their campaign, a strikingly large sum for such a small race. And both won the endorsements of local Republican officials turned off by the Lindemuths. They still lost.
“They were just preying on these fears people had that were a threat to what they valued,” Moore said of the Republican message. “Sarah and I tried our best to try to set that record straight: Critical race theory isn’t taught in the Elizabethtown school district. But it just wasn’t enough.”
Leaving the GOP
On January 6, Demme watched with horror from his home workshop as rioters waving Trump flags and clad in tactical gear swarmed the Capitol.
At 39, Demme had been involved in Republican politics for more than half his life. He first volunteered for a Republican campaign in Pennsylvania when he was 14. In 2008, he worked on the late-Sen. John McCain’s presidential run. Three years later, at 29, he was chair of the Lancaster County Republican Party and a rising star in local political circles.
Demme soon won a seat on his local township board of supervisors, and in 2016, he launched a bid for the Pennsylvania state Senate. By then, Trump was barnstorming the GOP Presidential primaries. Demme decided early on he was a “never-Trump” Republican, a position that ultimately doomed his state Senate campaign.
“Let’s just say I didn’t win that race,” Demme said with a laugh during a December interview inside a downtown Lancaster hotel. Demme, who is tall with a dark beard and slicked-back hair, wore a sharp gray suit, and made sure to note that the former home of one of his political heroes, Thaddeus Stevens, was just down the street.
Stevens, a “radical Republican” abolitionist from the Civil War era, played a role forming the GOP and is buried in Lancaster. During a never-Trump rally Demme helped organize in April 2016 before the primary, they marched from Stevens’ grave to his home.
Just after 5 p.m. on January 6, Demme went online to change his registration to “no affiliation.” He discovered two of his fellow Republican board supervisors in East Lampeter Township felt the same way, and the next day they jointly announced they were leaving the GOP, swinging control of the five-member township board to the new independent wing.
“Most of the feedback I got was very positive, actually that was the most surprising thing,” Demme said. “A lot of it from Republicans, off the record saying, ‘You know, we support you. I wish I could do that, but — there’s always a but — my business, my political career, I make money from.’ There’s a lot of pressures for people to stay in their lane. It’s just sort of the way that the system is set up.”
Demme wasn’t the only Republican official in Lancaster to leave the GOP. Melissa Dye, a former local GOP county committeewoman, says she left the party and politics entirely after January 6. Bob Hollister, a school superintendent in the county, changed his voter registration last spring and says he’s now considering running for Congress as a Democrat against Rep. Lloyd Smucker, a Republican elected in 2016 who voted to object to Pennsylvania’s presidential election results early on January 7.
“I really do think there’s a large group of folks in the middle who really don’t seem to have a voice right now,” Hollister said.
In 2019, Demme was reelected to the township board without opposition. But after January 6, he was still itching to play a bigger role in the political fights unfolding in Pennsylvania. After mulling what to do with other disaffected Republicans, Demme announced in June he was forming a Pennsylvania chapter of the Serve America Movement, a third party created in 2017 that’s currently chaired by another Republican who left the party, former Florida Rep. David Jolly.
Demme acknowledges the difficult road ahead — and that third party candidates have no track record of success in Pennsylvania.
“When you’re running a third party and you’re trying to recruit candidates for a third party, you have to have a little bit of Don Quixote,” Demme said. ”I wouldn’t be doing this if I didn’t legitimately think that our democracy is actually under attack. And that’s what January 6 showed.”
Traveling south to Washington
Before dawn on January 6, the local Fox TV station in Lancaster County ran a live broadcast from an Elizabethtown parking lot. Four buses loaded with about 175 people were preparing to leave for Washington to protest Trump’s election loss to Joe Biden, one of numerous bus trips organized across the county and state.
Among those heading to Washington were Stephen and Danielle Lindemuth. The couple have lived in Elizabethtown, or E-town, as the town in the northwest corner of the county is called, for more than a decade. They have a daughter in the town’s high school. Stephen, 49, is a former pastor and substitute teacher in a neighboring county, while Danielle, 45, works as a secretary for the Christian nonprofit Partnership for Revival, the church group that organized a January 6 bus trip, according to their LinkedIn profiles.
When she returned from Washington the night of January 6, Danielle Lindemuth told the Lancaster newspaper that she was near the Capitol when barricades were pushed down, but she stayed outside.
“We went down there because we truly believe this election has been fraudulent, and we do believe the truth needs to be brought out,” she told LNP. “If you’re not going to hear us, you’re going to see us.”
Stephen and Danielle Lindemuth did not respond to CNN’s phone and email requests for an interview. There’s no evidence the Lindemuths went into the Capitol, and they haven’t been charged with any crimes related to January 6. Stephen Lindemuth wrote on Facebook three days afterward that a “few weeds” in the crowd on January 6 turned “a very positive event into a negative one.”
While it’s unclear exactly how the three Capitol rioters charged with crimes from Lancaster County got to Washington on January 6, at least one may have taken a bus from Elizabethtown, according to the Lancaster newspaper. Two of the defendants, Michael Lopatic and Samuel Lazar, are accused of violent acts against police. Lazar has pleaded not guilty and Lopatic has not yet entered a formal plea. A third, Edward McAlanis, pleaded guilty in November to unlawfully protesting in the Capitol and took a leave of absence from chairing the township’s recreation board after he was charged. McAlanis and his attorney did not respond to requests for comment.
Protesting ‘tyrants’ at school board meetings
In the aftermath of the Capitol riot, Danielle Lindemuth continued to promote on social media Trump’s lies that the election was stolen. She attended a rally in April at the state Capitol, posting video from the event organized by a group demanding a “forensic audit” of Pennsylvania’s 2020 election results and spreading the same false conspiracy theories as Trump allies Rudy Giuliani and Mike Lindell.
In Elizabethtown, Danielle and Stephen Lindemuth directed their attention to the local school board. After spending the first few months of the year battling with the board over issues of race and sexuality — complaining during the public comment portion of board meetings about books taught in their daughter’s 9th grade classroom, including “The Hate U Give,” “Romeo and Juliet” and “To Kill a Mockingbird” — the Lindemuths filed to run for two of the board’s four open seats in February.
Their campaign, backed by a statewide group formed to protest the Democratic governor’s 2020 Covid-19 lockdowns, echoed the national and state-level controversies embraced by Republicans: critical race theory, transgender women participating in women’s sports and “protecting student freedoms” from mask mandates.
After the school board adopted a “masks optional” policy to begin the school year in August, the state’s Health Department issued a new mandate requiring masks in schools as the Delta variant drove up case numbers. The board said it had no choice but to enforce the state’s mandate — sparking a furious outcry from the Lindemuths and other parents, who argued the state was taking away the freedom to make a decision that should be left up to parents.
“You school board have the right to govern over the school and to push back against the governmental overreach of a governor who is acting as more of a dictator than an elected official,” Danielle Lindemuth said at a September school board meeting, which was moved to a bigger venue to accommodate the rowdy crowd. One man was removed for refusing to wear a mask, forcing the meeting to recess.
The board’s president, Terry Seiders, told angry parents at the meeting that the district had to comply. “This school board did not issue this order. The district administration did not issue this order, and our principals did not issue this order,” he said. “Sadly, our principals and district staff have been called tyrants, nut jobs, child abusers, to name a few of the adjectives that have been unjustly used in this past week.”
But many parents called on the board to ignore the state mandate anyway — and chastised the officials for refusing to do so.
April Kelly, a political scientist at Elizabethtown College, said the reaction to the state’s mask mandate was a prime example of how national and state politics trickled down to the local level.
“We’re attacking public school officials trying to educate children, not because they’re the people responsible but because that’s the level of government that’s vulnerable,” she said. “That’s where our angst gets turned, even if that’s not the appropriate level of government.”
‘It just didn’t sit right’ with Dems
The Lindemuths’ foray into politics helped spark a group of Democrats to run against them in a town where nearly all elected officials are Republican.
One of them was Kristy Moore, a 37-year-old mother and public school teacher. Moore had run for school board in Elizabethtown in 2019 as a Democrat and was considering another campaign in 2021. Once she learned the Lindemuths planned to seek two spots on the board, she said there was “no question” she would run again.
Speaking to CNN at Elizabethtown’s bustling coffee shop in the center of town, where she was one of the few people wearing a mask when she walked in, Moore said that to bolster the Democratic ticket last year she recruited a fellow parent to run alongside her.
Sarah Zahn, 42, says that Moore began dropping hints that they should run together in fall 2020 while they petitioned the board to wait on transitioning students into higher-grade schools. Zahn, who has a performing arts background and owns a private vocal music studio, didn’t have any political experience, but she agreed to join forces.
Stephen Lindemuth’s bid to be an election judge was also what prompted Michael Corradino, the community college dean, to run for office last year. Election judges in Pennsylvania effectively run a local voting precinct and often no one runs for the job. After reading stories about Stephen Lindemuth’s campaign and attendance at the January 6 rally, Corradino got onto the ballot as a Democratic write-in during the primary to give voters an alternative.
“It just didn’t sit right that somebody associated with January 6 who expressed the viewpoint along ‘Stop the Steal’ is wanting to be a judge of elections,” he said.
The school board race was easily the most heated contest. The tone of the 2019 and 2021 school board races couldn’t have been more different, Moore said: ”In 2019, the incumbents that I ran against, I honestly would have voted for myself.”
The controversy over the campaign also led to a financial windfall: Moore said she raised less than $1,000 for her first school board race in 2019, enough for some yard signs. In 2021, Moore hauled in about $13,000, while Zahn raised nearly $12,000.
During the campaign, Moore said one Elizabethtown resident accused her of being a Marxist. On social media, a woman made a veiled threat toward the two Democrats. “Wish we could take care of traitors like they did back in the day,” the woman wrote on Facebook.
Moore and Zahn took the complaint to the local police department, which looked into the matter but couldn’t take action because it wasn’t a direct threat, Moore said.
“I didn’t expect at all how political this race would get. I think if I’d have known that at the beginning, I would have considered a little bit longer if I wanted to run,” Zahn said. “I wish very much that we could have spent more time talking about property taxes, equity in education for students at all levels, but unfortunately so much energy was put into explaining critical race theory to people.”
Crossing party lines
Moore and Zahn recognized that to have any chance of winning in Elizabethtown, they needed Republican support. So they sought out local GOP officials they thought would be alarmed by the rhetoric from the Lindemuths.
One of the Republicans they contacted was Jeffrey McCloud. A longtime Elizabethtown resident and former editor of the local weekly paper, McCloud had been an Elizabethtown borough councilman for more than a decade and considers himself a moderate Republican. McCloud was “not a fan” of Trump when he ran in 2016, he said, and he voted for Biden in 2020.
McCloud was initially hesitant about an an endorsement, concerned about the political ramifications. Once he learned that he wasn’t the only Republican considering crossing party lines, however, he got on board. “Suddenly, there was a whole list of people that I respected in the community, including one of my fellow councilman,” McCloud said.
Craig Hummer, a Republican on the Elizabethtown school board, said that he endorsed Moore and Zahn because he believed they were the best candidates when it came to supporting public education and the students of the community, even though their politics “couldn’t be further apart.”
“I think it’s healthy for us as a school board to have opposing views on topics,” he said.
The endorsement letter was signed by 16 current and former local and school officials, a majority of them Republican. “Kristy and Sarah will serve with integrity and common sense, and without a political agenda,” the letter said.
The politics of January 6 played out in another Lancaster County race in one of the county’s few purple townships. Democrats highlighted a photo of Manheim Township business owner Mary Jo Huyard in Washington on January 6 to try to argue she was too extreme to be a township commissioner. But Huyard and the Republicans retook control of the township board in a razor-thin campaign.
“Wedge issues that the Republicans were pushing from the national level influenced this race, clearly,” said Carol Gifford, one of defeated Democratic incumbents.
Huyard did not respond to requests for comment.
A warning for next election
The campaigns in Elizabethtown also ended in the Republicans’ favor. The school board race was closer after the GOP endorsements, but the four Republican candidates prevailed by more than 700 votes. Stephen Lindemuth easily won his race to be an election judge.
P.D. Gantert, who runs a liberal-leaning political committee in Lancaster County that helps local candidates run for office, said candidates had a harder time swaying voters through traditional door-to-door campaigning because voters’ views were often baked into hardened national opinions.
While Democrats made electoral gains in Lancaster County while Trump was president, the surge in GOP turnout in 2021 was a warning sign for the party going into the midterms, said Ismail Smith-Wade-El, Lancaster’s city council president and vice chair of the county Democratic Party.
“Democrats, we were not ready for what happened, and the level of vociferousness and passion and energy and money our opponents would put into hate-driven politics, which ended up winning them elections both locally and nationwide,” Smith-Wade-El said.
Moore and Zahn say they don’t know yet if they’ll run again for school board in two years, but for now, they’re keeping a close eye on the actions taken by the board, which has re-adopted its initial masks-optional policy after the Pennsylvania Supreme Court overturned the state’s mandate.
Demme said that as he recruits candidates for the midterms later this year, he’s also weighing his own third-party bid for a statehouse seat. Running would likely pit him against a Republican incumbent.
For the Republicans who supported Moore and Zahn in the school board race, it’s too soon to say whether there will be political repercussions. At a November Elizabethtown school board meeting after the 2021 election, one parent warned Hummer that they’d be coming for his seat after he endorsed the Democrats.
McCloud is also up for reelection in 2023, and he’s aware he could be challenged during the next campaign. But he said he has no regrets, even as he questions whether he still has a home the GOP. He says he might align closest with Rep. Liz Cheney, the Wyoming Republican who has been ostracized by House Republicans for joining the January 6 committee investigating the Capitol attack.
“If in two years, I lose my seat because of this, I can leave office with a clean conscience,” he said. “And I really believe that. I feel really strongly about, about that, and about what has happened to the Republican Party, both nationally and it’s filtered down.”
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CNN’s Marshall Cohen contributed to this report.