In the month following the Jan. 6 insurrection attempt, Joe Mohler’s views about the Republican Party in Lancaster County reached a turning point.
The change came as he watched elected GOP officials at the local and national levels spread lies about who attacked the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6 and doubled down on the Big Lie about a stolen election.
Mohler saw these officials defend former President Donald Trump, even as Trump was impeached for a second time in the waning days of his presidency, accused of encouraging the insurrection.
A 23-year-old title insurance agent from Lancaster Township, Mohler decided to get off the party’s sidelines and work to push it back toward its traditional conservative values from within. Now the youngest of the Republican Committee of Lancaster County’s 14 area chairs, he knows he faces a tough challenge in a county where many Republican voters remain devoted to Trump.
Mohler compares his politics to Nebraska’s Ben Sasse, a conservative senator who spoke out against Trump’s actions early in Trump’s term and later voted to impeach him after Jan. 6.
“I have a natural skepticism that government-led solutions work. A lot of times, giving people freedom, giving people liberty is the best thing to do,” Mohler said. “I consider myself a conservative, but I don’t have anything to do with the conspiratorial wing of the party. And I don’t want it to go in that direction.”
What stirred Mohler to action was not just the fact that leaders of the county’s GOP avoided any reckoning with the Trump years and their violent end. He was also disturbed when those same leaders debated whether to censure U.S. Sen. Pat Toomey, a Republican once celebrated as a quintessential conservative.
The censure debate occurred after Toomey voted on Feb. 13 to impeach Trump. Republican activists in Lancaster County wanted to follow the lead of other GOP strongholds, such as York County, where party officials formally castigated Toomey for his impeachment vote. Lancaster Republicans never ended up censuring Toomey, as local party leaders blocked a vote on a censure motion. But many county committee members believed there was widespread support for such a move and complained about the lack of action.
“Toomey had a right to vote his conscience,” Mohler said. “This idea that we’d slap him on the wrist for voting his conscience, when we have lots of other things we could be doing, was disappointing,” Mohler said. “It was the straw that broke the camel’s back.”
Mohler said he tried to join the Republican Committee of Lancaster County a year earlier, but the Lancaster Township area’s committee spot was already filled by another local Republican. After Jan. 6, the committeeman in the district stepped down, creating an opening. Terry Christopher, the former area chair, called Mohler to let him know it was his if he wanted it.
In April, Mohler officially joined the committee. By July, he took over as area chair after Christopher moved from the township. Mohler said he is committed to shifting the party back to conservative ideals and growing the number of young and diverse people within its ranks. He also wants to move it away from an unquestioning devotion to Trump.
“Trump supported the tax cuts and appointing conservative judges, which are conservative values, but… the brashness and impulsiveness is what needs to go,” Mohler said. “The way we brand ourselves has to change."
A philosophical mind
At the Lancaster Township townhome he owns, Mohler sat in the living room on a recent evening after spending the day working at his insurance job in Lancaster city. The top two buttons of his shirt were undone, revealing a crucifix hanging from his neck.
He spoke with a reporter as he rearranged a bookcase filled with dozens of books, showing off his copies of oval office memoirs by former presidents Barack Obama (2020’s “A Promised Land”) and George W. Bush (2010’s “Decision Points”). Mohler’s cat, Zoey, roamed the house in the background.
Mohler grew up near Millersville, and was home-schooled for most of his life. He then went to Liberty University, graduating in 2019 with a degree in finance and communications.
He said he now spends his time reading philosophy and theology (25 books so far this year), as well as going to church at least once a week. He grew up Evangelical, left Liberty University as an agnostic, and ultimately converted to Catholicism.
By the numbers
Mohler is area chair in one of only two of the county’s 60 municipalities where Democrats hold a majority of registered voters, next to Lancaster city. This puts him on the blue side of the county’s “red wall” surrounding the city and township. This wall, as county Republicans have long called it, has slowly been thinning as more Democrats move to suburbs outside the city.
The number of Democrats in Lancaster Township means Mohler will have to be more creative in his messaging, he said. For example, Mohler said he’d be more likely to talk about school choice issues in the township, as its students attend schools operated by the School District of Lancaster, which is currently suing the state over funding. This would be different for a more rural area of the county, where the party might emphasize Second Amendment issues, he added.
Mohler hopes he — a young Republican dedicated to refocusing the party on conservative ideals — can help win over young people and people from diverse backgrounds who were turned off from the party after Trump rose to power. The county’s changing demographics require it, he said.
Fifty-one percent of registered voters in Lancaster County are Republicans, a share that’s fallen dramatically. In 1998, 62% of the county’s registered voters were Republicans.
And though still a narrow majority overall, nearly two-thirds of the county’s GOP voters (66%) is made up of people ages 45 and older. Looking at how many voters fall into 10-year age groupings, the largest share of registered Republicans currently falls between the ages of 55 and 64, according to Department of State voter registration data, followed by those in the 65-74 age group.
Democrats, who make up a third of all registered voters in the county, skew younger, with 55% aged 45 and older. And the largest 10-year age group of registered Democrats is those between the ages of 25 and 34, followed by the 35-44 group. (The Department of State does not break down age groups for independent and non-affiliated voters.)
Additionally, Mohler said, Lancaster County isn’t isolated from the changing demographics in the United States, where projections show whites shifting from a majority of all Americans to a plurality within the next 30 years.
White people make up 81% of the county’s 552,984 residents, according to the 2020 Census. Latino and Hispanic residents make up 11%, followed by Blacks (5%) and Asians (3%). But the fastest-growing group in the county between 2010 and 2020 mirrors national trends: Hispanics grew their numbers by 36% in Lancaster County, according to Census data.
Mohler said he believes it’s necessary for the county GOP to expand its outreach to Latinos if it wants to survive into the future. The Republican Party would likely be attractive to Latinos, many of whom are Evangelicals or Catholics and therefore are socially conservative, he said.
Mohler also wants the Republican Party to be more welcoming, including toward refugees and immigrants.
“We have a responsibility to care for the poor the best we can in the ways that are the most effective,” Mohler said.
Area committees are the main point-of-contact with registered Republican voters. Committee members man the doors of polling places and canvass voters’ homes with sample ballots to let them know the Republican candidates they should support. Voters choose their committee members every two years. When there are vacancies, the area chair is tasked with filling the spots and getting approval from the RCLC chair.
Area chairs also are in charge of setting up meetings to endorse local candidates and coordinate with campaigns. Additionally, area chairs come together as a group to make decisions for the county party.
Christopher, the former area chair who moved out of the township to live elsewhere in the county, described the role as “the team mom, not the quarterback of the football team.”
As area chair, Christopher was able to grow the committee from four members to 13 before he moved.
“It seems like when I left, Joe’s biggest priority was finishing up the work I started,” he said. “Having someone that has the free time that [Joe] has and the energy, we’re on the right path. We started on that path a few years ago, and he’ll be a good steward of that same direction.”
Mark Fischer, the secretary for the Lancaster Township Republican committee, said Mohler is a “perfect fit” for the role, given his youth and excitement about increasing voter engagement.
“[When he ran for area chair], he visited each committee member in person, which was very refreshing,” Fischer said. “He did that because he has so much energy and interest in pulling the party back toward the middle, toward the moderate side of things.”
Kirk Radanovic, the chair of the county Republican committee, said targeting young voters is a longstanding strategy and that he looks forward to working with Mohler.
“We point to elected officials such as House Speaker Bryan Cutler, Senator Ryan Aument, Commissioner Josh Parsons, and others who began their political careers as Young Republicans,” Radanovic said in an email.
Mohler is now starting to seek candidates to fill the five vacancies on his committee, hoping to recruit young and diverse individuals who are likely to be more interested in economic and education issues than conspiracy theories about the 2020 election and opposition to pandemic measures, he said. He’s done more than 1,000 Facebook searches so far, seeking qualified candidates to reach out to.
“When you think of Republicans or Democrats, you think of Biden or Trump. I really want it to be their committeeperson they think of first,” he said. “If you’re Catholic, the chances you think of your local priest when you think of Catholicism are much greater than someone who is non-Catholic, who will think of Pope Francis.”
“A good priest is someone who is well known in the community,” Mohler added. “Ideally, it should work the same way for committee members. But instead, the reason [moderate Republicans] slammed the door in my face is because of someone who now lives in Mar-A-Lago.”