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.
Lancaster, Pa. 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.

Ethan Demme, of Lancaster County, Pennsylvania, poses for a portrait in his office. Demme left the Republican Party with two of his fellow GOP township supervisors after the January 6 Capitol riot. In June 2021, he launched the Pennsylvania chapter of the Serve America Movement, a third party that's recruiting candidates for statehouse races in 2022.

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.

Leaving the GOP

“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.”

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.

A crowd of Trump supporters as seen from inside the U.S. Capitol on January 6, 2021 in Washington, DC.

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.

Stephen and Danielle Lindemuth, of Elizabethtown, Pennsylvania, won seats on the Elizabethtown school board in November. Stephen Lindemuth was also elected as a local election judge. The couple, who went to Washington on January 6, though they did not enter the Capitol, campaigned for the school board on issues including opposition toward mask mandates and critical race theory.