Overthrown: A developing feud within the Macon GOP threatens one of the region’s strongest political institutions
“Thou shalt not speak ill of other Republicans.”
So goes the famous quote, dubbed the “Eleventh Commandment” by President Ronald Reagan, the man who inspired nationwide unity within the Republican Party throughout his two terms as president. It’s something moderate Republicans across the country have aspired to in recent years amid a sometimes-insurgency from the far right.
They’re also words Carla Miller says with a somber sigh nowadays. Miller retired as chair of the Macon County GOP earlier this year. While there were plans in place to keep momentum in one of the strongest county parties in the whole state, that was upset with little notice when a small group got enough registered Republicans to come out to the county convention in March to install two relatively unknown men, Jimmy Goodman and Dylan Castle, from the more extreme wing of the party. Miller said she wasn’t necessarily upset that other people wanted to step up and seek the chair and vice chair seats; however, the way the whole plan was kept under wraps for months was a lot to handle.
“I was shocked, just shocked,” Miller said.
There have been similar upheavals in other counties, even western ones, such as Buncombe and Jackson, where a new wave of leadership with more conservative views hearkening back to the Tea Party overtook the establishment. These kinds of schisms within parties tend to form in areas that are dominated politically by one party or the other. Many times, in those counties or districts, a more extreme wing of the party can take power where in swing counties or districts, both parties are pushed more toward the center.
While these kinds of upheavals have taken place in other areas, what makes Macon County’s party leadership change different is the fact that the party had been so strong for several years and the fact that the plan was off former leadership’s radar for months.
From the ground up
The MCGOP was in the throes of a similar inter-party power struggle back in the early 2000s and in the end lost a number of county commission elections to Democrats. Around that time, current MCGOP chair Goodman had managed to primary a popular more moderate Republican but lost to Democrat Bobby Kuppers. After the Tea Party movement fizzled out, Republican Paul Higdon easily defeated Kuppers and still serves on that board.
In more recent years, Macon County has produced three of the region’s most influential legislators — retired Sen. Jim Davis, Sen. Kevin Corbin and Rep. Karl Gillespie — all of whom first served on the county commission. In addition to those men, the party also produced Robbie Holland, the popular now-retired sheriff who served for 20 years, and Ashley Welch, who was elected as the district attorney of the seven western counties at just 34 years old. Welch was also the first woman and first Republican to win that seat in the history of the district. She ran unopposed in 2018 and 2022 and still serves in that role.
Perhaps most notably, Mark Meadows, prior to becoming embroiled in controversy surrounding his role on Jan. 6 amid the riot in the Capitol, achieved a meteoric rise to prominence even during his freshman term in the House of Representatives. Meadows began his political career in Macon County and even served as the party’s chair.
The party has even worked outside its own borders and supported Sen. Bobby Hanig en route to his victory over Democrat Valarie Jordan in the third district. Corbin, seeking a supermajority on the Senate, knew that Hanig’s closely contested race might make the difference. He approached Miller. In short order, the Macon County Republican Women sent the Hanig campaign $2,000, and some candidates also sent money they’d raised.
Part of the success in fundraising is courtesy of a retail store that opened in 2016 and the county’s Century Club, made up of 100 Republicans who donate at least $100 to the county party every year.
“In four years, we grew to 110 patriots that were willing to give us $100 a year every single year going forward,” Miller said. “That's a huge base for a little county.”
Many people interviewed by The Smoky Mountain News for this story — people who’ve been involved with the party for years and even decades — said Miller’s commitment to the party has been a big factor in its success. Miller moved here from Florida about 15 years ago with her husband, Rod, once they retired, although she’d been visiting for several years prior to that. Miller said when she introduced herself to the party she was immediately welcomed — and put to work. Talkative and energetic, Miller became vice chair in only a few years, and then a few years after that, in 2014, she became chair.
Miller said the key to the party’s success has been volunteers’ shared dedication to the “mission,” as well as a targeted effort to craft a message specifically tailored to reach rural mountain voters. The goal, she said, was to register as many Republicans and unaffiliated voters as possible, and then take every opportunity possible to educate those voters. Miller said the party has handed out 10,000-15,000 sample ballots every election cycle between 2014 and 2022 and focused on races that typically get less attention during the campaign season, such as judicial races.
On March 10 of this year, multiple people gathered inside John VanHook’s downtown Franklin law office to discuss the future of the Macon GOP and how to get more conservative people into party leadership seats. Two days later, just five days before the convention, several people showed up at the GOP headquarters as the nominating committee, made up of Robbie Holland, Ashley Welch and Carla Miller, was having a meeting.
Macon County Commissioner Danny Antoine was among that group and used that unexpected meeting to nominate Dylan Castle as vice chair; Goodman had already been nominated for chair. At that time, party leadership assumed Holland was going to be unopposed in his run for that seat.
By the night of the convention, most of the upper echelon of the party had caught wind of the full scope of the plot to usher in a new generation of leaders, something that’d been in the works for months. Longtime Macon County GOP volunteer Valarie Niskanen was at the performing arts center that night checking in guests and verifying credentials of registered Republicans who wanted to vote for leadership. She said people came pouring in saying they were going to vote for Jimmy Goodman.
Most were people Niskanen didn’t recognize, and some weren’t even registered Republicans and therefore couldn’t vote. Nonetheless, they were there to support Goodman and Castle.
“I was beginning to be concerned that we were going to run out of programs,” she said.
Niskanen said she had known Goodman, but not for very long. One day last year, he came into headquarters and introduced himself.
“He said he used to be involved in the party, and that back then they had precincts organized and did all this stuff,” Niskanen recalled. “He said he was going to make sure we were doing things right. I was like, ‘OK, but where have you been?’”
Although it isn’t known where all the newcomers came from, the word was that many were brought in from the Highlands precinct by longtime GOP volunteer Bodie Catlin.
Antoine, who said he wasn’t at the meeting at VanHook’s office, said he was upset to discover that Castle’s nomination wasn’t listed. Instead, another Republican, Ron Haven, nominated him from the floor.
“I was extremely shocked and upset,” he said.
For some, the large turnout of previously uninvolved Republicans looked something like a Christmas Eve service at church where faithful congregants see new faces they won’t see again all year. Antoine viewed the new faces as a good thing.
“Don’t you want as big of a turnout as you can?” he said.
Goodman and Castle each won the chair and vice chair votes with about 100 votes. As upset as the outgoing party leadership was, the vote was legal and in accordance with procedure. Shocking as it may have been, at the end of the day politics is purely a numbers game, and the newcomers had the numbers.
Miller and Niskanen both said they were upset about the meeting at VanHook’s office, especially because it was so secretive. They both received word from fellow Republicans that they were discussing how to install new leadership.
“I got texts from two or three people telling me that there was a secret meeting … I wrote John and I simply said, ‘What's up? What do I need to know?’” Miller said. “I didn't get any responses.”
Meet your new leaders
There’s quite a bit of mystery surrounding the newly elected leaders. Very few people even knew who Castle was. Castle is from Macon County and went to a Christian college in Florida. He now pastors a home congregation and has been involved with the Smoky Mountain Young Republicans. While many folks didn’t know Castle that well, Antoine did. Antoine first met Castle as a student of his at his karate school. In the week before the convention, Antoine shared multiple Facebook posts voicing his support for Castle.
“This godly man is a breath of fresh air!” Antoine wrote in one post.
“Dylan is smart and well-spoken and has a heart to serve,” Antoine told SMN.
Castle did pop onto some people’s radar leading up to the election as he spoke at multiple public meetings. A gifted and compelling public speaker, Castle’s most impassioned comments may have come when he spoke at a county commission meeting in opposition to the Fontana Regional Library’s inclusion of books meant to educate readers about LGBTQ people, books that he said include “sexually explicit material that is illegal that is available to minors.”
Castle announced his nomination in a Facebook video on March 11. In that video, he notes that he’s been trying to get more involved by going to more public meetings.
In a follow-up video on March 15, he elaborates on his decision to run and how he felt God had called him to get more involved in politics. He acknowledged that a lot of pastors don’t typically get involved in politics and that some people in his congregation may not share his beliefs. He said he believed God called him to politics and opened doors that led him to get more involved in politics.
“We need to bring righteousness back to the public arena,” he said. “I’m not going to apologize for that.”
While Castle was almost a complete unknown, Goodman was familiar to plenty of people.
Most recently, Goodman worked on the campaign to get John Shearl elected to the county commission. Prior to that, he’d unsuccessfully run for several offices, including the commission and the state Senate.
Goodman, who was described in a 2010 article from the John Locke Foundation as the “founder of a Tea Party chapter in Macon County called Freedom Works,” served on the planning board, where he characteristically made some waves. An SMN story from around the same time highlighted that when Goodman was appointed to the planning board, he was “openly opposed to that very concept.”
When SMN went to the Macon GOP headquarters on May 25, Goodman was present but said several times he didn’t trust any media and didn’t want to talk. However, he did make a few comments. First, he said he believes the party is “strong and coalesced.” A few days prior to the visit to the party headquarters, SMN sent an email to Goodman and several other folks requesting interviews. Goodman said that once he received that email, he told folks in party leadership to not talk for this story. That was confirmed when Castle responded to an email interview request from SMN.
“I apologize for not responding sooner,” that email read. “I am in agreement with Chairman Goodman however, that, at this time we have no comments to share. Thank you for reaching out. Please feel free to reach back out in the future.”
The context surrounding the move to take control of the party has multiple elements.
First, there were several grievances regarding Holland that had simmered for a few years. That became more heated when he at least tacitly supported the “three good men” ticket for county commission, which supported one Republican, one Democrat and one independent candidate. Holland had developed a strong relationship with Commissioner Ronnie Beale because Beale was the county commission liaison to the sheriff’s office.
Most recently, some took issue with Holland taking a job with the school system where he makes $50,000 per year to provide security analysis. The issue with that isn’t that Holland got the job; it’s more so that it wasn’t publicly listed and no other candidates were considered.
Kevin Corbin has also been a target. Largely considered more moderate, Corbin supported Medicaid expansion well before other Republicans statewide, and reaching across the aisle to compromise with Democrats to get legislation passed has been a hallmark of his time in Raleigh.
In an email to fellow Republicans regarding the indictment of former President Trump, Rob Tolp, who moved to the area from Florida in 2020 and now serves as the East Franklin precinct chair, made his feelings clear.
"I want to encourage each of your [sic] to send an email out today demanding a public response from Senator Corbin and Representative Edwards,” that email read. “Weak Republicans who are afraid to get involved with important issues are why we have a Biden administration able to do what it has done for nearly the past 2.5 years."
However, Corbin has the highest rating of any Western North Carolina legislator from both The American Conservative Union and NC Free. Additionally, voters in the region have overwhelmingly elected him to each office he’s sought. He also has a good deal of power and respect in Raleigh, as evidenced by the fact he’s the chair of both the Health Care and Appropriations on Health and Human Services Senate committees.
Corbin told SMN that he’d be happy to talk to Tolp or anyone else who has concerns about his beliefs or how he’s represented Macon County.
“Everyone is entitled to their opinions,” he said. “I’ll let my election results stand.”
Many who have been active in the Macon GOP countermovement have been critical of media at all levels, including local outlets. A favorite target has been Brittany Lofthouse, who produces the Southern Scoop, a regional outlet that mostly focuses on Macon County happenings.
Backlash against Lofthouse intensified after she spoke in favor of the Fontana Regional Library system and its inclusion of LGBTQ+ themed books. Lofthouse said she’s always voted Republican. While she voted for Cawthorn in 2020, she was vocally against him in 2022 despite his popularity in Macon and other far-west counties.
“I didn’t hide that fact,” she said.
When Rep. Chuck Edwards (R-Henderson) defeated Cawthorn and ultimately won the General Election, he announced that Lofthouse was hired to do constituent services in the five westernmost counties. Despite some rumors that Corbin connected Lofthouse with the job in Edwards’ office, she said he was simply a reference and that she and the congressman had established a positive working relationship when she, along with SMN, hosted a candidate forum where he spoke.
“Whenever Chuck won the election and was looking for people to work in the office , I got an email from his staff that said, ‘Hey, Chuck wanted me to reach out to you when he was working on the campaign,’” Lofthouse said.
Once she took the job, some minor backlash was amplified by a piece in the Daily Haymaker that called her a “gay rights activist.”
“That’s what blew that up,” Lofthouse said. “That’s when they said there’s too much pressure; will you resign?’”
“I have no hard feelings about Congressman Edwards,” she said. “That was never actually about me. I was a political casualty.”
The man who wrote the story about Lofthouse, Brant Clifton, recently had a piece published by a new Macon County news outlet, the Macon Patriot, an online publication that mostly features far-right think pieces. The first story published called for decentralization.
In an email from Brian Walker of the Macon Patriot, it was made clear that the Macon Patriot doesn’t represent the Macon County GOP. In addition, Walker stated that while some who share the Patriot’s stories on social media present it as an alternative to other local media, which is perceived by many on the far-right as inherently biased, that isn’t their main intention.
“It’s more a response to the lack of a Christian conservative news outlet in our region,” he said in the email. “As stated on our website, the Macon Patriot exists to provide the most accurate information grounded in an originalist interpretation of the United States Constitution as well as a biblical worldview.”
Et tu, Brute?
Miller said VanHook, the man who hosted the clandestine meeting at his office a week before the convention, had always been a good friend to her. In fact, the two are neighbors and Miller had appointed VanHook to the Macon County Board of Elections in each of her last two terms.
However, at a meeting on May 10, Miller spoke to the Macon County Board of Elections to raise a concern about whether he could keep his seat on the board since he’d engaged in campaigning for Goodman and Castle.
Miller came right out and said she understood that VanHook participated in “secret clandestine meetings”
“Did that occur?” she asked.
She also brought up what she believed was “manipulation” and “interference” in an East Franklin precinct chair meeting at the convention where VanHook and some friends “summarily dismissed a precinct chair that had served there for several years by herself, without help from John.”
The precinct chair who was dismissed was Elizabeth Gibson, who has been a steadfast volunteer for the party, as well as a strong ally of Miller’s. In a written statement to SMN, Gibson said Tolp, who eventually became chair of the precinct, and VanHook “began to try to take over the meeting.”
“Weeks later, I found out that Mr. Tolp or Mr. VanHook knew who I was or that I had been precinct chair since 2018,” she wrote.
When Gibson called for nominations, one man, Dwight Vinson, nominated Gibson for chair and VanHook nominated Tolp. After counting the 12 votes cast from East Franklin precinct, Tolp was voted in as chair.
“When a board member manipulates either a county convention or a precinct meeting, that’s just plain unacceptable,” Miller told the board. “I don’t care what party you’re from. Frankly, I’m embarrassed to death to be here today because it is not my nature to air the dirty laundry of the Republican party.”
Miller even went as far as saying she’d thought about going to the press with the story. However, SMN was already working on this story before that meeting and reached out to Miller for comment after seeing video of the meeting.
“Disruption, peddling influence, meddling — that started in at least December of 2022, this campaign to disrupt the Republican convention and to change it in a way that completely toppled a very stable political organization … we were known as the leader of the west; we were known statewide as innovative leaders and rule followers,” Miller added.
Niskanen echoed Miller’s sentiments toward VanHook in her interview with SMN.
“I'm very disappointed in John,” she said. “I had a higher opinion of him before.”
Once Miller was done, VanHook asked if anyone else wanted to talk. Tolp introduced himself as and said he was “representing Goodman.” He simply stated that VanHook had been reappointed to the Board of Elections by Goodman and that he “has the full support of the party.”
At the convention, after Tolp was elected chair of the East Franklin precinct, he nominated VanHook for vice chair. VanHook won; however, there was a problem. According to state law, no person can serve on a county board of elections if they hold “any office in a state, congressional district, county or precinct political party or organization.”
But while VanHook was elected vice chair, Macon County Board of Elections Director Melanie Thibault told SMN that when he asked to be a precinct chair, he was informed he couldn’t do that, so he stepped down from that position right away.
“He is a board [of elections] member only,” Thibault said.
The Macon Patriot made it clear where its writers stood and eviscerated the old guard in a piece written by Walker. That story reiterates the point made by many who spoke with SMN for this story — if elections are a numbers game, then anyone campaigning for any office should do what they can to win.
“Ms. Miller appears to be accusing Mr. VanHook of doing what every political campaign strategist has done for the history of our great nation,” that article reads.
Despite saying he doesn’t talk to any media, Goodman provided the Macon Patriot with a statement that reads:
“She said the system was manipulated but I can’t tell how nor do I see any evidence of it. We ran a candidate, and we won by the rules. No election laws or GOP rules were broken.
“Apparently Carla didn’t like that, so she wants the power to meddle in someone’s personal life by removing John VanHook from the Macon County Board of Elections who she supported in her tenure.
“I believe in the integrity of Mr. VanHook and the Macon County GOP Supports Mr. VanHook 100%.”
On May 16, Tolp emailed a link to the story to several Republicans with the subject line “Former Chairwoman of Macon GOP Objects to Legal Party Elections.”
“Macon Patriot published this morning a bombshell story involving former Chairwoman, Carla Miller as she has publicly made false allegations against GOP Representative to the Board of Elections, Mr. John Vanhook,” the email reads. “Let’s get this story out to every Republican you know.”
The Macon Patriot story notes that 14 of 15 precincts were returned to the control of the “grassroots of the party” and alluded to the fact that Miller’s only real objection is that she was unhappy with the convention results.
“Ms. Miller’s attitude smacks of the same haughty actions exhibited by the political establishment in both major political parties in Washington D.C. Does Ms. Miller believe she is a new version of the old European elite and now considers herself a member of the Macon County ‘Blue Bloods’ who are born to rule and wield political power?” the article reads.
“Does she think only certain people within her party’s establishment are entitled to govern the party?” it later reads. “Are every day blue-collar, Republican voters not good enough, smart enough, or wise enough to govern the party to which they belong and show their allegiance?”
Bill McGaha, a recipient of that email and longtime Macon Republican, took objection to the story and took the time to write a lengthy response to the email. He began by stating the first couple of articles published by The Macon Patriot gave him hope it would be “useful in espousing conservative positions and opinions.” But he took issue with that story. Furthermore, he chastised VanHook, Walker and their allies for fomenting division within the party.
“I would not know Mr. VanHook if I met him on the street,” the email reads. “I will not presume his motivations for his party activities, activities at the Convention, or service on the Board of Elections but he certainly is not an ‘every day blue-collar Republican ...’ I do know that Senator Corbin, DA Welch and retired Sheriff Holland had developed a good slate of nominees for the party and that Mrs. Miller was disappointed when a Chair and Vice Chair who had, at least in my observation, not been actively supporting the party efforts were elected at the convention. That was about as inexplicable as Joe Biden being elected President.”
Later in the email, he addressed Tolp directly, noting that there are two different ways two different types of people may respond to a fire. There are those who bring a bucket of water, and there are those who bring a gas can.
“We do not need people throwing gasoline on what would otherwise have been a flicker,” the email reads.
“If giving life to articles such as Mr. Walker's, which is of little to no value and certainly able to create division, and getting it "out to every Republican you know" is how the party is going to function we may be staring the early 2000s in the face again because the everyday blue-collar Republican and the Unaffiliated voter do not need or want the drama.”
One common desire
At the end of the day, both factions seem to want one thing — a strong Republican Party. To achieve and maintain that, there must be sustained unity. While Goodman had said he believes the party has coalesced, the events that have taken place since March indicate otherwise.
Antoine said he doesn’t like what he’s been seeing from his party. For him, there are bigger fish to fry.
“I don’t like the circus they turned that into,” he said of the public fallout following the convention. “It turned into a mess, and it never needed to get to that point.”
NC-11 GOP Chair John Anglin noted that new leadership isn’t necessarily bad and that nine of NC-11’s counties have new leadership. He said he’s fine with whoever wins leadership positions in Western North Carolina county Republican parties as long as they conduct business ethically and within the confines of the law.
“Just make sure you’re going about things the right way,” he said. “I was at Macon County’s convention and things were done the way they should have been.”
While he acknowledged there is a split within the party in some counties, he hopes to see that infighting come to an end.
“Our goal is not have those splits, and have it rooted in the fact we want quality servant leadership,” Anglin said. “There’s been a lot of transition; the idea is that you coalesce and circle wagons and pull together, because for us the other choice is horrible.”