RALEIGH — Donald Trump's time in office ended with more North Carolina Republicans leaving the party than in any other month in his presidency.
The Capitol riot that broke out after Trump's speech on Jan. 6 led some North Carolina Republicans on a march of their own. But they went to the N.C. State Board of Elections to change their party affiliations.
Kimrey Rhinehardt, a Chatham County resident, former Capitol Hill staffer and Republican for the last 28 years, is one of them.
"I didn't leave the party," Rhinehardt said. "The party left me. My belief system and my values remain unchanged."
In just over two weeks, from Jan. 7 to Jan. 22, according to data from the elections board, 59% of 10,766 changes to voter registration came from Republicans re-registering as unaffiliated, as Rhinehardt did. Of that 59%, 40% came from the six, mostly urban counties of Cabarrus, Durham, Guilford, Mecklenburg, Orange and Wake. Those counties account for only 24% of the state's registered Republicans.
In all, Republicans lost 5,855 voters during that time period. Democrats gave up only 210 voters.
The closest the Republican Party had come to that size of a loss was April 2018, when 28% of the monthly changes were Republican voters who switched to unaffiliated. It was that week that former FBI Director James Comey said Trump did not deserve to be impeached but was "morally unfit" to be president, only a few days after Comey was fired. Trump is the first U.S. president to be impeached twice.
Western Carolina University political science professor Chris Cooper said that the "unaffiliated" category tends to be the largest recipient of people changing affiliations.
But what's changed this month is the party losing the most voters. Typically in North Carolina that party is the Democrats. Cooper said to see the Republicans leaving at a higher rate is notable, but it is anyone's guess if it is a trend that will continue.
Cooper said the numbers are low enough now not to have an impact on election outcomes, but it's worth watching to see if the trend continues.
"It is punctuated change from what we've seen previously, so I think it is something worth paying attention to," Cooper said.
Where Republicans went
Not only do some Republicans fault Trump for the Capitol riot, but they also heard him call Republicans "weak" and "pathetic." It was in the same speech that he told his supporters to march to the Capitol to "stop the steal" of his reelection, after weeks spent claiming that the election had been stolen despite state certification of the results and courts' rejections of lawsuits.
Republicans did not just leave the party to become unaffiliated. The other parties benefited, too.
From Jan. 7 to Jan. 22, the Democratic Party took 561 Republicans. Another 209 became Libertarian, while 134 went to the Constitution Party and another four went to the Green Party.
The latter 138 voters will be converted to unaffiliated voters in February after the Constitution and Green parties failed to meet the state's criteria to be recognized as a political party.
It's a stark difference from when Trump was first elected. In January 2017, 4,502 voters changed their registration, 19% of which switched from Republican to unaffiliated and 26% switched from Democrat to unaffiliated. Of those changes that month, Republicans gained 131 voters while Democrats lost 860.
Tim Wigginton, communications director for the North Carolina Republican Party, said seeing small swings in the more than 7 million registered voters is not that concerning.
"We are confident that as voters observe the Republican 'America First' agenda compared to the Biden administration's 'America Last' agenda more North Carolinians will vote Republican during the 2022 midterm election and the 2024 presidential election continuing to keep North Carolina red," Wigginton said.
"The Republican Party has always stood for personal liberty, family values and economic prosperity," he continued. "As Democrats wage war on these core American values with the Biden-Schumer-Pelosi agenda no one should be surprised when voters pick Republican candidates this November."
Cooper said he wants more analysis of exactly who left. Over the last decade he has noticed some voters repeatedly changing parties. One person, he said, has changed political affiliations around 60 times.
Cooper said it is also notable that the majority of Republicans didn't go to another party.
"They're showing dissatisfaction with the Republican Party," Cooper said. "Not satisfaction or a new alignment with the Democratic Party."
As of Jan. 23, according to the State Board of Elections, voters registered as Democrats made up the largest share of overall registered voters in North Carolina with 35.3%. Unaffiliated voters followed with a 33.3% share, while Republicans' share was 30.7%. Those rates were virtually the same for those who voted in the November election.
Rhinehardt worked in the U.S. Senate from 1997 to 2003 with the last four years working under Sen. Richard Burr, a Winston-Salem Republican. She said she first recognized herself as a Republican when she was a teenager: 28 years and nine months earlier. At the time, she felt the Republican Party most closely aligned with her own beliefs and views.
She considers herself an evangelical Christian who believes in deregulation and a free market economy.
She said her beliefs lead her to want to work with others in good faith and advance American interests that are consistent with the country's founding documents, especially the Constitution.
As a congressional staffer, Rhinehardt took the same oath of office that senators do.
"I raised my right hand and swore that I would defend the Constitution from all enemies, foreign or domestic," Rhinehardt said.
Rhinehardt had stood in the Capitol building on Sept. 11, 2001. The images on her television screen of the Capitol riot brought back all the trauma from that day 20 years earlier: trauma she didn't even know she was repressing.
"I had buried it," Rhinehardt said.
The attacks on 9/11 focused on the Twin Towers in New York, a field in Pennsylvania and at the Pentagon in Arlington, Virginia, across the Potomac River from Washington D.C. Rhinehardt said those outside the Capitol on 9/11 never saw, heard or knew the terror happening inside the Capitol.
"There were no pictures of the Capitol on 9/11," Rhinehardt said. "There was no audio from the Capitol. Only written accounts."
But as she watched the Capitol riot unfolding in front of her she remembered all of it. She heard the same fear in congressional staffers' voices on Jan. 6 that she did on 9/11. It brought her back to 9/11 and the "every man for himself" mentality that they had to take to get themselves home safely that day.
"I think it's pretty significant that January triggered things from 9/11," Rhinehardt said. "It's not lost on me. I mean, think about it: one was a foreign terrorist event and Jan. 6 is a domestic terrorist event."
After the Jan. 6 riot, Rhinehardt said she had to change her party affiliation.
"I just said I can't associate myself with people who have hijacked the party that I felt had represented me," she said.
She remembered that within 10 days of 9/11 she and her colleagues went back to work. She remembered how quickly former President George W. Bush reacted to the terrorist attack. She wondered why those same reactions weren't happening now.
"Contrast that with what I have seen since Jan. 6 and it's a very different scenario," Rhinehardt said.
She said that she was proud to see the Senate immediately get back to work to certify Biden's election, but couldn't say the same for some North Carolina members of Congress.
"I was so embarrassed by some individuals in the Republican Party, and what they truly believe to be correct, and they haven't been a member of Congress for 10 minutes," Rhinehardt said.
There are images from Jan. 6 that won't leave her. One in particular is of a man, who authorities later alleged to be 34-year-old Josiah Colt, hanging from the Senate balcony. She noticed the Latin phrase behind him in pictures that roughly translates to "God favors the American Cause."
"Again, it just felt like such an ironic violation," Rhinehardt said.
Watching the riots left her shaken, she said, because of her personal connection to the Capitol and her understanding of the values and practices of Congress.
But becoming unaffiliated goes against her own beliefs as well.
"I've always been internally critical of people who register as an unaffiliated voter because you either stand for this — or this," Rhinehardt said. "You don't get to ride the fence."
Rhinehardt said she believes a person should declare what they believe in and own it. But when she went to change her registration she realized she had nowhere to go.
"There's no party right at this moment that aligns with my views," Rhinehardt said, adding that she respects people from both sides of the aisle.
Being an unaffiliated voter in North Carolina comes with a perk. Unaffiliated voters can choose during primaries to help nominate candidates from any party.
More people switched to unaffiliated status in President Barack Obama's last year in office and in Trump's last year than switched to the Republican or Democratic parties. Those newly unaffiliated voters came from both major parties. In 2020, 84,385 became unaffiliated with 46,784 coming over from the Democrats. In 2016, 75,823 voters from the two parties switched to unaffiliated with the majority coming from Democrats.
Winning back Republicans
Rhinehardt said to win her back the Republican Party needs to show action. She said that starts with showing outrage and urgency in response to Jan. 6.
"In order for me to come back, you're gonna have to earn it," Rhinehardt said. "Show me where we're going. I mean, the fact that Ronna McDaniel was reelected as the Republican Party's chairwoman — that's not showing anyone that anything is changing."
McDaniel said in an interview with The Associated Press Wednesday that she planned to stay neutral and not encourage any one candidate to run in 2024, including Trump. In the same interview she called QAnon, a group of conspiracy believers that largely supports Trump, dangerous.
Immediately after the riot, former N.C. Supreme Court Justice and longtime N.C. Republican Bob Orr told The News & Observer he would change his political affiliation.
Orr said Monday he remains registered Republican and is still deciding what to do. He said he has time before the next election to figure out where to go. He's also undecided if he wants to go to the Democratic Party or be unaffiliated
Orr said he saw a news article about Trump forming his own political party and hopes that would take the "Proud Boys" and "white supremacists" out of the Republican Party.
There are rumblings of multiple new parties forming by upset Republicans, he said. Orr wants to see where that leads.
"While liberal activists pine for the demise of the Republican Party, we keep winning statewide elections including the history-making clean sweep of all eight judicial races while being out registered in number by the Democrats," Wigginton said.
Cooper said forming a third party gives little hope for actually running a successful campaign, but it does give its members a seat at the table for setting the agenda.
"Could it change the shape of the Republican Party: Yes," Cooper said. "Could it set the tone for discourse: Yes. Will they win elections: No."