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After riot at US Capitol, some Republicans are leaving the GOP

MARC LEVY, THOMAS BEAUMONT and NICHOLAS RICCARDI
The Associated Press

HARRISBURG — In the first full week of January, 119 York County voters changed their party affiliation, but the Jan. 6 riot at the U.S. Capitol didn't appear to cost the local Republican Party.

However, last week's siege of Capitol Hill by supporters of President Donald Trump has driven some Republicans from the party  in other Pennsylvania counties and nationwide, according to election officials.

But just 37 former Republicans had changed their party affiliation — with 21 becoming Democrats — between Jan. 3 and Jan. 11, said Steve Ulrich, head of York County's election office. 

One former member of the GOP registered as an independent, another moved to the Libertarian Party, and four switched to "other," he said. 

In comparison, 43 registered Democrats had changed their affiliation over that time period, with 30 becoming Republicans, five becoming nonaffiliated and seven switching to "other," Ulrich said.

Two people died as a direct result of the riot in which a pro-Trump mob stormed the U.S. Capitol building, police have said. Capitol police officer Brian D. Sicknick was beaten and later died from his injuries, and Ashli Babbitt, a California woman who was part of the riot, was shot by police inside the Capitol building while trying to climb through a broken window.

Ulrich said the data doesn't provide information about the motivation behind the recent voter registration changes, adding his department processed 339 party affiliation changes in December.

"There’s no way, certainly, the board (of elections) can tell if there’s causation and correlation," Ulrich said.

There appeared to be a different story in neighboring counties, though.

Since last last week's deadly insurrection, about 225 Republicans reached out to the election office in Lancaster County to change their party registration.

Ethan Demme was one of them.

"Ever since they started denying the election result, I kind of knew it was heading this way," said Demme, the county's former Republican Party chairman who has opposed Trump and is now an independent. "If they kept going, I knew there's no way I can keep going. But if you've been a Republican all your life, it's hard to jump out of a big boat and into a little boat."

Officials are seeing similar scenes unfold elsewhere. 

In Cumberland County, 192 people have changed their party registration since the Jan. 6 riot. Only 13 switched to the GOP — the other 179 changed to Democrat, independent or a third party, according to Bethany Salzarulo, the director of the bureau of elections.

In Linn County, Iowa, home to Cedar Rapids, more than four dozen voters dropped their Republican Party affiliations in the 48 hours after the Capitol attack. They mostly switched to no party, elections commissioner Joel Miller said, though a small number took the highly unusual step of cancelling their registrations altogether.

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The party switching pales in comparison to the more than 74 million people who voted for President Donald Trump in November. And it's unclear whether they're united in their motivations. Some may be rejecting politics altogether, while others may be leaving a Republican Party they fear will be less loyal to Trump.

But they offer an early sign of the volatility ahead for the GOP as the party braces for political fallout of the riots that Trump incited.

"I do think there's a palpable shift, from knee-jerk defense of the president to 'wow, that was a bridge too far,'" said Kirk Adams, the former Republican speaker of the Arizona House of Representatives. "Minds are being changed, but you can't go overnight from 'I think the president's right and the election is being stolen' to 'I guess he was wrong about everything.'"

Party registration doesn't always preview how voters will actually cast their ballots, especially when the next major national elections are nearly two years away. But party leaders across the country are expressing concern that the riots could have a lasting impact. 

The GOP cannot afford any slippage in its ranks after an election that, even with record-breaking Republican turnout, saw them lose control of both the presidency and the U.S. Senate.

"Increasingly I've looked at my party in this state, and our numbers are dwindling," said Gary Eichelberger, a commissioner in suburban Cumberland County. "If we narrow the base of the party, we are going to lose this county."

Republicans in Washington are approaching the moment with caution, denouncing the insurrection and providing scant defense of Trump. But so far, few have joined Democratic calls for the president's impeachment and immediate removal.

Just two Senate Republicans, Pat Toomey of Pennsylvania and Lisa Murkowski of Alaska, have called on Trump to resign. 

Multiple GOP officials said there was some unease about the party's direction at the RNC winter meeting at Amelia Island, Florida, which took place a few days after the attack. Serious conversations are underway at the committee level to conduct a comprehensive look at the 2020 election results to determine what the party did wrong and how to better appeal to voters, according to Henry Barbour, a RNC member from Mississippi.

A protester walks past the Russell Senate Office Building on Capitol Hill in Washington, Friday, Jan. 8, 2021. (AP Photo/Patrick Semansky)

But Trump still has a pull on swaths of the GOP base. 

A Quinnipiac Poll released on Monday found roughly three-quarters of Republicans believe Trump's false statements that there was widespread voter fraud in November's election, which is what triggered the attack on the Capitol after Trump urged a crowd of supporters to go to Congress as it was set to certify the victory of President-elect Joe Biden.

Overall 7 in 10 Republicans approved of Trump's performance as president, compared with 89% in Quinnipiac's December poll. 

"When you love President Trump, you love President Trump," said Michele Fiore, an RNC committeewoman from Nevada. "With all of our hearts, we support him. We know he did not create the chaos that happened in Washington, D.C., on Jan. 6."

— Lindsey O'Laughlin, a reporter with The York Dispatch, contributed to this report