Like a lot of longtime Republicans, Heather Fearnside watched the results of this month's Indiana primary with a growing pit in her stomach. Sitting in her North Carolina home, the 42-year-old watched as Donald Trump steamrolled to victory in the state. The polls had barely closed before Texas Senator Ted Cruz was suspending his White House campaign, confirming that Trump, the brash real estate mogul who is equal parts reviled and beloved by opposing factions of the GOP base, had effectively won the party's presidential nomination.
"Right after Indiana, I got a sick feeling in the pit of my stomach, my heart was racing, and I couldn't believe this was actually happening," Fearnside said in an interview with VICE. "My wallet was right next to me, and I'd had a couple glasses of wine ..." Before she knew it, her voter registration card was out, along with a lighter, and Fearnside had burned away her 13-year relationship with the Grand Old Party.
"I wanted [Republican National Committee Chairman] Reince Priebus to see it. I wanted [RNC communications director] Sean Spicer to see it," Fearnside said. "I registered as a Republican in 2003, and I've always voted Republican since then. It's a punch to the gut.
"I can't be a Republican," she continued. "It's embarrassing. My mother-in-law is a North Carolina Democrat, and she makes fun of me." Fearnside added that her own mother, a lifelong Republican, changed her voter registration to the Libertarian Party soon after Cruz dropped out of the race.
Fearnside wasn't alone. As Trump continues his inexorable march to his coronation at the Republican National Convention this summer, a flood of conservatives have come out to say that they will never support the nominee. They've registered their discontent in tweets, blog posts, talk-radio call-in shows—and in some of the more melodramatic instances, by burning their voter cards, making a symbolic break from a political party they say they no longer recognize.
"The Indiana win was what set it off," Lachlan Markay, a reporter with the conservative-leaning Washington Free Beacon, said of his decision to torch his voter card. "I was out of town at the time and happened to have my voter card in my wallet from the DC primary. I'd had a few beers, and it seemed like a good idea at the time." (Disclosure: I used to work with Markay at the Free Beacon.)
Nearly two weeks after Trump's Indiana win, the initial shock of his inevitable nomination has mostly worn off. The loose coalition of conservatives that make up the #NeverTrump movement now finds itself politically homeless, forced to decide if and how to cast their ballots in an election cycle that has given them very options. In interviews with several #NeverTrump conservatives, VICE found a deep ambivalence toward the 2016 presidential race.
Having vowed never to vote for the Republican nominee, these adrift voters now find themselves mining the hinterlands of third-party politics in search of an acceptable conservative alternative. Perhaps predictably, the Libertarian Party has seen a rise in interest in the wake of Trump's primary victories.
"We're seeing a steady increase in dues-paying members, with a spike right after Cruz and [Ohio Governor John] Kasich dropped out," Libertarian Party spokesperson Carla Howellsaid in a statement to VICE. "The party and our candidates are getting more media coverage than we've ever seen. We're also getting lots of phone and email inquiries beyond the usual rate."
Matt DeLuca, a DC-based media consultant, told VICE that he's planning to torch his Virginia voter card, along with a Donald Trump squeak toy that the Republican strategist's dog has thoroughly chewed up. As of now, DeLuca said, he plans on voting for a third party presidential candidate, likely whoever wins the nomination for the Libertarian Party.
"I'd never vote for a Democrat—or someone who's a Democrat on the Republican ticket," he told VICE, in a not-so-subtle jab toward Trump's relatively recent conversion to the GOP.
"With Trump, it wasn't like there was a last straw," said Jon Gabriel, editor in chief of the conservative news forum Ricochet, who last week penned a column titled Farewell, GOP. "It was every straw." Gabriel added that he too will "probably" vote for the Libertarian Party candidate.
If the comments under his "Farewell, GOP" post are any indication, many of the site's members are following Gabriel away from the Republican Party. "The night after Indiana I registered as a Libertarian in California," reads one comment. "I'll cast my last vote as a Republican on June 7, then I'm out," declares another.
"I respect the argument that we should fight from within the party to bring it back," the commenter continues, "but I think the party is too far gone, and fighting from within just sends the message that we're not serious and can be kept in line."
The Libertarian Party's laissez-faire economic and social platforms make it perhaps the most obvious choice for conservatives, especially younger conservatives turned off by Trump's populist rhetoric, said Stephen Miller, a National Review contributor who runs the conservative website The Wilderness.
"Younger conservatives I can see tilting toward the [Libertarian Party] because younger conservatives are more socially liberal anyway," Miller said. "They're not ideologically opposed to positions of legalization of drugs and gay marriage, for instance, and may find being unshackled to the cultural illiterates and Fox News relics in the GOP like Mike Huckabee and Newt Gingrich, who have tied themselves to a sixty-nine-year-old Trump, to be quite liberating."
This is all good news for Gary Johnson, the perennial Libertarian Party candidate and the party's likely presidential nominee this year. A former Republican governor of New Mexico, Johnson ran for president as the Libertarian candidate in 2012 after failing to gain traction in the GOP primary race, and earned 1.2 million votes, a party record. Johnson has spent the past couple of years in the private sector running a Nevada-based medical marijuana company, but left that gig in January to get back into politics. In a crowded field—there are 18 presidential candidates running in the Libertarian race—Johnson's primary opponent is probably John McAfee, the anti-virus software pioneer who is back from his self-imposed exile in Belize, and apparently wants to run for president.
But the one word that always seems to come up when talking to potential Republican defectors to the Libertarian Party is "probably." Conservative voters seem deeply ambivalent—and depressed, frankly—about their choices. "I don't know anyone in my circles who'd vote for Clinton," DeLuca said. "It's probably sixty/forty split between Gary Johnson or no vote at all."
Some conservatives aren't quite as sour on Clinton as others, though. A cadre of notable Beltway neoconservatives and foreign policy hawks have announced they will vote for Clinton over Trump, presumably on the strength of her interventionist street cred. As hard as it is to believe that members of the vast right-wing conspiracy would cast ballots for Clinton, a Morning Consult poll released on May 3 found that 13 percent of Cruz supporters would vote for Clinton, compared to 62 percent who were moving their support to Trump.
"Older anti-Trump conservatives will have a hard time with Hillary's twenty-five-year history of being in the political eye, but they may ultimately just say to themselves that, as corrupt as she may be, at least she's predictably corrupt," Miller noted.
It's a point that even staunch Hillary haters concede: "The only thing about Hillary that's better than Trump is you know what she's going to do," Fearnside said. "Just like I would trust her with nuclear weapons over him."
Still, a groundswell shift of rank-and-file Republicans to Team Hillary seems about as likely as Johnson being sworn into the White House and announcing unilateral nuclear disarmament on January 20, 2017.
Given the choices, many of those conservatives say they may just stay home. Fearnside, for example, said she's not sure if she'll vote Libertarian, but added, "I know one hundred percent I won't vote for Hillary or Trump. Maybe I'll vote for Reagan." Because, as any conservative knows, you can never go wrong with a vote for Reagan.
Follow CJ Ciaramella on Twitter.