The petri dish of American politics: Homegrown factions wreak havoc on mainstream parties
The recent tug-of-war for control of the Haywood County Republican Party has left many conservatives cringing and embarrassed over the portrayal of petty infighting, but it has played out like a microcosm of the national political landscape.
Factions at both extremes — bleeding-heart liberals on the left and hardline conservatives on the right — have been fighting for the heart-and-soul of their parties for the past decade. From the Tea Party to the Occupy movement, they’ve proved that parties can be molded, nudged and redirected.
“It is hard to create a faction that is sustaining,” said Chris Cooper, head of the political science and public affairs department at Western Carolina University. “What tends to happen is they eventually get gobbled up by the party. But if they were successful, they pulled the party in their direction.”
Emboldened by the nation’s shifting politics, a homegrown faction of liberty-leaning, patriot-brand conservatives set out to remake the Haywood Republican Party in their own image.
They patrolled the party like the Home Guard from the Civil War, enforcing their brand of zealotry through intimidation. Republicans who were too moderate in their eyes were publicly ridiculed and shamed, until they either got in line or left the party.
But then an astonishing thing happened. Mainstream Republicans orchestrated a coup to oust the patriot faction and take back the party.
This shifting and shaping of a party by its coalitions and factions is how the political system works — witnessed by the right-wing House Freedom Caucus scuttling the Republican establishment’s health care bill. But the party will only sway so far before it pushes back and self-corrects.
“That’s the dance of American politics in some ways,” Cooper said. “These groups affect the party when it is to the party’s benefit. If they are too extreme it is not going to go. Parties win by having broad coalitions of voters. You aren’t going to win with the far, far right.”
The uprising of the patriot faction in the Haywood GOP, and its ultimate rooting out, seems inevitable in some ways. There are more than 200 million registered voters in America, and they can’t all fit neatly into just two parties.
But Paul Yeager, a member of the Haywood patriot faction, disagrees.
“Ronald Reagan spoke of a big tent for the Republican Party. I don’t think there is anything in the Republican Party platform that negates the possibility of a big tent,” Yeager said.
“I don’t think there is a litmus test to being a Republican,” agreed Jeremy Davis, a leader of the patriot faction.
Still, the patriot faction often criticized mainstream Republicans for being too moderate. Haywood County Commissioner Kevin Ensley — the lone Republican on the county board of commissioners for a decade — was harangued and harassed incessantly for being too friendly with the Democratic commissioners.
“They can shout and scream all day that I am not a Republican, but I know I am,” Ensley said.
In his view, it’s the other way around — the patriots are so radical and extreme, they’ve fallen off the edge of the Republican spectrum.
“To me a lot of these people are Libertarians, not Republicans. Maybe they need to join the Libertarian party,” said Kevin Ensley, a mainstream Republican and county commissioner.
The Libertarian Party has offered the patriots a home more than once.
“The Libertarian Party is the place you belong along with most other folks I know,” Jess Dunlap with the Haywood Libertarian Party wrote in an email to Cabe last fall.
The patriots formed a loose allegiance with the Libertarian Party two years ago, publicly backing a Libertarian candidate for county commissioner over a mainstream Republican on the ballot. It revealed the murky grey area where far right bleeds into far left.
The Libertarian party isn’t a perfect fit for the patriots when it comes to social values. But it’s a better fit than the either-or choice offered by the two main parties, Dunlap said.
“I think people are starting to figure out they are cogs in the machine, and that the Democratic and Republican Party are kind of just one big party,” Dunlap said.
The dramatic rise in independent voters — accounting for 30 percent of voters in North Carolina — is a chip in the armor to the two-party system.
But America’s two-party system isn’t going anywhere anytime soon, if ever.
“It’s what we are going to have. Our entire political structure is set up to support two parties,” Cooper said.
Bona fide third parties occasionally manage to inject their message into the national conversation, like the Socialist Party that advanced women’s suffrage and ended child labor in the early 20th century, or Ross Perot who made the national deficit a central campaign theme during his 1995 run for president with the Reform Party.
Turning a party can be like turning an aircraft carrier, but it can be done. Terry Ramey, a lifelong Democrat who defected from his party last year, saw it happen.
When Ramey ran for Haywood County commissioner as a Democrat last year, he was accused of not really being a Democrat and lost in the primary. It was a classic case of the party’s base rejecting a candidate that didn’t reflect their ideology.
Ramey is now an adopted son of the Republican Party, joining the legions of Southern Democrats who are too conservative for their own party anymore.
“To me, it seems like the party left us instead of us leaving it,” Ramey said. “To me, the old Democrats back 30 and 40 years ago remind me of the new Republicans. I still have the same way of thinking I had before, but it seems like the party has changed and the new Republicans have picked up that way of thinking.”
Bucking the system
The ideological tug-of-war in the local Republican Party also mirrors the national upheaval of the party that played out during the Republican presidential race. The party establishment rejected President Donald Trump as an outside threat. But a groundswell of grassroots support for Trump won out.
“Nationally, the Establishment Republicans are terrified of Donald Trump. It is the Establishment vs. Conservative factions in the GOP,” Monroe Miller, a leader of the patriot faction, wrote in a complaint to the state GOP last year.
To Eddie Cabe, a primary ringleader of the patriot faction, the division comes down to the elite country club Republicans versus the blue-collar Republicans.
“There’s two completely separate categories of people in the Republican Party,” Cabe said. “You have what we call the elite or the establishment, which is made up mostly of lawyers, and then you’ve got the volunteers, which are mostly good Christian conservatives trying to make the community better.”
For too long, the party establishment treated the rank-and-file Republicans like foot soldiers who should follow orders and do the party’s bidding.
“The establishment lawyers do not want us to have a voice,” Cabe said. “It’s basically like you are a member of a country club and if somebody gives you any lip, you just tell them they aren’t a member of your country club anymore.”
But Cabe is not one to get in line and follow orders.
The concept of party hierarchy goes against the patriot faction’s grain. Instead of people orbiting a party, the party should orbit the people, Cabe said. And that’s the message the masses delivered at the polls when electing Trump as the Republican nominee last year.
Meanwhile, Bernie Sanders threw the Democratic Party establishment a similar curveball.
“It is a time of strong partisanship but weak parties,” Cooper said.
Room for two?
Since their ousting, the patriots have been vocal about their disdain for the official Republican Party establishment.
“Our unscrupulous county GOP leadership threw their morals out the window,” Cabe wrote in a Facebook post. “The Haywood GOP has sold out. Beware of wolves in sheep's clothing.”
An anonymous website has cropped up as a venue for bashing the local GOP. The site managed to snag the domain name haywoodgop.com, but issues the following disclaimer.
“This is NOT the official Haywood County NC Republican Party website. This is a site that exposes things that HCGOP leadership would prefer remain in the dark,” the disclaimer reads.
The patriot faction was faced with a stark choice after being shoved out of the local Republican Party. They could have gone to the house and given up. But instead they regrouped under the banner of the Haywood Republican Alliance and registered as a political action committee.
“As I see it, we basically are going to draw people who believe in Constitutional freedoms, small well-managed government, and political honesty and integrity,” said Davis.
The new group is a slap in the face to the official GOP. The name the patriots chose — Haywood Republican Alliance — could create confusion and cause identity problems for the official GOP.
The patriot faction kept the Republican Party headquarters as their own home and co-opted the party’s official Facebook page, rebranding it as Haywood Republican Alliance. The patriot faction said they got some pushback over the new group from the mainstream party.
“We represent a threat to them,” Yeager said. “We plan to keep raising money. I don’t know whether the pool from which we draw donations is fixed or not. If it is a fixed pie, us collecting donations diminishes their ability to do the same.”
Some spin-off political groups work in concert with the main party. But the Haywood Republican Alliance is billing itself as an alternative to the Haywood GOP — not working in collaboration with it.
“The good grassroots Christian conservatives of Haywood County do have a place they can go and be appreciated,” Cabe wrote in a Facebook post about the newly formed group. “Myself and other liberty-loving patriots invite everyone to come join us at the Haywood Republican Alliance.”
Launching a new vehicle for their conservative cause wasn’t the easy route, Yeager said.
“Because I believe in the cause, I believe in the principles. Together we can do much more to get good people into office and bad people out of office than we can individually,” Yeager said.
The patriot faction had formed a fight bond, and staying the course under a new group allows them to keep their brotherhood in tact.
“We made lots of T-shirts, registered lots of voters, added a lot of people to the database,” Cabe said. “I enjoyed it. I had a good time and made good friends. I considered some of those guys like brothers.”
The patriots will have far more flexibility as activists than they did under the confines of the Republican Party. They don’t have party rules to follow or a party hierarchy to answer to, and can call out Republicans they feel aren’t being true conservatives.
“If a Republican candidate does something dishonest and I am critical of him for what he’s done, the party can then come after me and remove me from the party,” said Davis. “A PAC allows us to fundraise and support candidates of our choosing and oppose candidates of our choosing.”
Only time will tell if the Haywood Republican Alliance has staying power. The patriots’ spite over being ousted will eventually fade. When the bitterness wears off, will their ideological dedication be strong enough to sustain the group?
In a perfect world, the patriot faction and mainstream branch of the party could piggyback off each other’s strengths and use it to the party’s advantage.
“We have been fighting amongst ourselves for six years now,” said Phillip Wight, a Maggie Valley Republican who has tried to stay neutral. “Maybe these two groups can play a role and come together one day to support issues to help the community.”
However, common ground has been elusive.
“The Haywood Republican Party is like the Irish. When the Irish couldn’t find anyone else to fight, they fought each other,” said KG Watson, a Republican from Haywood County.
Since Watson moved here four years ago, one spat or another has been playing out within the party. He’s tried to bring the two sides together, but after witnessing the scheme to oust the patriot faction, he has given up.
“I can’t help these people get together,” Watson said.
Watson isn’t the only one who’s tried.
Mark Zaffrann, a Waynesville businessman, was once hopeful that the two sides of the party could be brought together. Two years ago, Zaffrann agreed to serve as the party’s vice-chair in hopes of diffusing the ongoing polarization.
“That’s why I even bothered in the first place,” said Zaffrann, who later stepped down due to time constraints. “I’d like to believe I was perceived as an open-minded, objective conservative. I listened to both perspectives.”
Zaffrann said the tactics and style of the patriot faction can be off-putting, but credits them for being passionate and principled.
“They have a liberty-minded philosophy above all else,” Zaffrann said.
Their passion is often perceived as zealotry, however, and their unwavering principles seem more like stubbornness. The party would be well served if it could harness the patriot’s energy, however.
“One side is not passionate enough and goes with the flow, and the other side is so passionate that when they lose a vote they lose credibility because of how they react,” Wight said.
Ramey has a unique perspective on the infighting as a recent inductee to the Republican Party.
“I have stood up at the meetings and said, ‘Look we aren’t gaining no ground divided.’ Just think of what good they could do if everybody worked together, if everybody got out here and did what they were best at,” Ramey said. “But since it is a power struggle they don’t want to work together. They each said if that other bunch stays in, I’m going to quit.”
Ramey feels stuck in the middle now. He plans to stay involved with both the official GOP and the newly formed Haywood Republican Alliance. But since he refused to disavow the patriot faction, he was labeled as one of them — a guilt-by-association fate shared by several who tried to stay neutral but were pigeonholed nonetheless.
“They can be upset with me because I won’t pick sides, but that’s not me,” Ramey said. “Every one of them is going to have to give to make this a successful party.”