Militia groups, Christian nationalists, anti-vaccine activists and other conspiracy theorists in the Pacific Northwest have all started working together and are forging new connections with the formal political class.
By Jonathan Levinson (OPB)
Dan Tooze spent most of the day on Aug. 22, 2021, sporting a Proud Boys T-shirt and body armor. Like many in the group, Tooze was armed — a wooden baton in hand and a pistol on his belt. He was in Portland’s Parkrose neighborhood for a rally held by the violent, extremist group whose emblem was emblazoned on his chest.
The rally began with speeches, including several defending the Jan. 6 insurrection on the U.S. Capitol and others rife with transphobia.
The Proud Boys have made a habit of coming to the city to incite clashes and when counterprotesters arrived, the demonstration quickly turned violent. The Proud Boys pursued them toward Parkrose Middle School. Tooze led the pack, pointing his baton toward the anti-fascists and screaming over his shoulder for others to charge. Tooze and others in his group smashed the windows of a minivan and at one point, he swung and hit someone from behind with his baton. Other Proud Boys went on to beat a person sitting in a nearby truck, leading to felony charges against the assailants.
After the brawl subsided, Tooze, still clutching his baton and a White Claw in one hand and flashing the white nationalist “OK” sign with the other, posed for a photo in front of a van the group had flipped over.
Several of the Proud Boys who were there that day were charged with felonies.
Tooze ran for office.
In his first bid for elected office, Tooze, who lives in Oregon City, got 40% of the vote in the Oregon House District 40 Republican primary. And though he lost that race, he went on to get elected vice chair of the Clackamas County Republican Party, a role which positions him to help spread his violent extremist brand of politics to his neighbors and to influence which candidates the party backs or helps appoint to vacant seats.
Tooze’s transition from leading street battles to elected party leader wasn’t an isolated event.
Despite several high-profile, far-right politicians losing in November, experts say the authoritarian movements they represent were not defeated in the midterms. In counties across the Pacific Northwest, a range of fringe, often violent, political movements have coalesced. With the groups now united, those experts say they are expanding their reach and continuing to inch into the mainstream.
“There’s far-right momentum in the Pacific Northwest in general,” said Joe Lowndes, a political science professor at the University of Oregon. He said one election cycle won’t defeat the anti-democracy movement. “The Oregon GOP has shifted rightward in the last five or six years in a way that seems, not necessarily permanent, but it seems fairly durable.”
Like Tooze, far-right adherents across Oregon have flocked to their local GOP precinct committees in hopes of continuing that shift.
The precinct strategy
Precinct committees are the building blocks for local politics. Members run “get out the vote” drives, door-knock and make phone calls. The precincts can be a critical way the parties get their message to the voters. Precinct committees also elect state party representatives and when a legislative seat is vacated, the committee in that district helps choose the replacement.
The precinct members push their views up through the party and out into the community. And after President Donald Trump lost reelection in 2020, the committees became a central target for disgruntled Republicans.
The approach originated with Arizona lawyer and party official Dan Schultz who has been encouraging conservatives to join their local party for more than a decade, in what he dubbed “the precinct strategy.” From the start, he recruited extremists. In 2014, he posted in the Oath Keepers militia online forum recruiting members to join their local Republican precinct committees, according to ProPublica.
“Why don’t you all join me and the other Oath Keepers who are ‘inside’ the Party already,” Schultz wrote. “If we conservatives were to do that, we’d OWN the Party.”
Five members of the Oath Keepers have been convicted of seditious conspiracy for their role in the Jan. 6 insurrection, when far-right groups tried to halt the presidential transfer of power by force. ProPublica identified 47 members who were also state and local government officials. Now, more groups are taking Schultz’s advice and hoping to push the party further to the right from within rather than by force from without.
In Oregon, local precinct committees have helped fill 23 legislative vacancies since 2019. That includes Rep. James Hieb, who was nominated by the Clackamas County Republican Party to backfill Rep. Christine Drazan’s seat after she resigned to run for governor. Hieb took office last February. In 2020, he joined an extraordinarily violent street brawl in front of the Multnomah County Justice Center between far-right demonstrators and anti-fascist counterprotesters. He was one of many on the far right carrying firearms and he recorded himself spraying counterprotesters with mace as his group retreated from downtown.
Schultz has been pushing the precinct strategy for years, but it was brought to the fore only recently by former Trump adviser and far-right strategist Steve Bannon in the months after the Jan. 6 coup attempt. Bannon, who was sentenced to four months in prison in October for criminal contempt of Congress, said Trump lost the 2020 election because the Republican Party sold him out. On one of his “War Room” podcast episodes soon after Jan. 6, Bannon said the solution was to “take this back village by village … precinct by precinct.”
Oregon Republicans responded.
Taking over the Oregon GOP
In several counties, precinct committee participation ballooned. Elsewhere, the makeup of the committees pointed to an ideological shift. In Clackamas County, Republicans added 142 precinct committee members to their ranks between 2019 and 2023, representing a 14% increase in participation. Over the same period, Democrats added just 62 new members, a 2% increase.
To serve alongside Tooze, the Clackamas County Republicans elected Rick Riley to chair the county committee. Riley led the Clackamas County chapter of Take Back America, a group that believes the 2020 election was stolen and that the FBI is using counterterrorism tactics on parents who oppose critical race theory.
In a message on the “New Clackamas County Republican Party’s” website, Riley said they can use the precinct strategy to affect local elections and change government. He said the new party is the “army of the awakened,” and he claimed 17 other counties in Oregon also ousted and replaced “complacent” Republican Party leadership.
“Down will come the ‘woke’ school boards, down will come CRT, down will come a two-tiered justice system and down will come our entire election apparatus that was designed to cheat,” Riley wrote.
Critical race theory, or “CRT,” is an advanced academic concept that shows systemic racism is inherent in American society. Critics have used the term as an inaccurate catch-all to characterize lessons and policies related to race and equity in K-12 schools.
Tooze didn’t respond to messages asking for comment. Riley declined an interview request.
In Central Oregon’s Deschutes County, precinct committee participation has increased in both parties but skews heavily Republican. The number of Democrats running for committee seats increased 3% from 2020 to 2022, according to county records. The number of Republican candidates grew by 25% in the same period.
Like in Clackamas County, the Deschutes County Republicans elected far-right leadership. The new party chair, Scott Stuart, is a prominent member of the local chapter of People’s Rights, a nationwide network of militia groups and anti-government activists founded by conservative firebrand Ammon Bundy.
Stuart, who said the country is “in a civil war of values,” put People’s Rights in the headlines after he wore a Confederate uniform and carried a large Confederate flag on a People’s Rights float in a 2021 Fourth of July parade in Redmond. The following year, during a failed run for county commissioner, the Bend Bulletin revealed Stuart had sent a barrage of angry and threatening emails to the local school board. In one, he wrote that then Gov. Kate Brown was committing treason and prayed for “the public gallows to return for these evil people who have committed crimes against humanity.”
“I’m not perfect. I don’t walk on water,” Stuart told OPB. “I’ve apologized to people for coming on too strong. Sometimes that strong message needs to be heard.”
Bundy, best known for his role leading the 2016 armed takeover of Malheur National Wildlife Refuge, founded People’s Rights in 2020, just as COVID lockdowns were starting in the United States. He hosted a meeting in Emmett, Idaho, focused on resisting the state’s COVID-19 restrictions. Attendees signed a pledge to legally, politically and physically defend anyone who refused to follow COVID mandates. That initial group quickly expanded into a vast network of militia groups, anti-vaccine activists, conspiracy theorists and doomsday preppers.
“People kind of look at Bundy and almost laugh at him,” said Stephen Piggott, an analyst with the Western States Center’s team combating white nationalism. “We need to scratch below the surface a little bit and see how many people he has in this network and see how these folks are not just keyboard warriors.”
As COVID anger has relented, People’s Rights has continued pushing its members into local politics as a way to maintain influence.
“This is the simplest project that we can do,” a weekly update in March 2022 told members. “Being a precinct committee person requires minimal time and energy, especially when there are hundreds of us doing the work. This is our best chance at taking control back of our GOP, especially at the local level.”
That aligns with Stuart’s goals as party chair. He said he wants to grow the number of registered Republicans in the county, increase precinct committee participation and help recruit electable people to run for office in the county.
“We just came off of two and a half years of literal H-E double hockey sticks,” he said, before rattling off a list of grievances about an out-of-control despotic government and medical tyranny.
“People are very open to getting back their rights,” Stuart said when asked if he has found a receptive audience among the county’s Republicans and non-aligned voters. “They want to see us get back to where we were. And so it’s not difficult for me to reach out to those people.”
Mark Knowles, a People’s Rights member who ran for precinct committee chair in Deschutes County and lost to Stuart, said more people getting involved in local politics is good for society.
“Most of the precinct people I’ve met, I like their civic duty that they bring with them,” he said. “And they’re wanting to do something, not just sit on the couch and remain a member of the stay-angry club.”
Knowles said instead of yelling at the TV, it’s better to listen to your neighbors, learn about the issues and how local government works so you can change it.
“And then all kinds of stuff follows after that,” he said. “Like, how to behave well in groups. Not everybody knows how to do that.”
Knowles downplayed the more controversial elements of the organization and Stuart’s past.
“The rules and structure around the Deschutes County Republicans is different than the rules and structure around People’s Rights,” Knowles said. “They operate differently. And for a person to operate in both, you have to just respect the rules, mission and guidelines of each of them separately.”
Piggott said the goals and tactics of People’s Rights are fundamentally incompatible with democracy.
“It’s a threat to our democracy when you have people who are members of this organization attempting to build power and work within the current political system to build that power,” he said.
He pointed to a list of examples from the Pacific Northwest of People’s Rights members “crossing the line of what’s accepted political discourse.”
In Vancouver, Washington, People’s Rights activists, some armed, forced Legacy Salmon Creek hospital into lockdown after falsely claiming staff had forced a 74-year-old patient there to take a COVID test.
Several People’s Rights members in Idaho have been arrested for showing up at government officials’ homes, forcing hospitals to shut down and, in one instance, starting a shootout with police.
In an October speech to People’s Rights in Central Oregon, state Sen. Dennis Linthicum, R-Klamath Falls, encouraged members to get involved in local politics and railed against the transgender community and gender-affirming care. He attacked Doernbecher Children’s Hospital in Portland for teaching boys “how to tuck their testicles up into the cavities to … ‘hide’ their private parts so they look more like girls.”
Doernbecher staff received threats in the past after a prominent anti-LGBTQ+ TikTok account criticized the hospital’s pediatric gender-affirming care.
“It’s dangerous, it’s ugly, it’s evil and we should stop these guys cold,” Linthicum told the People’s Rights group to uproarious applause.
In Jackson County, home to Medford, the widening precinct committee participation gulf is particularly marked. Between 2020 and 2023, 120 Democratic precinct people left the committee while Republican precincts added 67 people, according to county records.
New members in the Jackson County Republican Party include anti-vaccine activists and people who have expressed a range of anti-Black, homophobic and anti-trans views.
The Jackson County Republicans website now features Red Pill Corner, a clearing house of medical misinformation, conspiracy theories and links to far-right darlings like Jack Posobiec, who has ties to white nationalist and European fascist groups.
This new wave of far-right organizing is different from the militia movement in the 1990s, which was born of the deadly Ruby Ridge siege and led to the Waco, Texas, standoff and the Oklahoma City bombing. The groups agitating against the government in the late 20th century existed well outside the political mainstream, according to Lowndes.
But this latest wave of extremist activity is different, he said.
In the past decade, militia groups, Christian nationalists, anti-vaccine activists and other conspiracy theorists have all begun working together to forge new connections with the formal political class, like lawmakers and party officials.
In the years running up to the 2020 election, as vitriol came to define the domestic political atmosphere, alliances formed between the Oregon GOP and hard-line groups like the anti-government, anti-environmentalist Timber Unity. The group was formed in opposition to a proposed 2019 cap-and-trade bill but was soon joined by anti-vaccine activists and other far-right groups. People’s Rights and the Greater Idaho movement, a push by some to transfer large parts of Eastern Oregon to Idaho, are also gaining in popularity.
Lowndes said radical social movements don’t emerge when society or government are believed to be at their worst but when expectations of those systems aren’t met. That’s what he said has happened in rural communities throughout the Pacific Northwest that have seen their economies collapse along with the timber industry.
The Greater Idaho movement is an example of how commonplace once extreme views have become. The state boundary change would require an extremely unlikely act of U.S. Congress. But even if it never succeeds, Lowndes said it still functions as a vehicle to spread far-right ideology and shape Republican identities.
Eleven Oregon counties have approved the modified borders, and Linthicum, the Klamath Falls senator, sponsored a bill this session to begin discussions between the two state governments. Linthicum has appeared at COVID conspiracy events alongside Constitutional Sheriff and Peace Officers Association founder Richard Mack and Klamath Falls preacher Mike Voight, a QAnon adherent who claimed Klamath Falls’ 2022 Pride celebration was a child grooming event.
“People are becoming more comfortable with the idea of [Greater Idaho],” Lowndes said. “The organizers for it have been able to make their case in a way that articulates not just a rural-urban divide but a fairly specific set of political positions.”
At its core, the claim is that the state Legislature is an illegitimate political body that doesn’t represent Eastern Oregonians.
Piggott said for someone who believes the government is illegitimate there are two choices: stay and fight or leave. In California, conservatives have left. An exodus of California residents to Idaho, predominantly from the state’s more conservative regions, has helped make Idaho the fastest-growing state in the country.
Oregonians are choosing to stay and fight.
“What they’re not going to do is what’s happening in California where you have people leaving because it’s too liberal and moving to Idaho,” Piggott said. “They grew up in these communities. They’re not going anywhere, and they’re putting their foot down. And [Greater Idaho] is the outlet they see as a way to essentially prevent another California from happening.”
To help in that fight, they’re looking 350 miles east of Salem to Kootenai County, Idaho, where the most extreme reaches of the far-right have thrived for decades and are gaining footholds in local power.
“One of the most visible examples of it is in Idaho where you have white nationalists moving to the state and then getting involved in local politics and having an impact,” Piggott said.
There, the state Republican Party has endorsed well known white supremacists for public office and Dorothy Moon, the state party chair, has embraced a grab bag of far-right views including election and COVID conspiracies. She has a close relationship with militia leader Eric Parker — notorious for taking up a sniper position against federal law enforcement during the 2014 Bundy Ranch standoff in Nevada — and has supported Arizona state Sen. Wendy Rogers, a member of the Oath Keepers militia and supporter of the racist, antisemitic great replacement theory.
In January, Moon penned an opinion piece on the Idaho GOP website claiming the Republican Party’s principles are essential to keeping the state free of what she called leftist pathologies. In her piece, a siren song to Eastern Oregonians pining for a new state government, Moon said leftist ideologies have turned Seattle, Portland, San Francisco and Los Angeles into failed cities.
Three weeks later, the Idaho House of Representatives approved a resolution calling for formal talks on making several Oregon counties part of Idaho.
The perception among rural Oregonians that lawmakers in Salem don’t represent them isn’t entirely the stuff of conspiracies, said Steve Grasty, a retired Harney County judge, best known for opposing Bundy’s Malheur takeover. Grasty doesn’t support Greater Idaho for a number of reasons. Some are purely practical like, what happens to everyone’s water rights? But he said people are open to the concept because it feels like the Oregon government doesn’t pay attention to their needs. He wants Gov. Tina Kotek to come out east more.
“Biggest mistake we ever made was taking the state plane away from the governor. You could be anywhere in the state of Oregon in an hour,” Grasty said, explaining the seven-hour drive to get to the far reaches of the state can be prohibitive. “We need our governor to do a regular trip and come out and sit down with local leaders and sit down with folks who don’t agree with her.”
That might mean taking some licks from the public but that’s part of being an elected official, he said.
“Hiding behind the glass doors of that Capitol in Salem, sitting over there and saying, ‘I’m listening to you, I’m listening to you,’ carries no weight. None,” Grasty said. “You have to show up.”
There are people in the Republican Party who downplay the influence the precincts have and the danger posed by a more extreme party apparatus.
One person close to Christine Drazan’s gubernatorial campaign said an organized precinct committee can be helpful in spreading a candidate’s message but that most voters aren’t paying attention to the more extreme elements.
“At the end of the day, it is who runs a good campaign and is able to talk through actual paid means,” they said, with an emphasis on “paid.” “It’s almost impossible without money to create a grassroots organization that’s going to impact a race.”
This person requested anonymity to talk openly about the campaign and intra-party politics. Several other mainstream Republicans declined to speak to OPB about the extreme views metastasizing throughout the party. The person close to the Drazan campaign said that a rogue precinct can still cause headaches, for example, if they do something that reflects poorly on the candidate or that the candidate has to comment on.
“You control what you can control, and there’s some things you can’t control. County parties are very high on the list of things you can’t control,” they said. “I would love to have 36 functioning county parties but that’s not realistic.”
That doesn’t mean political elements outside the mainstream are totally irrelevant once they gain enough control. Progressive socialists took over the powerful Nevada Democratic Party, known as the Reid Machine after long serving influential Nevada Sen. Harry Reid. Critics blame the new leadership, which came to power in 2021, for the state party’s disarray and recent political setbacks. Two years after Sen. Bernie Sanders won the Nevada caucus, the state’s Democratic Gov. Steve Sisolak was the only incumbent governor in the country to lose reelection.
As the Republican Party dusts itself off from its 2022 setbacks and another bruising presidential election cycle draws near, candidates up and down the ticket are starting to emerge for upcoming local and national elections. They are revealing the extent to which once extreme views have seeped into the acceptable Republican milieu.
In Salem-Keizer, Casity Troutt is running for school board this May. She has organized protests against district policies supporting transgender students and tried to get a book on anti-racism banned.
Cheyenne Edgerly is running for school board in Crook County. Edgerly has tried to have books on gender identity and sexual orientation segregated at the public library. She has lobbied to prevent nonbinary people from being mentioned in math problems and questioned the inclusion of LGBTQ+ rights and lessons about race in the county school curriculum.
And Springfield school board candidate Geena Davis was charged with assault after she shoved a racial justice protester at an August 2020 rally in Springfield. At a rally in Salem, she was videotaped shoving a Black Lives Matter demonstrator down the statehouse steps. She has been a frequent attendee, alongside Proud Boys and other violent white supremacists, at anti-COVID protests and at demonstrations claiming the 2020 election was illegitimate.
Davis told OPB she learned from her mistakes and does not believe in violence.
Nationally, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, believed by many to be the front-runner for the Republican presidential nomination, has risen to party stardom by pushing anti-trans and anti-queer legislation. He has used the levers of government to quash Black history education and diversity programs in the state, branding Florida as the state “where woke goes to die.”
There is evidence, beyond elections, that the extreme right is expanding its influence. As conspiracy theorists and anti-vaccine activists forge alliances with white supremacist groups, hateful ideologies and violence have spread too.
According to a recent report by the Anti-Defamation League’s Center on Extremism, all of the 25 extremist-related murders in 2022 were connected to the far right. According to ADL data, hate incidents have increased 419% since 2016.
In the Pacific Northwest, the increase is even more startling. There, since 2016, the region has seen a 3,829% increase in hate, extremist and antisemitic incidents.
FEATURED IMAGE: FILE – Proud Boy Dan Tooze, center, chases anti-fascist counterprotesters during a clash in Northeast Portland’s Parkrose neighborhood on Aug. 22, 2021, in Portland, Ore. Tooze went on to run for political office and become the vice chair of the Clackamas County Republican Party. (Jonathan Levinson / OPB)