Mason Pitts grew up embracing the Republican Party. Donald Trump’s attacks on the 2020 election led him to abandon it.
Pitts, a 22-year-old UF economics graduate student and Gainesville native, is part of a large number of Republican voters in Alachua County who have switched political parties in the wake of the Jan. 6 attack on the U.S. Capitol, which left five people dead and more than 100 people arrested.
“Trump’s actions, most recently especially with COVID and continuing to give misinformation about having a fraudulent election, kind of gave me the motivation to officially change my party,” Pitts said. “I would not change it back.”
Between Jan. 8 and Jan. 20, 147 people in Alachua County left the Republican Party, according to data from the Alachua County Supervisor of Elections.
Almost 54% of those switched to no party affiliation, while the rest joined new parties: 27 joined the Democratic Party, 37 joined the Independent Party of Florida and four joined the Libertarian Party of Florida.
For Alachua County, the weeks following the insurrection marked the largest departure from the Republican Party in the past year, pointing to an uncertain future for the party following the Trump presidency and the start of Joe Biden’s presidency.
Trump lost to Joe Biden in Alachua County by more than 38,000 votes last year, according to Alachua County election data. Turnout was the highest since 2008, with about 75% of registered voters participating in the election.
Alachua County’s party affiliation trends parallel Central Florida’s, where hundreds of people have left the Republican Party since Jan. 6, the Orlando Sentinel reported.
This month’s departures also surpassed the 95 Alachua County residents who left the Republican Party after the Nov. 3 election, according to voter registration data by the Florida Division of Elections.
State data from last year shows 33 people joined the Republican Party in January 2020 amid Trump’s first impeachment.
Mason Pitts switched his voter registration to no party affiliation, which he said is more in line with his moderate values. But it was Trump’s incitement of an insurrection on the U.S. Capitol that confirmed his decision to leave the Republican Party.
At a rally the morning of the attack, Trump urged his supporters to walk down Pennsylvania Avenue to the Capitol and “fight like hell” against the certification of President Joe Biden’s win.
“I was thinking that a lot of the people that warned about Trump and that he was legitimately dangerous were probably correct at that point,” Pitts said. “He’s kind of created this bubble that's doing nothing but dividing America.”
Between Jan. 5 and Jan. 7, the days surrounding the attack on the Capitol, 78 people changed their party affiliation — 58 of those leaving the Republican Party for a total of 205 defections since the week of Jan. 6.
While over 200 Republicans have switched parties since the week of the attack, only 15 Alachua County voters have joined the Republican Party: Five switched from no party affiliation, seven switched from the Democratic Party, three switched from the Independent Party of Florida and two switched from the Libertarian Party of Florida.
David Ashwell, a 53-year-old Gainesville attorney and world history teacher at Lincoln Middle School, said he changed his party affiliation from Republican to Democrat after the Jan. 6 riot. He was a registered Republican for about 15 years.
“This had been something I’d meant to do at least since Donald Trump emerged on the national political stage back in the 2016 race,” Ashwell wrote in an email. “But recent events gave the matter some urgency, as I want nothing further to do with the GOP.”
Ashwell felt Trump incited the riot, which he said posed an existential threat to democracy.
The House of Representatives delivered its second impeachment of Trump a week after the insurrection, citing how Trump’s statements “encouraged and foreseeably resulted in lawless action at the Capitol.” Ten Republicans joined Democrats in impeaching Trump, making it the most bipartisan impeachment and the first time a president has been impeached twice.
His trial is set to start Feb. 8, Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer announced Friday.
Trump, whose initial comments on the attack reiterated his claims of a stolen election and led to a ban of his accounts on most social media platforms, has since condemned the violence.
Stephen Craig, a UF political science professor who specializes in public opinion, sees party switches after the Capitol riot and a second impeachment as symptoms of internal divisions within the Republican Party — those favoring the party’s traditional values versus Trump’s devout supporters. It’s a battle that could push some to abstain from a party affiliation entirely, he said.
“No party affiliation can be considered a halfway house for Republicans who have become disaffected with what the political party has come under Trump,” he said.
What these party switchers mean for the Republican Party in the long term isn’t clear, Craig said. It’s uncertain if a larger party switch could be coming or if some Republicans will wait in NPA purgatory until the party sorts itself out.
“We're gonna have to wait till the smoke clears,” he said.
Ed Braddy, chairman of the Alachua County Republican Party, said he fears losing the 205 Republicans will cause a downward trend in the party’s plans for the next election. He believes voters shouldn’t judge the entire party on the actions of a few rioters.
“You saw the action of probably fewer than 1,000, maybe fewer than 500,” he said.
Federal authorities believe roughly 800 people stormed the Capitol, The Washington Post reported Saturday.
Braddy condemned the Capitol riots as “unsettling” and “unlawful” but hopes Trump supporters will keep their energy with the party to help win seats in the 2022 midterm elections.
Some Republicans may be leaving because of Trump’s makeover of the party, but others could be leaving because it didn’t change enough, Braddy said.
“Someone might leave the party because they believe the party is not Trump-like enough,” he said. “The other mindset is that the party has become too Trump-like.”
While Trump caused some to leave the party, Carter Mermer, president of UF’s Turning Point USA chapter, believes the GOP can survive beyond him. Turning Point USA is a conservative nonprofit that caused controversy at UF in 2019 by hosting Turning Point founder Charlie Kirk.
“Trump was the face of the Republican Party, but he’s not the Republican Party,” said Mermer, a 22-year-old UF business administration senior. “The conservative movement is going to change and adapt over time.”
Mermer said those who sympathized with the Republican Party before Trump should give it another chance.
“If people want to come back to the Republican party, that’s good,” Mermer said.
He just wants them to make up their minds.
Contact Corbin Bolies, Lianna Hubbard and Kevin Maher at email@example.com, firstname.lastname@example.org and email@example.com. Follow them on Twitter @CorbinBolies, @HubbardLianna and @kevinmaheruf.
Lianna Hubbard is a reporter for The Alligator’s Investigative Team. The UF women’s study major began as a freelance reporter three years ago. She founded her community college’s award-winning newspaper before beginning at The Independent Florida Alligator. See an issue in your community or a story at UF? Send tips to her Twitter.
Kevin Maher is a senior at the University of Florida and an investigative news assistant at The Alligator. He's also an impartial fan of "the greatest basketball team on the planet," the Los Angeles Lakers.