Jeff Britt, one of Rhode Island's best-known Republican operatives, is pointing to what he calls anti-Muslim statements by Donald Trump and other politicians as the explanation for why on Thursday he formally left the GOP.
Britt said he has been a registered Republican since around the time when he was in college in the late 1980s. He disaffiliated from the party Thursday morning at Warwick City Hall.
"I think there are probably a lot of people in my situation that are just a little uncomfortable, or a lot uncomfortable, with the tenor of this [presidential] race," Britt told RIPR. "And if you're uncomfortable, you're part of the problem if you don't do something about it. So in my small way, I'm going to do something about it by removing myself from the affiliation."
In particular, Britt said he has been offended by "the idea that we're not going to allow, or we're going to have a discussion about, not allowing people into the country based on some religious litmus test. That's not the Republican Party that I'm part of."
Trump made headlines in December by calling for a temporary ban on allowing Muslims into the US. Trump's first campaign commercial renews that call.
Britt said Trump is the primary reason for his decision to leave the Republican Party, although he added, "It's the whole tenor of the [presidential] campaign. If Trump were the only person engaging in this kind of tenor and the others were calling him out aggressively on it, I probably wouldn't have done what I did. But there was a local person, a local senator who participated in this kind of, you know, craziness. And I just don't want to be associated with that."
Britt was referring to state Senator Elaine Morgan (R-Hopkinton), who attracted national attention when she sent an email in November condemning Muslims. The email came as Morgan and some other Republicans were opposing plans to admit Syrian refugees to the US. After the initial controversy, Morgan defended her concerns about the refugees and said she meant to criticize only fanatical and extremist Muslim groups.
Britt, who has worked for both Democrats and Republicans, is considered a storied operative in Rhode Island politics.
In 2002, he helped his stepfather, independent Bruce Bayuk, run for state representative against John Harwood (Bayuk came up short; Harwood, who had a long run as speaker, lost his rep seat in Pawtucket J. Patrick O'Neill defeated him in 2004). Britt went on to serve as GOP governor Don Carcieri's liaison to a faction of dissident legislative Democrats. He also worked on Democrat Frank Caprio's 2006 campaign for treasurer and managed independent Mark Binder's challenge to Gordon Fox in 2012, and Ken Block's 2014 Republican gubernatorial campaign.
Britt divides his time between Rhode Island and Florida. He said he has not committed to work for any local campaigns in 2016, although he expects to be involved, and said his departure from the GOP is unrelated to any political work that he might pursue.
He is not ruling out voting for a GOP presidential candidate, adding, "If I could pick, it would be Chris Christie."
Britt said he plans to remain an independent voter and "think long and hard before I re-affiliate to another party." He said he's not aware of other local Republicans who have left the GOP for similar reasons.
State Republican Chairman Brandon Bell said of Britt's decision to exit the Republican Party, "I think it's a real shame."
Bell, who remains neutral in the presidential race, said Trump has raised some fresh interest in the RI GOP.
Trump also figures in what could be one of Rhode Island's most-watched legislative races in 2016. Longtime state Rep. Joseph Trillo (R-Warwick) is the honorary chairman of Trump's local campaign and has enthusiastically backed Trump. Trillo faces a challenge, first reported by RIPR, by Democrat Evan Shanley.
This post has been updated.