In previous years, the Spokane County Republican Party's Lincoln Day Dinner fundraisers have often featured pundits like Charlie Kirk and Tomi Lahren — known more for being reflexive own-the-libs types instead of being intellectual luminaries of the conservative movement.
But this time, they went a different direction: They invited Alveda King, Martin Luther King Jr.'s Trump-supporting niece. The connection to MLK fit with the local party's recent "clarification campaign," featuring billboards noting the party's history of supporting civil rights. Abraham Lincoln, after all, was a Republican. So was the first Black congressman. Republicans had fought for women's suffrage.
You can, of course, point to plenty of historical reasons why Republicans stopped being seen as the party of civil rights, ranging from Nixon's "Southern strategy" to Trump's "textbook definition of a racist comment" strategy. But just the choice to emphasize this part of the GOP's legacy was notable.
<!——————StartFragment——————>"As chair, that’s where I’m steering the party is our historical roots," Spokane GOP Chair Brian Steele told the Inlander in an interview late Tuesday evening. "We're just trying to get the truth out about who we are. There are a lot of good, honest, caring folks who are Republicans. They get painted with this brush that’s not accurate."
But that rebranding effort hasn't just been complicated by outside critics — it's been hampered by one of the party's prolific but little-monitored social media accounts that had been pumping out a slew of incendiary posts, without the knowledge of some party leaders.
In April last year, the Spokane County Republican Party's Facebook page announced the party was expanding its social media presence:
"Here is the new link to our Gab page!" announced the party's Facebook page, linking to a Gab account titled simply "SpokaneGOP." Gab is a social media app intended to ape Facebook and Twitter but with fewer content restrictions
In less than a year, the account racked up 2,100 followers, a little less than half what the Spokane County Republican Party's Facebook page has. <!——————StartFragment——————>SpokaneGOP posted to Gab over 7,000 times in less than a year — an average of 22 posts a day, every single day. The individual behind SpokaneGOP wrote that he spent four to seven hours a day posting on the account. <!——————EndFragment——————>
<!——————StartFragment——————>It took the Inlander hours to scroll to the end, but it didn't take long to find hundreds of posts about wild conspiracy theories, anti-vaccine disinformation, and even attacks on local Republicans. After the Inlander repeatedly reached out to party leadership with questions about the account over the past month, the party deactivated the entire thing and banned the person running it from accessing party channels.
Some of the Gab account's comments, Steele wrote in a text message Tuesday night, "were not approved and were in direct opposition to the values and principles of the SpokaneGOP."
Steele declines to say who ran the "SpokaneGOP" Gab, but says he's willing to shoulder the blame for not doing a better job policing it.
"I’m not in the practice of throwing people under the bus," Steele says. "As chair, it’s my responsibility."
On Gab last week, SpokaneGOP applauded Torba's speech.
"When someone not only gets it, but makes it happen," SpokaneGOP wrote last week, linking to the speech. "Sit down your butts and watch Andrew's presentation."
And when Torba referred to Washington, D.C., as an "isolated globohomo shithole city surrounded by degenerate freaks and literal demons," Spokane GOP reposted it.
While the account wasn't nearly as infused with racism and White nationalism as the account of Lesley Haskell, wife of the Spokane County prosecutor, that sort of rhetoric wasn't entirely absent either.
"I fully believe that European Americans need to start having children again," declared SpokaneGOP in the comments about a post about abortion. "The minorities seem to be having plenty."
The SpokaneGOP also shared a post calling Afghan refugees "barbarous" rapists and a post claiming that FEMA camps were going to be used as death camps for "Whites, Christians and Trump Supporters" and "vax-resisters who double as White supremacist Trump supporters."
"An informed perspective," SpokaneGOP wrote. "Take what you want from it, but consider carefully what you keep and what you don't."
SpokaneGOP fired off countless conspiracy theory posts, declaring 5G cellphones were dangerous, that Bill Gates is involved with a plot to spray "chemtrails" on the public from airplanes, that former Democratic National Committee staffer Seth Rich was murdered as part of some elaborate scheme, and illegal immigration is a George Soros plot. The account even dips, briefly, into 9/11 conspiracy talk, sharing a post claiming that "Donald Trump was One of the First to Say Bombs Must Have Been Used on 9/11"
Naturally, so are stolen election conspiracy theories, not just about the presidential election ("Dominion erasing election records all over country one machine after another") but about Loren Culp's loss to Jay Inslee and the failed California recall against Gavin Newsom.
In October, SpokaneGOP reposted a comment from alt-right Arizona Rep. Wendy Rogers that county sheriffs should "start arresting supervisors" of elections.
The account portrayed news of Costco putting limits on toilet paper purchases last year as "pure, unadulterated BS, contrived by the communists to frighten and control us."
SpokaneGOP declared a Jan. 6 Capitol riot defendant who committed suicide and an anti-vaccine mandate protester who supposedly self-immolated each to be a "martyr."
Vaccines, the SpokaneGOP account declared falsely, contain a substance called "Luciferase" for "well-planned tracking and depopulation," were masterminded by the Rothschild family's "empire of evil," and caused an "82 percent miscarriage rate" among pregnancy vaccinated women.
"Today's Satan shots will destroy many of those who remain with any cognitive ability whatsoever," SpokaneGOP wrote in October. "Fight it till we die. NEVER GIVE IN!"
And he did it all touting the Spokane County Republican Party's name and endorsement.
"I belong to local GOP committees and am sanctioned for this Gab," he repeatedly told other Gab users.
Steele, the chair of the party, stresses he had no idea all this stuff was being posted.
<!—————StartFragment—————>"Honestly, I didn’t even know we had that account," he says. Several other party members the Inlander contacted also said they were unaware of the comments.
The Inlander had attempted to reach Steele on multiple occasions over the last few weeks, including by asking party volunteer Maggie DiMauro — one of the organizers of the Lincoln Day event — to pass along an interview request.
He'd been driving home, Steele says, when DiMauro started sending him screenshots of posts from the account.
"Maggie read a few of them to me," Steele says. He doesn't cite specific posts or topics that concerned him, but stressed some of the posts were unacceptable.
In a statement to the Inlander, he writes that "we sincerely regret any offense that may have resulted from these inappropriate posts," and he encouraged the public to visit the GOP's website to read up on their values.
<!———StartFragment———>"Social media is a nightmare anyway. You've got to have a presence, right?" Steele says. "A weakness for me is I don’t pay any attention to it at all."
<!———StartFragment———>Steele does, however, acknowledge that the Spokane County Republican Party has argued that extreme social media posts are relevant, including calling on Spokane Public Schools board member Jenny Slagle to resign for one of her controversial Facebook comments about the Constitution.
He says the party's communications committee decided the party should launch a Gab account last year. He also says the account itself hadn't been set up through the proper channels — the party's technology chair didn't even have the password to it.
The person behind "SpokaneGOP" had been ousted from the party's communications committee a long time ago, Steele claims.
"We had some trouble with him; he was removed," he says.
One reason, he says, is some of the Inlander's previous questions about the party's social media accounts. Working on a potential story back in 2020 the Inlander asked Steele about a string of dubious Facebook posts promoting conspiracy theories about the 2020 election, including a post directing their audience to the legal fund for Sidney Powell, a Trump-aligned attorney now being sued by the Texas State Bar.
We also asked about a 2018 post that had promoted a private "We Build the Wall" fundraising effort as trustworthy.
"This is a legitimate campaign," the Spokane County GOP's Facebook page declared. When it turned out that the people behind the "We Build the Wall" campaign were indicted for fraud, the Spokane County Republicans deleted the line about the campaign being legitimate, but kept the rest of the post up.
Steele says the party has tried to be much more diligent about what goes out under their name.
"If we’re going to try at least to have dialogue with people,” he says, it’s crucial “that the only thing that goes out is the stuff that reflects our true values."
Like the Spokane County Democrats, the Spokane County Republican Party has been wrestling with a fundamental dilemma during the last decade: Who do they allow in their big tent, and who do they kick out?
In attendance at the 2018 Lincoln Day Dinner, was White supremacist James Allsup, who'd been dating a district leader of the Spokane County Republican Party. But after then-Spokane County Republican Party Chair Cecily Wright hosted an event defending Allsup later that year, local Republicans like Sheriff Ozzie Knezovich held a press conference slamming both Allsup and Wright. Wright resigned shortly after.
<!———StartFragment———>"Do we have bad players sometimes? Yeah, but everybody does," Steele says. But the media coverage focusing on these figures has rankled him. The result, he says, is that some people who could be great assets to the party shy away.
"They’re afraid that some of the bad actors get so much of the public image that they would be tainted," Steele says.
But at the same time, fringe figures within their party have tried to come after their comparatively moderate members. SpokaneGOP used the party's own Gab account to do it, writing that Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers "definitely needs to be primaried" and that Spokane County Commissioner Mary Kuney calls herself "a moderate Republican, but she is really a Liberal."
<!——————————————StartFragment——————————————> "Fake Republicans must be rooted out and dumped. Every year there are more of them put in place by the One Party communists to totally dismantle the Republican party," SpokaneGOP wrote. "The GOP has more fake Republicans now than ever before, influenced by blackmail, extortion and bribes."
It's tricky to stand up against the fringe when many of the same kinds of wild claims that were made in SpokaneGOP's posts are espoused by former President Trump or Fox News pundit Tucker Carlson. In a lot of places, the dividing line between mainstream Republicans and the fringe has disappeared.
"The fringe has, in some ways, become the rug," Andy Card, President George W. Bush former chief of staff, told CBS reporter John Dickerson recently.
Yet in Spokane, Allsup's attempt to infiltrate the Republican mainstream ultimately failed. Being associated with him remains so toxic that, when the Inlander reported he'd changed his middle name and got a job at an insurance company, that insurance company quickly fired him.
By contrast, what happens when the GOP doesn't stand up against the fringe? Allsup's former podcast co-host, Nick Fuentes, has turned into the most prominent White nationalist in the country. That alt-right conference that Gab sponsored? It was Fuentes' conference — drawing in GOP figures from Georgia Congresswoman Marjorie Taylor Greene to Idaho Lt. Governor Janice McGeachin — and earning the GOP a stream of negative headlines.
Contrast that with the Sunday brunch that Steele says the party held with Alveda King and members of the community, including several local minority leaders. The goal, he says, was to bridge the divide with people who might not normally be talking to Republicans. He says the conversation was encouraging.
<!———EndFragment———>"We’ve opened up some dialogue to take it further," Steele says. "There’s clearly common ground here that we could work on."
But the branding challenge the party faces is underscored by the fact that Steele declines to say which local minority community leaders attended. Some of them, he says, were concerned with showing up to a GOP-sponsored event.