The turbulence that has marked the past four years may have finally been quelled. A swift and stealthy plot recently expelled the patriot bloc blamed for the unrest and paved the way for a stronger party.
“We are getting our feet under ourselves now and can be a positive force,” said Kevin Ensley, a member of the mainstream Republicans and a Haywood County commissioner. “The negative stuff, we need to leave it at the door. We need to be positive and work toward our common goals.”
The patriot bloc had seized the reins of the party two years ago following a prolonged fight for control. Its members gradually entrenched themselves as precinct chairs, gaining a large majority on the 30-member executive committee, the party’s decision-making body.
But in an unprecedented political maneuver, the mainstream branch of the party rallied its troops to take back control. Mainstream Republicans ousted the patriot faction en masse several weeks ago by recruiting their own slate to run for precinct chairs.
When the dust settled, only two members of the patriot faction managed to hang onto their precinct chairs. The rest were defeated, dramatically reshaping the makeup of the party’s executive committee.
“We have a new wave of precinct chairs so our executive committee is a little bit more stable now,” said Hannah Strum. “We have new people, we have new energy and new ideas.”
Things aren’t so rosy for the patriot faction, however.
“What really stings is that the very people who worked side-by-side with us, all of a sudden just flip-flopped,” said Jeremy Davis, a leader of the patriot faction and party finance chair until the overthrow.
Joy Diettle, a relative newcomer to the local party, doesn’t understand why the mainstream branch has such contempt and hostility toward the patriot faction.
“I didn’t anticipate it being so corrupt at the local county level where it is neighbor against neighbor and friend against friend,” Diettle said.
Despite their unwavering tenacity for conservative principles, members of the patriot bloc were seen by many as troublemakers. They were too radical for the mainstream Republicans in Haywood County and were accused of preventing growth of the party.
Only time will tell what impact their ousting will have. Will mainstream Republicans be turned off by the disruptive faction of patriots now come back to the table? Or has the party lost its grassroots core of loyal, steadfast conservatives?
“The folks they just electioneered out of the Haywood County Republican Party were the folks that raised the money — the people who got things done, who showed up to man tables, and the people who invested in fundraisers,” said Paul Yeager, an ousted member of the patriot faction.
They aren’t going away, however. They’ve now started their own group called the Haywood Republican Alliance to channel their energy.
“I have been a Republican for 40 years and nobody can stop me,” said Eddie Cabe, a leader of the patriot faction. “They want to silence the Christian conservative grassroots movement because we are not for the establishment.”
Like Davis, Cabe feels betrayed.
“It really hurt my feelings they don’t want good conservative, Christian, veteran, patriots in their midst,” Cabe said.
Cabe lives and breathes conservative principles, almost to a fault. There are no shades of gray in Cabe’s book, and those who don’t share his core values aren’t true Republicans in his eyes — and he will condemn them publicly for disloyalty.
“If you don’t agree with them on every issue, then you aren’t a Republican to them,” said Ensley, who’s been in the patriots’ crosshairs for years.
Cabe is a prolific master of Facebook and harnessing social media to spread patriot ideology. Not all his posts are political in nature, however. Cabe is known to share prepper tips, like a video on pressure-cooking a raccoon, how to build a trip-wire alarm around your home’s perimeter or harness rainwater. He sprinkles his posts with inspiring quotes from famous conservatives, degrading jabs at Democrats, and passages from the Constitution.
But Facebook has also proved a perfect medium for chastising mainstream Republicans like Ensley who have sold out the party in Cabe’s eyes. Cabe readily labels them “commies” and “socialists” and calls them “crooked” and “underhanded.”
Some in Cabe’s own camp even cringe when he goes on the rampage.
“Even some of the folks on my side of this mess, if they decide they don’t like somebody they will attack them at every turn. They will pile on based on their personal prejudices about that person rather than the actual issue,” Yeager said.
Nonetheless, the party establishment should be inclusive rather than shutting people down.
“Eddie is a bit of a firebrand and a bomb thrower, but he has a voice and has the right to use it,” Yeager said.
Indeed, attempts by the party establishment to silence the patriot faction only made them get louder, creating a vicious cycle.
“You need to accept them and embrace them,” said Philip Wight, a Maggie Valley Republican who sympathizes with the patriot faction.
Haywood County GOP Chairman Ken Henson said the internal turmoil is partly due to growing pains.
“There’s no more division in ours than there is in any other party,” Henson said. “But we’ve built it up so big, and any time you do that the noise is going to get bigger.”
Henson helped orchestrate the overthrow of the patriot faction, and claims it was necessary to move the party forward.
“We recruited our people and they recruited their people. We just got more people than they did. Get over it and move on,” Henson said.
For the greater good
Whether the ousting will serve the party’s greater good, one effect is undeniable: it left a trail of hurt feelings and betrayal that could remain a black eye on the Haywood GOP’s new leadership for some time to come.
“Do you disenfranchise people and ruin friendships and send people away with a bad taste in their mouth?” asked Wight.
To those who orchestrated the overthrow, the ends justified the means. The party’s future was at stake. But it was unethical, and thus wrong, according to K.G. Watson, a Haywood County conservative who claims allegiance to neither side per se.
“People who do things that are underhanded always have some meritorious reason in their mind why they did it,” said Watson. “There is a short-term gain maybe, but for years this will come back to haunt them. They will have trouble recruiting good, honest people.”
To Lynda Bennett, it’s just the opposite. A persistent dark cloud was keeping people away from the party, and that’s gone now.
“People don’t volunteer to do things that are hard or unpleasant. Volunteer-based organizations need to be upbeat and focused on the issues and ideas that people want to participate in,” said Bennett, who was recently elected party secretary. “They don’t have time to be involved in something that is not uplifting or positive.”
The patriot faction was stifling the party at a time it should have been gaining strength. A record 225 people attended the county precinct meeting this year.
“We were never able to bring all these people in before,” Bennett said.
That’s because the vibe was too negative, added Pat Bennett, Lynda’s husband.
“We wanted to have a positive party, not a negative party,” said Pat Bennett, who claimed a precinct chairmanship in the upset elections. “Anybody can be against something and anybody can complain, but we want to be positive and move forward.”
The number of registered Republicans has grown substantially over the past decade. Historically, Haywood was a Democratic stronghold. Republicans were the minority and their only recourse was throwing stones.
But now, Republicans in Haywood are winning elections thanks to a shift in voter demographics.
“If we are going to be elected then we have to lead,” Ensley said. “We can’t be a reactionary ‘no’ vote all the time. We have to be a solution-based party. We can’t just be the party that’s in the way and being obstructionists.”
Out of the woodwork
Of the record breaking crowd at this year’s annual precinct gathering — topping more than 200 — half had never been to a party function or meeting in their life.
To Cabe, that was deceitful. Newcomers were recruited to flood the precinct elections for the express purpose of ousting the patriots.
“No one at my table had I ever seen at a party meeting before,” Cabe said.
To the mainstream Republicans, the story is a far different one. It’s a story of victory, of a rising Republican tide and momentum. The larger take-away: the party is harnessing untapped energy and growing its base in Haywood.
“I am looking forward confidentially to the party growing,” said Pat Carr, a leader of the mainstream branch and newly elected party treasurer. “We have been a minority party here forever and I am really glad to see so much interest. There is enthusiasm from new folks. I am really pleased to see more people participating.”
The groundswell is due in part to last November’s victories at the polls, with Haywood voters electing Republicans in local, state and national races.
“I think the presidential election allowed us to become energized,” Lynda Bennett said.
One of the newcomers to the party was Ron Muse, a Waynesville businessman who’d been a Democrat, at least on paper, until two years ago. Like many Southern Democrats of his generation, he could no longer identify with the progressive wing of the Democratic Party, and he finally realigned his party registration to match his beliefs.
“I just changed horses,” Muse said.
But Muse was too turned off by the infighting to get involved in the local party until now.
“There were a bunch of quarrels. It was just a hostile environment. Three or four people had a certain thing they wanted to push and had their little clans,” Muse said.
Muse heard there was a movement afoot to chart a new course, and agreed to run for a precinct chair. But Muse said he didn’t set out to push anyone out of the party.
“The people I have talked to aren’t mad at those people. We want them to be part of us, not just a clique,” Muse said. “Everybody that reads this article is welcome to come to the next meeting.”
The infusion of new blood in the party also includes Timothy Reynolds of Clyde, who moved to Haywood County three years ago from Kansas City. After Trump’s victory, Reynolds wanted to get involved in the local party and be part of the change that was coming in America. He stopped into the party headquarters one day this winter and heard about the upcoming precinct gathering, and decided to go.
Reynolds’ precinct of North Clyde wasn’t one of the contested ones. Only a few people from his precinct came, and no one else was vying for the chair, so he stepped up.
He’s not privy to the ins and outs of the internal strife, and was only vaguely aware of it when he showed up for the precinct gathering.
“The drama needs to end and hopefully they got it resolved. I don’t want to see anybody feel like they got pushed out,” Reynolds said. “I don’t think you can walk away just because you have conflict. You can always resolve conflict.”
It’s too soon to say whether the sides are ready to put the past behind them.
“That will be proven on down the road, but I hope so,” Muse said.
But those who’ve been in the trenches don’t see it that way.
“I think at this point we have gone way past being able to work things out,” Yeager said.
Coming back to the table
Division is hardly new for the Haywood GOP. Overthrows aren’t new either, but power shifts in the past weren’t as sudden or swift. It took the patriots over two years to get control of the party by gradually wearing down the mainstream with vile, personal attacks until they gave up, leaving the patriots at the helm by default.
But many of the party faithful run off by the tactics of the patriot faction have now come back to the table, including Hannah and Brian Strum. After incessant browbeating and name calling, they finally walked away two years ago.
“We didn’t stop being involved politically. We still went to political functions, but we didn’t participate in the Haywood Republican Party,” said Hannah Strum. “We just took a break from the Haywood County party.”
But that changed when the party chair, Ken Henson, reached back out to them a few months ago.
“He reached out to both of us and said ‘Would you consider being involved again?’ and we said ‘We sure would’ and he said ‘Come on,’” Brian recounted.
Hannah was re-elected as chair of her Clyde precinct.
“We feel very excited,” Hannah said. “We see a lot of positive things coming to the Republican Party now and we are looking forward to that and getting re-involved.”
The plan to re-engage some of those who left the local party in disgust would only work, however, if there were a critical mass of mainstream Republicans on board.
“We were certainly willing to do our part. We were very hopeful it would work,” Hannah said. “We all made the decision to come together and be on the same team and work together to overcome these obstacles we’ve had the past four years and move forward in a positive direction as a whole.”
Brian Strum said they were willing to put their hurt feelings aside for the greater good of the local party.
“We love the party enough and we were dedicated enough to our philosophical zeitgeist so to speak, that it led us back to being involved,” he said.
A few mainstream Republicans had hung in there all along, including former chair of the Haywood GOP Pat Carr.
“If you are going to be in politics you have to have a pretty thick skin because there will always be somebody who wants to throw rocks at you,” Carr said.
Carr spent years in the crosshairs of the patriot faction and was even the target of an impeachment attempt.
She stepped down as chair two years ago, but is now back in a leadership position as the newly elected party secretary.
Carr thought a minute when asked whether she would have taken on a leadership role again if the patriot faction was still in control of the executive committee.
“Would I have been willing to? No, because in my view most of those folks tend to be divisive rather than contributory,” Carr said. “If I anticipated they would have held a majority on the executive committee, I would not have been interested. They were obstructive instead of contributing. I am sure they see it quite differently, but the thing is we turned our folks out.”
Kevin Ensley, a Haywood County commissioner considered public enemy number one by the patriot faction, always saw the patriot faction as a vocal minority that could easily be overthrown if mainstream Republicans came together.
“I’ve always said what we need to do is get people to the precinct meetings and get the people voted out who are causing problems,” Ensley said. So when the moment arrived, he was on board.
“They wanted to turn it around and get it to where we can do some positive things. To not help with that would be a hypocrite,” Ensley said.