In the aftermath of the attack on the U.S. Capitol nearly two weeks ago carried out by a mob of pro-Trump extremists, Republicans in Johnson County have been reacting in a variety of ways.
Some local party leaders have urged healing while also expressing support for both Kansas Sen. Robert Marshall, a first-term Republican who voted against certifying some states’ electors, and Sen. Jerry Moran, who voted the opposite way. But other party members say the attack — along with Joe Biden’s victory in November, including taking Johnson County — should be a warning to the local GOP.
In the days after the attack, Johnson County Republican Chairman Fabian Shepard posted a lengthy quote urging “civic solidarity and social and spiritual fabric-building.”
“We cannot sit here appalled by what we saw in D.C. without recognizing the catalyst of this event. There is a cultural, political and even a spiritual deficit in our country. The hurt and anger we have been witnessing will not be healed by stifling political/religious speech, pinning one party against the other and demonizing one another,” Shepard’s post read.
It continued: “There’s no side to take, no party to blame, only bad leaders and their friends in the media (all media) that perpetuate their ineptitude.”
‘Should be a wake-up call’
Some party members — and now-former party members — see it differently, though.
Former Shawnee city councilmember and lifelong Republican Brandon Kenig said he finds the lack of a strong response from the local Republican Party to the attack hard to stomach.
Kenig is a former chairman of the Kansas Young Republicans and a former staffer for Moran who helped form the Northwest Johnson County Republicans in the 2000’s before eventually disassociating himself from the club. He also does some political consulting in marketing and social media.
He said Shepard’s response on Facebook was too generic and not strong enough.
Kenig said he’s troubled by the direction the local party has taken, particularly the intolerance of any criticism, no matter how mild, of Trump.
“Traditional Republicans are abandoning the party in droves,” he said. “Joe Biden is the first Democrat since Woodrow Wilson in 1916 to win Johnson County. That should be a wake-up call to the local Republican party that their grip on the county has completely slipped and they’re facing an exodus of historic proportions,” he said.
Some evidence of that comes from Jonathan Eshnaur, an Olathe school teacher who announced on Twitter recently that he’s leaving the party he grew up with.
Eshnaur told the Post that although he grew up in rural Kansas strongly identifying with the GOP, law and order and the U.S. Constitution, he has struggled with the party since the administration of Kansas Gov. Sam Brownback.
“The [Capitol attack] was the breaking point for me,” he said, because of the lack of strong condemnation of the rioters by other Kansas Republicans. Eshnaur compared the riots with a school invasion.
Now he said he is a registered Democrat.
“I just can’t have that ‘R’ on my name after so many of them went along with Trump to decertify votes from states after the attack on the Capitol,” he said.
‘The Republican brand has been resilient’
For his part, Shepard thinks the GOP and the values it has historically stood for will continue to attract people in Johnson County after Trump has left the White House.
He points to November’s results and the fact that Republicans maintained their super-majorities in the Kansas Legislature with the help of some high-profile wins in Johnson County.
“We are still the party that is seeking the proper solutions to local problems, finding the right paths to drive economic development, being pro-business in our approach to governing,” he said. “We will continue to support those leaders that protect our way of life here in Johnson County.”
Shepard said no one he knows has told him they’re leaving the party.
Unlike some other Republicans, Shepard does not dispute the fact that Biden won the 2020 election and will be inaugurated this week, but he also said the attack on the Capitol has provided a chance for long-time critics of the GOP to do “more gaslighting and heap all Republicans into the same pile.”
“In spite of this disruption, with theses anarchists and ne’er-do-wells that did what they did in the U.S. Capitol, the Republican Party is going to prevail,” he said. “You can’t lump everyone who has an ‘R’ behind their name with a few hundred people who are committing criminal acts.”
Like Shepard, Tony Bergida, chair of the Johnson County Young Republicans, said he supports both Republican U.S. senators from Kansas — Marshall and Moran — for voting their consciences during the debates to certify Biden’s Electoral College victory.
Bergida said the party should focus on 2022, policies and people rather than personality.
“The Republican brand has been rather resilient over the years,” he said.
Conspiracy theories still being aired online
Meanwhile, the Facebook pages of some of the county’s various Republican clubs continue to promote or allude to debunked conspiracy theories about the Capitol attack, including that leftist agitators were behind the violence.
The Conservative Republicans of Southern Johnson County announced they are looking for an alternative social media platform because “Facebook has begun sending us messages that our Page provides false information and will be throttled down.”
Views and comments have “plummeted” as a result, the group’s post said, calling Facebook’s actions “maltreatment, censorship ad algorithm abuses.”
The Northwest Johnson County Republicans also noted they may consider a move to another platform. The Northeast Johnson County Conservatives’ post on Jan. 8 did not mention the Capitol attack explicitly, but instead posted a message about the burning of the Reichstag in Weimar-era Germany in 1933, noting historical evidence that Nazis may have set the fire and then benefitted politically from it.
None of the GOP clubs’ leadership agreed to talk to the Post for this article.
Kenig, the former Shawnee city councilmember, said the party is well on its way to splintering, if nothing changes, he said. He also said he’s not even sure he wants to keep calling himself a Republican.
“I struggle with that,” he said, adding that Marshall’s and other Republicans’ votes against certification of electors was a “watershed” moment for him. He said he’s waiting to see some evidence the party has done some soul searching.
“Until the party is willing to tell the truth about what’s happening, to stand up to the rhetoric and do more, it’s difficult to be a Republican right now,” he said.