Ethan Demme was a lifelong Republican and onetime local party chairman in Pennsylvania’s reliably conservative Lancaster County. He opposed Donald Trump from the outset of his 2016 presidential campaign and, after 20 years in GOP politics, left the party following the Jan. 6 Capitol insurrection.
Denial of the 2020 election results has “damaged our system of government and has fomented the seeds of sedition, resulting in violence in our nation’s capital,” Demme and two fellow Republicans wrote in a letter to the chairman of the Lancaster GOP on Jan. 7, saying they were changing their registrations to independent.
Now Demme, the CEO of an education publishing company, is heading up the Pennsylvania chapter of a centrist third party. Serve America Movement, or SAM, says it aims to “fix a system that has been corrupted by the mainstream parties and the people who prop them up.”
Its platform focuses on governance and elections issues like term limits and supporting independent redistricting commissions to draw political maps.
Founded in 2017 by former staffers in George W. Bush’s administration, SAM now has chapters in Connecticut, New York, Iowa, and Texas, with plans to expand elsewhere. Much of its funding has come from Wall Street donors and an ex-tobacco executive.
Demme, 39, registered the party with the Pennsylvania Department of State in June.
“Too much of politics is nationalized now,” he said. “How does a State House candidate in Adams County differentiate from one in Delaware County? The issues are actually different for both communities, but too often the campaigns are run on these national issues. So that’s what we’re really hoping to do is really drive that conversation.”
We caught up with Demme and talked about SAM, the challenges it faces, and why campaign mailers for local races feature scary warnings about Trump and Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D., N.Y.).
Answers have been lightly edited for clarity and length.
Third parties haven’t had a lot of success. Why commit to this major undertaking?
“There are a couple things. Sixty-two percent of folks think that it’s time for a new political party. So there’s clearly a rise in appetite among folks for a third party. The rise in unaffiliated voters has been a trend in Pennsylvania, as well as nationally.
“It seems that the time is right. We’re at that polarization tipping point, I like to call it, where people are really frustrated with both major parties. And they want something else, but they don’t know what that is.
“Other third parties that have been around tend to have more of a sharp or narrower ideological focus. And that’s where the SAM Party comes in. We’re more process- and principle-focused. We’re leaving sort of our policy platform up to each individual candidate.
“When you look at Pennsylvania specifically, a couple of changes in the last couple of years allowed third parties a little more latitude, if you will. We have the elimination of straight ticket voting. Then there was a lawsuit with a settlement with the Green Party.
Why not try to reform the GOP from the inside?
“I’ve actually spent a lot of time trying to reform the way the system works but from within a major party.
“The big change was with Donald Trump in 2016 and then more recently with the denial of the election results after November. That’s when I sort of made the decision and looked at it and talked to friends and other folks … and we concluded that reforming within the party was not going to be a viable option.”
Are you focusing on local and state races? Or governor and U.S. Senate as well?
“I’ve talked to at least a dozen folks who are looking at a State House race run or congressional run in Pennsylvania this cycle as an independent.
“So I’ve actually been surprised at the number of people who have come out of the woodwork saying, ‘I’m interested in maybe running for State House, State Senate, or for Congress.’ And we are talking to a few potential candidates who are looking at a statewide bid, either for [retiring Sen. Pat] Toomey’s old seat or for governor. So there’s a lot of interest.”
Do you see any daylight between the national and state Republican Party regarding the problems you’ve identified?
“I think the biggest thing over the last couple years is, the differences between national and state and local politics has shifted to, it’s all national. [Former House Speaker] Tip O’Neill said, ‘All politics is local.’ Now all politics is national.
“Even in local races, we had a local municipal race where, on the mailers for the Republican primary, it was all national issues. It was, ‘Hey, we’re going to stop Democrats from defunding the police,’ when no Democrat running in that area is actually advocating for that position at all. You’re seeing mail pieces for local municipal races that mention AOC.
“This has nothing to do with how your sewer bill gets sent out, and how trash is picked up. The elected officials pretty much have to cater to that loudest, vocal 20% of their base in order to get elected.”
What have you learned from SAM’s experience in other states?
“Once you start to gain some traction, the two major parties will work together and sort of push back. So it is a long slog of — you have that immediate, there’s a lot of folks who like the idea — but then once you start challenging the status quo, there will be push back. So we’re expecting that.”
What are the next steps?
“We’ll be hosting some sort of candidate training sessions. They’re open so you don’t have to necessarily be a SAM candidate, it’s just encouraging non-major party candidates to run.
“The redistricting process we’re watching very closely. That is an opening for alternative candidates to run when it’s a fresh map. So that’s why 2022 is sort of a key cycle for us.
“It’s gonna take a few years to get up and running. We’re not optimistic that we’re going to change the world overnight, but we’re planning to be part of that process to make things better in Pennsylvania.”