When your political party lets you down

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Kimrey Rhinehardt was a young girl when a Newsweek cover story changed her life.

“There was this article that came out,” recalled the Chatham County business owner, “and it said that women over 40 are more likely to be killed by terrorists than to become married.”

As a 12-year-old, Rhinehardt misunderstood the article’s point — that middle-aged women had slim chances at finding love (a since thoroughly debunked statistic). Instead, it sparked in her a feminist indignation. She had to stave off the impending storm of sexist terrorists.

“I marched myself into school the next day and said, ‘I’m going to Washington because I have to save all those women from these terrorists that are coming!’” she said.

About 10 years later, she followed through on her mission. By then, Rhinehardt’s understanding of socio-economic issues, political discourse and hyperbolic headlines had matured, but her zeal to affect positive change had not dwindled. After graduating from Appalachian State with a degree in political science, she left for D.C. where she found the Republican party’s tenets aligned with her vision for America’s improvement.

She began her career as a congressional staffer to North Carolina Senator Lauch Faircloth, with whom she firmly agreed on deregulation policy. After Faircloth lost his reelection bid, Rhinehardt worked briefly for the Senate Governmental Affairs Committee before rounding out her D.C. tenure with then-Representative Richard Burr.

After seven years working in the Capital, Rhinehardt accepted a position with the UNC system as a federal lobbyist and eventually settled in Chatham County, where she has been for the past 15 years. Four years ago, she founded Gray Zone Strategies LLC, a consulting firm she still operates.

Throughout her decades in politics, Rhinehardt always supported the Republican party, even, she said, when its ideals began to shift.

“There’s certainly been a tremendous amount of change in the 20-plus years that I’ve worked in politics,” she said. “It’s been very incremental, very slight movement. But I would say over the last five, four years, when Trump represented the Republican Party, that the more unpleasant side became visible.”

Still, like most longtime political advocates — from either side of the aisle — she gave her party a chance to readjust. She was willing to “hold my nose a bit,” Rhinehardt said, and give Trump a chance.

“With my background, having worked in government for almost all of my career, I have such a respect for people who work in government and the offices they hold, either appointed or elected,” she said. “I have a responsibility as a citizen to respect the office.”

But what are American citizens to do when the office itself changes?

“There came this point where, you know, yes, I still respect the presidency,” Rhinehardt said, “but the presidency was starting to not resemble anything that I understood the presidency to be. And so it’s tough when you’re an individual, even someone like me, who understands how things work. Where does my voice fit? How can I affect change? How can I make things better? I was coming up empty.”

She was confused and dismayed, but Rhinehardt maintained that Republicanism was the country’s more effective political ideology. Trump’s presidency was ending and the party could begin its recovery, she thought.

Then, on Jan. 6, thousands of rioters stormed the Capitol building, and her hopes were shattered.

Insurrection at the Capitol

It was a Wednesday, and Congress had assembled to formally count the Electoral College votes. Former Vice President Joe Biden had won the election with 306 votes to President Trump’s 232.

But a contingent of pro-Trump agitators felt differently.

“I was at home working with my daughter; she was finishing up her schoolwork,” Rhinehardt said. “As soon as I saw things starting to flash on the screen, I thought it was some sort of — I don’t know — that someone had made a terrible parody and what I was watching wasn’t real.”

Her disdain for the uncouth satire turned to horror as she recognized the seriousness of what she saw.

“I immediately called my daughter down the hall and said, ‘You must watch this, you have to see this, you need to witness this — this is history,’” Rhinehardt said. “I mean, I knew instantly what was happening.”

Her childhood nightmare had been realized; “terrorists”, as Rhinehardt calls them, were storming the capitol. But one fact may have surprised her younger self — the invaders were American citizens.

“What we witnessed was a domestic terrorism event,” she said.

Rhinehardt knows from whence she speaks. She is a part-time faculty member at UNC-Wilmington in the conflict management program where she has taught and studied terrorism for years. But her dossier includes a more personal brush with terrorism. She was in the Capitol complex on Sept. 11, 2001.

“We knew planes were heading either to the White House or to the Capitol Building,” Rhinehardt said of the attack that racked the nation almost 20 years ago. “... Watching what was happening (on Jan. 6) brought me right back to that day and the fear that I felt. I remember walking in the hall in the Longworth building and I was able to snag a police officer. And I said, ‘Sir, what’s the plan? Where do we go?’ He just looked at me and said, ‘Ma’am, there is no plan. It’s every man for himself.’ And that was what I was watching again.”

Soon, Rhinehardt’s horror gave way to anger “on a couple of different levels.” How could this have happened again? Why wasn’t the Capitol better prepared? And how could the president sit idly by and watch?

“I mean, he told the rioters that he loved them,” she said. “Yeah, that doesn’t sound like a full-throated indictment of their actions to me.”

To Rhinehardt, Trump crossed the Rubicon and he took the Republican Party with him. After a lifetime fighting for Republican interests, she could no longer bear to represent the party. A few days later she would formalize her decision and refile with the Board of Elections as an unaffiliated voter.

“I just could never have thought that to get what it wanted the Republican Party would have to compromise its soul,” Rhinehardt said, “which is exactly what has happened.”

Abandoning ship

In the two weeks following the attempted Capitol coup, almost 6,000 Republicans in North Carolina changed their party affiliation, according to election board data first reported by the News & Observer. In the same time, only 210 Democrats left their party.

In Chatham, the shift has been less dramatic, but it paints the same picture: Republicans whose allegiance teetered in recent years made their stand after the events of Jan. 6.

Between the insurrection and Feb. 9, 118 Chatham Republicans left the party. Most of them, 100, became unaffiliated. A handful, just 11, joined the Democratic Party. Five became Libertarian, and two moved to the Constitution Party, which N.C. no longer officially recognizes.

Some Democrats moved, too: 11 became unaffiliated, and three became Republican.

Big party shifts are not totally unprecedented. During primary elections, when only unaffiliated voters have the liberty to cast their ballots for either Republican or Democratic candidates, it’s typical for party-members to temporarily change their registrations. In 2018, during the Democratic primaries, almost 600 Chatham voters switched parties — most of them Republicans switching to unaffiliated, “probably so they could vote for the sheriff,” said Pandora Paschal, director of Chatham County’s board of elections.

Mike Roberson and Percy Crutchfield, both Democrats, were the only candidates for Chatham County Sheriff that year; the election was effectively won in the primaries.

But this year’s party exodus was different.

“Usually that doesn’t happen directly after an election,” Paschal said.

Her office is strictly non-partisan, Paschal emphasized, and her staff does not speak to subjects that might suggest a political bent, lest it erode voter confidence in the integrity of their election system.

“I don’t like to speculate, but obviously there is something that drove them to change the party. I mean, it was after that happened,” she said of the Capitol debacle. “So obviously there’s something they don’t agree with, or they’re just tired of.”

BOE staff never inquire as to why voters change party. But often, registrants offer unsolicited explanations.

“There have been rumblings,” Paschal said, laughing. “Most of the time when they’re making comments, they’re just spilling their guts. But we don’t engage.”

Often the magnitude of their decision to change parties manifests in emotional outbursts.

“One lady the other day who changed parties, she was very upset,” Paschal said. “She was crying, but, you know, we just listened. That’s all we can do.”

A moral issue

Lucy Grist, of Pittsboro, is another Chathamite who left the Republican Party, citing displeasure with Trump’s leadership.

“It was unbearable,” she the retired senior district executive for the Boy Scouts of America’s Occoneechee Council. “He is unbearable.”

But her protest is not against traditional Republican ideals, especially fiscal management. It is in defiance of a man and the qualities he provokes in the Republican Party.

“And yet, where do the Democrats think the money comes from?” she said in frustration.

Balancing a commitment to Republican policy with a moral compass that could no longer endorse Trump’s behavior cast many Republicans into a quandary, including Dr. John Dykers, a longtime Chatham family physician, and lifelong Republican.

He hasn’t left the party yet, but he’s close.

“Only if Republican senators vote to convict Trump of inciting to riot for insurrection,” will Dykers stay with the party, he said. “And I don’t mean just Romney, Murkowski, Collins — but enough to repudiate him thoroughly and help the party to rebuild. Keep Trump from walking away with tax-paid $200,000 a year for life, $1 million a year travel allowance and Secret Service protection. ... If Senate Republicans don’t vote to convict, I will become unaffiliated.”

Dykers has held out longer than many of his contemporaries, but he cannot abide anything short of Trump’s denunciation.

“Many of us have clung to hope that viable policy initiatives would make up for a loudmouth, lying, demagogue who incited his most loyal to riot and abandoned them to the safety of his bunker,” he said. “No self-respecting Republican could ever trust him. Only fools would do so ...”

Rhinehardt wants her Republican Party back, but in the meantime, she will fight to prevent Trump or his supporters from achieving more leverage in the ever-evolving political scene.

“I will do everything within my power to stop him,” she said about Trump. “... Everything legal, obviously. The time for silence and inaction is over.”

To win her back, the party will need to make substantial changes, Rhinehardt said. Until it does, it will have lost one of its most fervent devotees.

“I am not afraid to say I’m wrong when I learn new information,” she said. “And believe me, that’s happened quite a bit in the last couple of years, for sure. There needs to be more of that.”

Polarity in the political world has intensified in recent years like never before as party affiliates entrenched themselves in one-dimensional ideologies.

“I think it’s very important that before we can get on to so-called unity, that there must be some sort of accountability applied,” Rhinehardt said.

That started, she said, with Trump’s second impeachment, though she’s uncertain the Senate will convict the former president. But more effective would be individual accountability from all American citizens, Rhinehardt said. “We have to be willing to cast aside our biases, and be willing to stand with another person and say, ‘OK, I respect you as a human being.’”

Only then does she think the political maelstrom will abate and comity will ensue.

“I’m so ready. I’m ready for the circus to end,” Rhinehardt said. “I’m ready to have constructive conversations with my friends about policy issues, not about personalities.”

Reporter D. Lars Dolder can be reached at dldolder@chathamnr.com and on Twitter @dldolder.

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