At least 66 members of far-right group in rural Oregon standing for office

<span>Far-right activist Ammon Bundy speaks in front of the Ada county courthouse in downtown Boise, Idaho, in April 2021.</span><span>Photograph: Darin Oswald/AP</span>
Far-right activist Ammon Bundy speaks in front of the Ada county courthouse in downtown Boise, Idaho, in April 2021.Photograph: Darin Oswald/AP

At least 66 members of an anti-government group founded by far-right militia figure Ammon Bundy have attempted to win local positions of influence in the Republican party in Oregon, the Guardian can reveal.

The candidates stood for Republican precinct committee person (PCP) slots in three central Oregon counties in this week’s elections, with some facing no opponent and thus winning their positions by default. The role of PCPs includes electing the executive of the county-level GOP apparatus.

The move is part of what appears to be a coordinated attempt to capture the local Republican party infrastructure, following a far-right strategy of “entryism” into more mainstream political bodies.

The electoral fate of all 66 candidates is not yet clear.

Evidence for these PCP candidates’ membership in the People’s Rights Network (PRN) group People’s Rights Oregon 5 (PRO5), and the coordinated nature of their political campaign, comes in part from dozens of hours of their conversations on a radio network set up by and for PRN members. These conversations were intercepted and recorded by an amateur radio operator who provided them to the Guardian.

That source’s name is being withheld due to fears of retaliation from members of the organization, prominent members of which have paramilitary ties.

Other recorded conversations include planning and evaluation of protests against Covid-19 vaccines and masking rules; stories of members’ armed interactions with intruders; and a discussion of the possibility that a contact serving in the military might be able to “scrounge up” some supplies for the group.

The revelations about the group’s highly organized participation in the Republican primaries raise questions about the extent of anti-government infiltration in the Republican party at the grassroots level, both now and in the immediate future.

PRO5’s strategy resembles the “precinct strategy” as coined by Arizona GOP activist Dan Schultz and promoted by Maga figures including Steve Bannon and Trump himself. That reflects a “shared instinct on the far right post-2020”, according to Devin Burghart of the Institute for Research and Education on Human Rights (IREHR), an organization that researches far-right extremism.

“They want to take over the local party apparatus and change it from the ground up,” he said.

People’s Rights, from pandemic to politics

Bundy founded PRN in April 2020, leveraging burgeoning Covid denialism and his own prominence in far-right circles after leading an armed standoff with federal law enforcement at Oregon’s Malheur national wildlife refuge in 2016.

In the first wave of the Covid pandemic, PRN attracted notoriety for protests against lockdown measures, mask mandates, and vaccines.

The group spread nationwide, and was organized by state, with each state under a state assistant reporting to Bundy, and states subdivided into areas, each under an area assistant. PRO5 is Oregon’s fifth area.

PRO5 has about 1,400 members. Burghart said it is “one of the most successful areas in terms of organization”.

He said: “One of the things separating them from other chapters is the early pivot to politics, which meant they no longer had to rely on Covid denialism, or the succession of conspiracy theories other chapters have tried to mobilize.”

That early pivot resulted in successes in Deschutes county Republican primaries in 2022, with People’s Rights members being elected to enough PCP roles there that they were able to take control of the Deschutes county Republican central committee. PRN PCPs then elected fellow members Scott Stuart as chair, and Connie Whelchel vice-chair.

Stuart – who as a prominent PRO5 activist extensively promoted false conspiracy theories about Covid and the 2020 election, and showed up to a Fourth of July parade in Redmond, Oregon in a Confederate uniform and waving a Confederate battle flag – was now in charge of the county Republican apparatus.

Now PRO5 appears to be rolling out the same strategy in neighboring counties in PRO5’s territory.

Radio network

People’s Rights communicates via radio networks that sometimes involve localised groups organized around particular cities or localities, and sometimes the general membership of the entire group.

The radio network the group uses to communicate incorporates inexpensive handheld radios whose normally short, line-of-sight range is extended by repeaters. Members are thus able to communicate over an almost 50-mile (80km) radius with simple devices. The group started building out its repeater network in July 2020 – in the midst of the pandemic – and added further repeater stations regularly until August 2023.

While repeaters for public benefit are often maintained by amateur radio clubs, nonprofit organizations or public safety agencies, these are set up for the exclusive use of People’s Rights affiliates.

The group prevents unwanted users from transmitting via their repeaters by setting their own radios to send a subaudible tone that identifies them as members of the group to the repeater device. But many of the handheld radios in use by the group use the General Mobile Radio Service (GMRS) system. GMRS operators are legally required to register with the Federal Communications Commission (FCC).

The recordings capture the group’s weekly, members-only radio meetings, where members often sign in using their FCC-assigned GMRS callsigns, and where views are aired and plans are hatched regarding Covid-19 restrictions, school boards and local Republican politics.

Registrations are public and searchable on a dedicated FCC website, where individual names and addresses are listed along with call signs that person is licensed and required to use on specific radio service, and FCC registration numbers (FRNs) assigned to individuals.

FCC records thus allow individuals in the PRO5 radio network to be identified by their callsign.

Candidates for power

By cross-matching FCC records of callsigns used in PRO5 radio meet-ups, the Guardian was able to corroborate the source’s information that at least 34 PRO5 members ran for PCP positions in Deschutes county; 12 ran in Crook county; and at least 20 in Jefferson county.

In some precincts they were assured of success.

In precinct 2 of Jefferson county, for example, where 17 PCP slots are available, at least 12 of 18 candidates are identified as PRO5 members; in precinct 11, the only candidate is Paul W May, a People’s Rights member; and in precinct 21, all four candidates for four available slots are members.

With only 49 candidates running for positions in Jefferson county, and PRO5 guaranteed at least 21 committee seats, they will likely constitute a powerful voting bloc for central committee positions when votes are tallied.

One PCP candidate in Deschutes county, where PRO5 already dominates the local Republican apparatus, is BJ Soper, a longtime “patriot movement” figure who has participated in armed standoffs with government agencies, and who has a long list of ties to paramilitary groups.

In 2015, Soper served as a “standing guard” at the Sugar Pine Mine standoff in southern Oregon, where Oath Keepers, Three Percenters and the Soper-organized Pacific Patriots Network (PPN) rallied around miners whose unapproved construction work had drawn enforcement notices from the Bureau of Land Management.

PPN was also present in the early stages of the Malheur standoff, and although Soper initially disapproved of the Bundy-led occupation of the US Fish and Wildlife Service facility at the refuge, at the end of the first week of the standoff PPN issued a “call to action” to “secure a perimeter around the wildlife refuge, its occupiers and the citizens of Harney county”.

Months later, Soper was reportedly running weekly firearms training with another group, the Central Oregon Constitutional Guard.

During the pandemic, Soper rallied to Bundy’s standard, and himself criticized Covid restrictions, mask mandates and vaccines, and wrote on Facebook in 2020 that Osha’s extension of social distancing into 2021 was “a political coup meant to destroy this country”, adding: “I have not worn a mask yet and I refuse to do so at any point. I’ve not social distanced myself at any point since this nonsense has started.”

The same year he became PRN assistant for all of Oregon except area 5, which encompasses Redmond, his city of residence.

Burghart, the IREHR extremism expert, said, “he’s been quite adept at walking the fine line of legality”, adding that Soper “has learned from Bundy’s successes and failures” and has played a central role in PRO5’s successful organizing.

Radio recordings

Recordings of their radio conversations indicate that while the PRO5’s earliest years were dominated by Covid-19 denialism and protests against vaccine and mask mandates, they soon reflected the group’s growing preoccupation with local Republican politics.

As early as the summer of 2021, however, members were being encouraged to involve themselves in local politics.

In a 11 July weekly meeting which included Soper, PRO5 member and current Deschutes PCP candidate Mark Knowles mentioned that there had been “a lot of interest in precinct committee seats in Deschutes county, and told listeners that with a one page application – you could be appointed and have a real say in Deschutes Republican politics”.

Increasingly, speakers at the weekly radio meetings issued reminders of upcoming Republican meetings and social events, including a 22 September 2023 Deschutes Republican Party golf tournament, and a 24 March Deschutes county Republicans dinner at the Bend Elks Club.

After PRO5’s successes in Deschutes county in 2022, their radio meetings become more and more intertwined with local Republican party business. On 12 March 2023, Brian Gatley of Redmond told the Redmond “Little Group of Patriots” radio meeting that “I was down in Bend all afternoon for the [Deschutes Republican Party] meeting,”.

PRO5 member Scott Stuart was elected chair of the Deschutes Republicans after their success in fielding PCP candidates in 2022.

Later in the same meeting, another member, Redmond’s LoriLark McBride, suggested a high level of internal organization in PRO5 directed at the capture of the local Republican apparatus.

“John [McBride] and I attended the PCP training and it was great.”

Both McBrides later stood for election in Deschutes county precinct 17.