Local Tea Party leader Pressley Stutts said Trump’s instructions to the faithful were clear: “‘Go purge, get rid of the RINOs in the Republican Party.’ So we took him seriously.”
When Lenna Smith arrived at her precinct’s annual Republican Party organizing meeting last month, she didn’t expect to be greeted by a dozen strangers.
Smith has been a fixture in GOP politics in Greenville, South Carolina, for 30 years. As a prominent anti-abortion activist, she has in her rolodex nearly everyone notable or influential in conservative circles in the state’s most populous county. She is on a first-name basis with past governors.
So, when Smith walked into a church function room for her precinct meeting on March 22 and saw people who’d never participated in local GOP politics, she was a little unnerved. As precinct president, it was Smith’s job to run the meeting, and she simply chalked up the new faces as “neighbors I’ve never met.”
But what happened next was totally out of her control. When it came time to elect the precinct’s president for the coming year, one of the newcomers nominated a fellow newcomer, but not a single person nominated Smith. Stunned, she had to nominate herself. “That was a little disheartening,” she said.
When it came time to vote, the outcome was a foregone conclusion: Smith had lost the president position she’d held for years. For the vote on the next most senior office, the same thing happened, and then the next, until there were no more offices left. Smith had been totally shut out.
“I came home, and told my husband, I was just booted out,” Smith told The Daily Beast. “Do these people see me as what I’m not?” she recalled wondering. “Did I offend them?”
What happened in Smith’s precinct was no one-off oddity; that night, longtime party activists were similarly ejected from their positions at meetings across Greenville County after hundreds of new faces showed up, seemingly out of the woodwork. The GOP loyalists did not know them, but the newcomers seemed to know the process, and they took advantage of it to jettison longtime officials.
Smith, and others, seemed to offend simply by having a whiff of experience in local politics, a black mark that was linked to the worst possible offense to the GOP base: not doing enough to support Donald Trump in the wake of the 2020 election.
Since Trump’s defeat and the Jan. 6 attack on the Capitol, the MAGA faithful around the country have been restless. State-level activists have led the charge nationally in loudly criticizing and plotting against any Republican perceived to be an enemy of the Trump movement, from members of Congress who voted to impeach the ex-president to local officials seen as being weak or soft when it counted.
The phenomenon is not unique to this pocket of South Carolina, but the fight unspooling here is a powerful microcosm of the dynamics in a national tug-of-war over the direction of the Republican Party after Trump’s presidency.
The figure at the vanguard of that latter camp is Pressley Stutts, a local Tea Party leader who has been a thorn in the side of allegedly establishment “RINOs”—Republicans in name only—for years.
It’s frustrating to think the party may be turned over to people who have different goals from what we’ve had for years. Their goal is to replace us all. They may succeed.— Suzette Jordan, longtime South Carolina GOP activist
Like many Republicans, Stutts has followed the ex-president and right-wing media into a morass of conspiracy theories that the election was rigged, and the feckless Republican politicians and officials he’d derided for years were doing nothing to stop it. That rhetoric fomented the attack on the Capitol on Jan. 6; Stutts, in fact, was proudly there that day.
Beginning in December,Stutts and his allies have undertaken a sweeping campaign to train rank-and-file voters—“people who understand President Trump’s MAGA agenda and live by it,” as he wrote on Facebook—on how to wield powerin local party politics. From the ground up, they’re planning to oust and replace officials all the way to the state party. Stutts, who is aiming for a leadership position in the Greenville County GOP, has urged Lin Wood, the Atlanta lawyer who has become an icon to the conspiracy-obsessed right, in his nascent bid for the state GOP chairmanship after he left Georgia for South Carolina.
“There are a lot of good people that did lose their positions. Some are my friends,” Stutts admitted, reached by The Daily Beast on Tuesday. “Some people say, Pressley, what have you done?”
But Stutts said that Trump’s instructions to the faithful were clear. “He said, go purge, get rid of the RINOs in the Republican Party. So we took him seriously.”
Greenville County is a fitting stage for such a drama. It is South Carolina’s most populous county, and it’s considered the most conservative region in this already ruby-red state. Local Republicans proudly consider their local GOP to be the most influential and a required stop for presidential hopefuls seeking an edge in South Carolina’s critical early primary.
Longtime activists here worry that reputation—and their ability to continue dominating South Carolina elections—will erode if the newcomers take control. Suzette Jordan, who has been a GOP activist in Greenville for three decades, said that those ousted have institutional knowledge and skills that have helped the party win elections and build influence. That, she says, seems to be lost on Stutts and his ilk.
“It’s frustrating to think the party may be turned over to people who have different goals from what we’ve had for years,” she told The Daily Beast. “Their goal is to replace us all. They may succeed.”
Jordan, who used to work for the area’s former congressman, Trey Gowdy, is not running for another term for a seat on the state party’s executive committee. But she couldn’t manage to get elected to a minor precinct position, even after she pointedly informed her precinct that she was just one of a few South Carolinians to cast a vote for Trump as a member of the Electoral College.
“We’ve been accused of being establishment, being not MAGA enough, whatever that means,” said Jordan. “Afterward, a lady stepped up and said, ‘Congratulations on being an elector!’ It was kind of ironic to me. None of that mattered.”
Nate Leupp, the current chairman of the Greenville County GOP, estimated that about 30 percent of the county’s precincts were targeted by the outsider faction on the night of March 22. Their message, he told The Daily Beast, was clear: “We are MAGA, and we’re here to take over.”
But Leupp couldn’t help but notice a personal dimension to the effort. He is an active Trump supporter, and as chair, he has organized local Republicans to travel to greet the ex-president in his visits as far away as Charlotte, North Carolina. But when he was making the rounds at precincts that night and introduced himself, Leupp said attendees “looked at me like I was Satan.” He is not running for another term as county chairman.
The notion of this deep-red county crowded with RINOs has been routinely advanced by Stutts, who lost to Leupp in a bid for the party’s chairmanship in 2019. Their acrimonious showdown included an accusation from Stutts that Leupp stole a bathrobe from the Trump hotel in D.C.—Leupp says he did not—and surfaced Stutts’ personal financial debts to the state of North Carolina and the IRS.
But the GOP base’s widespread dissatisfaction with the establishment’s handling of the 2020 election has supercharged longstanding concerns, giving Stutts and like-minded allies their best chance yet to oust local and state leaders. Stutts claimed to The Daily Beast that his organizing coalition turned out 1,400 people to precinct meetings across Greenville County in March, “because the people are pissed, they want their country back.”
Facebook has been a key organizing tool. Stutts has built a following on the platform—despite suffering the occasional ban due to alleged censorship—and his posts since November read like a real-time diary of the MAGA movement’s increasingly frantic hopes that Trump could cling to power. On Facebook, Stutts has interspersed broadsides against local Republicans with repostings of QAnon-inflected fantasies of mass hangings of Deep State traitors alongside inspirational memes and photos of dogs. “Judgement day,” read one meme he shared, “will not be rigged.”
Stutts also posted numerous photos of the Jan. 6 rally and subsequent riot, including selfies with InfoWars host Alex Jones and rally organizer Ali Alexander. One early post from the day, with a photo of the mob clamoring up the inauguration stand on the Capitol’s West Front, had the cheer-leading message, “Trump supporters breach the Capitol!”
However, Stutts later embraced the conspiracy theory that it was “antifa,” not Trump supporters, who were responsible for the violence—even comparing it to Kristallnacht, a night of coordinated violence carried out in Germany by Nazi paramilitary squads against Jews in 1938. Federal court proceedings have found, of course, that many of the people who broke into the Capitol and attacked police officers belonged to far-right militia groups, or at least were Trump supporters, not antifa.
Pressed on this, Stutts maintained that he was certain of antifa’s presence on Jan. 6 despite having no evidence. He insisted he does not embrace QAnon despite having posted Q-friendly content. “Don’t even go up that tree,” he told The Daily Beast.
It’s no surprise that Stutts and his supporters have found common cause with Lin Wood, the Trump-supporting lawyer so extreme that even Team Trump have distanced themselves from him. Georgia Republicans blame Wood’s fervent promotion of election conspiracies in his prior home state for contributing to the party’s loss in a pair of Jan. 5 Senate runoffs.
“Pressley and some of his friends came to me a few days ago and raised with me the question of whether I would consider running for chairman of the Republican Party,” said Wood on March 31. Heeding their call, he decided to get in and challenge Drew McKissick, who has been twice endorsed by Trump.
After a discussion of Wood’s unfounded conspiracy claims that Chief Justice John Roberts is linked to Jeffrey Epstein, a caller asked Wood why he would challenge someone who’s secured Trump’s backing. Wood replied that people like McKissick “say the right things, they seem to even embrace President Trump, but when the tough calls have to be made, it seems like they don’t walk the walk, they don’t back up their words.”
Few have taken Wood’s long-shot bid for party chairman seriously, but Stutts and his allies have laid at least some groundwork for him. By replacing activists like Jordan and Smith with a legion of newcomers at the precinct level, they can ensure support for their slate of candidates at the county convention scheduled for April 13; from there, they can send delegates to the state convention in May, which will vote on the party chairmanship. “A whole bunch of crazy,” said Leupp, “is going to happen in the next week.”
Some established Republicans cast the apparent change in the guard as a cyclical part of the political process. “When an event or a candidate or an issue captures the attention of those who have been sitting on the sidelines, they are then motivated to ‘get involved’ and ‘take back the party,’” said Chad Groover, a former chairman of the Greenville GOP. But he added that many of those being taken out were loyal supporters of Trump.
“The grassroots activists working the hardest for President Trump’s re-election were the County Party officers and executive committeeman,” Groover said. “So it is disappointing that these same people are being cast aside for precinct and county party leadership roles by individuals who have just recently—many just since November—decided to get involved.”
Smith, the longtime activist ousted in her home precinct, isn’t taking her defeat personally. “Hopefully,” she said of the people who replaced her, “they’ll all jump in and become great leaders and great spokesmen and be what we want the party to be.” Still, Smith can’t help but wonder about them. “I don’t have a history with them,” she said. “That makes me wonder, where have you been?”
For the first time in decades of involvement with the GOP, Smith will have more hours in the day to contemplate these questions. “I guess,” she said, “I’ll be spending more time in my garden this year.”