When Diane Tyson got her driver’s license renewed Jan. 5, a DMV clerk asked whether she wanted to make any changes to her voter registration. A lifelong Republican, Tyson once ran for local office near Reading. She decided to wait: Supporters of Donald Trump were set to descend on Washington the next day as Congress met to certify his election loss.
“I wanted to see if it would be as ugly as it turned out to be,” she said.
As upsetting as the deadly Jan. 6 Capitol attack was, Tyson, 68, said watching Pennsylvania congressmen vote to throw out their own state’s election results is what soured her on the GOP.
She changed her registration to independent on Jan. 7.
“I knew I could not be a Republican anymore,” she said. “I just can’t — it’s not who I am. The Republican Party has gone down a deep hole that I want no part of. I don’t want an ‘R’ after my name.”
About 19,000 Pennsylvanians have left the Republican Party since Jan 6. That’s a drop in the bucket for a state with more than 8.8 million registered voters, and almost 3.5 million Republicans. But it’s also an unusually high rate of defections: Almost two-thirds of the voters who have switched parties this year left the GOP, compared with a third or less typically.
And there are signs of a broader political shift underway. These are often longtime party loyalists, highly engaged voters who cast Republican primary ballots in low-profile, off-year elections, according to an Inquirer analysis of voter registration data. They haven’t changed their political ideologies, they said in interviews. But they’re registering as third-party or independent voters because they believe that their political home, now led by Trump, has changed around them.
That raises the prospect of a Republican primary electorate even friendlier to Trump and Trump-allied candidates — something that could have big implications for the party in competitive races for governor and U.S. Senate next year.
“Trumpism was a total turnoff to me,” said Michael Kocher, 38, of Spring Township in Berks County. “The cult of personality, the tribalism, it poisoned the Republican Party.”
“It’s not the Republican Party I know,” said Tom Mack, 70, of Yardley, a Republican since the late 1970s. “It’s drifted far away from my beliefs. … The only way I can be heard at this point is to join those who have decided to leave.”
The voters leaving the GOP are generally a few years older than other Republicans and more likely to have voted in nonpresidential elections. It remains to be seen how long the current exit surge will last. Some who left may return.
And although voters are always changing their registration for a variety of reasons, former Republicans interviewed largely were united in why they left: They saw it as a protest against a party that questioned the legitimacy of their votes and the culmination of long-simmering frustration with Trump and his supporters, who now largely control the GOP.
“Many Republicans are aggrieved and embarrassed by the angry mob that stormed the U.S. Capitol,” said Kimberly S. Adams, political science professor at East Stroudsburg University. “They are disheartened by the persistent and unabated promotion of conspiracy theories by the GOP.”
The trend is a stark reversal from previous years in Pennsylvania, when voters leaving the Democratic Party significantly outnumbered Republicans. The number of voters switching from Republican to a third party or becoming independent is particularly high, going from just 9% of all party changes since 2008 to 35% this year.
Voters who left the Republican Party after Election Day were about twice as likely as other registered Republicans to have voted by mail, which Trump baselessly attacked as fraudulent. They are also more likely than others to vote in nonpresidential elections.
“I like to vote. I’ve always voted in both the primaries and the elections, and it is bothersome that I can’t vote [in primaries anymore],” said Daniel Mullen, 75, of Media. (Only voters registered with a party can vote in that party’s primaries.)
But after voting for Trump in 2016 and 2020, Mullen grew increasingly frustrated by Trump’s false election claims and his handling of the Capitol attack. Then he watched Republicans vote to acquit Trump during his second impeachment trial, followed by local Republican parties moving to censure those who voted to convict, including Sens. Pat Toomey of Pennsylvania and Bill Cassidy of Louisiana.
“It really, really bothered me that two distinguished senators are being censured and reprimanded for voting their conscience, and I don’t want to be associated with a party that does that,” Mullen said.
In Chester County, a draft censure resolution up for a vote this week nevertheless blames Toomey for prompting Republicans to leave the party.
Mullen became an independent but still expects to mostly vote for Republicans in general elections. As he demonstrates, changing parties doesn’t necessarily change how a person votes.
“You may say, ‘I’m no longer going to call myself a Republican,’ but the proof is in the pudding, how they vote in the next election,” said Lanethea Mathews-Schultz, a political science professor at Muhlenberg College. “They’re not going to suddenly start voting for Democratic candidates.”
There’s no significant geographic concentration of party switchers in Pennsylvania, though the rate is slightly higher in more Democratic areas.
The defections are a sign of the broader struggle inside the Republican Party. The loss of moderate voters leaves the pro-Trump ones who remain in greater control of the party. On the other hand, Trump motivated historic turnout, so some Republicans see losing moderates as less costly than alienating his supporters.
“Voters may step out of their opportunity to vote in a primary and that can just lead to more extreme candidates being elected,” Mathews-Schultz said. “And then it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.”
That worries Sarah Becker, 35, who has been a Republican operative since college, when she came “extremely close” to getting a tattoo of the Republican elephant symbol. She was a college Young Republican who dropped out of school temporarily to work on the 2004 Bush-Cheney campaign. She worked in the Bush White House, and volunteered for her local party in Cumberland County.
But she never liked Trump and Jan. 6 was her breaking point. She became a Libertarian.
“Part of me thought, ‘No, stay around, be a voice of change,’” Becker said. “But I felt powerless. And so angry. And I thought this is one thing I can do.”
As the number of independents grows statewide, Democrats will have an opportunity to appeal to moderate former Republicans, many of whom voted for Joe Biden. But Republicans could win the new independents by uniting them around some common grievance against Democrats.
“All it takes is one issue to start to unite the Republican Party,” said Adams, of East Stroudsburg University.
Barbara Jankowski, a lifelong Republican and former party activist in Bucks County, became a Democrat this year.
“I really worked hard for the Republican Party. I didn’t take switching lightly,” Jankowski said. “But there is a point where you have to just stick up for what’s right.”
Jankowski, 68, voted by mail and said attacks on the election especially bothered her. She doesn’t want to see mail voting rolled back, as some Republicans are pushing. “I wouldn’t feel safe,” she said. “I’m a power voter, but I will probably never go to the polls again.”
Pedro Sánchez Cruz, a veteran from outside Lancaster, had been a Republican for 40 years since moving to Pennsylvania from Puerto Rico. Sánchez Cruz, 62, used to be proud to be a Latino Republican, he said, until Trump became the party’s leader. He and his wife became Democrats this year.
“As long as they still look to him as their leader, I’m not willing to be a Republican,” Sánchez Cruz said. “I am fine with being a Democrat. But I refuse to be called a liberal.”
There are also some voters who left the GOP because they thought that it didn’t do enough to support Trump. Edward Jones, a retired newspaper ad salesman from Exeter Township, near Reading, said he hopes a “Patriot Party” forms.
“I’ll be the first in line,” he said. “I’m so p—ed off at these RINOS,” he said referencing “Republicans in Name Only.”
But Jones, 75, also doesn’t think Trump should run again. He blames the former president for Republicans losing the Senate. And he said he’s open to voting for a Democrat.
“You have more moderates leaving because they’re offended and pro-Trump crowd leaving because they’re also offended,” said Chester County GOP vice chair Tom Donahue.
Donahue said that presents a challenge for the party to find candidates who appeal to both factions. He hopes Republicans will be united against two years of a Democratic president by the midterm elections.
Kocher, the former Republican from Berks County, said he’s more interested in the Democrats who have signaled their interest in 2022. He didn’t vote for Trump in 2016 or 2020, but he voted for other Republicans, such as Toomey. He likes U.S. Rep. Chrissy Houlahan, a Chester County Democrat who may run for Senate. He’s also a fan of Josh Shapiro, the state attorney general who is seen as an early Democratic front-runner for governor.
Tyson, the Reading-area Republican who left the party the day after the attack, may reregister so she can participate in primaries. She could see herself backing a primary challenger to Republican U.S. Rep. Lloyd Smucker. She also hasn’t closed the door on becoming a Democrat.
“I’m kind of a free agent right now,” she said.
Staff writer Andrew Seidman contributed to this article.