EATONVILLE, Wash. - On the morning she met her opponent for coffee, Sarah Cole walked in with a front-runner’s confidence.
To Cole, the school board seat in this rural red district about an hour outside of Seattle was all but hers. Educators and community leaders had endorsed her. She had name recognition from years in the Parent Teacher Association. And, besides, she was running against Ashley Sova, a home-schooling, anti-masking member of the far-right Three Percent movement.
“I kind of thought I had it in the bag,” Cole recalled.
Their coffee date that October day, as recounted by both women, was an exercise in gritted-teeth civility. Cole asked about the Three Percent logo tattooed on Sova’s neck in red, white and blue bullets. Sova tried to corner Cole on critical race theory. At the end, they took a photo and promised to work together no matter who was elected, each privately expecting Cole to win.
In December, however, it was Sova who was sworn in, the second Three Percenter on the five-person Eatonville School Board. Three Percenter ideology, part of the self-styled militia movement, promotes conspiratorial views about government overreach and imagines “patriotic” Americans revolting against perceived violations of the Constitution.
Presented as “defending liberty,” extremism analysts say, those far-right views are spreading in conservative places like Eatonville, where the school board race spiraled into a fight over mask mandates and how race is taught in school. Cole lost by more than 200 votes.
“The race was basically sabotaged by the national narrative,” Cole said. She sounded incredulous that parents felt best represented by a Three Percenter whose kids aren’t even in public school: “I don’t even know how to explain it except to say, in the face of the facts, they still chose to run with fears.”
What happened in Eatonville, according to extremism trackers, is bigger than a small-town upset. In recent years, far-right groups have been moving away from national organizing to focus on building grass-roots support, harnessing conservative outrage to influence school boards and other local offices. That effort was stepped up after the Jan. 6 attack on the U.S. Capitol left much of the militant right under federal scrutiny and in operational disarray.
Eatonville is among several rural, conservative parts of the West where members of self-styled militias are making inroads through what researchers call a mix of opportunism and intimidation. Once-fringe views about government “tyranny” now match the mainstream conservative discourse on vaccine and mask mandates, softening the public image of movements linked to political violence.
“If you’re going to make a change, you don’t do it by storming the Capitol. You make change by using the process that you’ve been given and starting at the bottom,” said Matt Marshall, founder of the Washington Three Percent and a member of the Eatonville School Board.
Two years ago, watchdog groups warned that Marshall’s election represented the dangerous creep of anti-government extremism. Today, the Washington Three Percent claims members in dozens of official posts throughout the state, including a mayor, a county commissioner and at least five school board seats. Sova, an officer with the group, was among four women members who ran in local races this cycle. Three won.
Most Washington Three Percenters in public roles keep the affiliation quiet for fear of backlash from anti-fascist activists or employers. Not Sova. She openly embraces the ideology, which comes from the debunked notion that only 3% of colonists rose up in the American Revolution. Her membership is evident in the ink on her neck and in photos online where she makes the movement’s three-finger hand gesture.
When asked about Sova’s Three Percent ties, a spokesperson for Eatonville schools said the district doesn’t comment on the “personal lives” of board members.
Sova said her involvement is about survivalist “prepping,” not overthrowing the government.
“I’m not what people assume that I am,” Sova said. “I love the fact that I’m different, and maybe that makes me scary to some, but I don’t know, I’m not this gun-toting, right-wing extremist that they all think I am.”
Sova was reminded that she was, quite literally, toting a gun at that moment, with a pistol strapped to her hip. She laughed.
“But I’m not waving it around, you know what I mean,” she said. “This is a tool. It is to be an equalizer in any bad situation. I’m not here to intimidate people.”
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‘Democracy is on fire’
Sova isn’t wrong when she argues that her “extreme” views are simply representative of local politics, and that’s the concern, according to researchers who track the mainstreaming of far-right ideologies. Conservatives have moved so far right, researchers say, that there’s now little daylight between Sova’s positions and those of most elected Republican leaders or pundits on Fox News shows.
Kate Bitz of the Western States Center, a regional anti-extremism watchdog, said the school board push is an extension of an “inside/outside” tactic of armed groups fielding candidates for legitimate posts while simultaneously agitating for political violence. The attention from the Capitol riot forced groups to shelve national work and launder their image at the grass-roots level, she said.
“They are hoping that they can advance the inside part of the inside/outside game without having to take on the cost of the intimidation, the harassment, the undermining of democracy that they are also engaging in,” Bitz said.
The extremist push into local institutions hasn’t gone unchallenged, but opposition is risky. David Neiwert, a veteran documentarian of the militant right, detailed several recent incidents where “patriot” groups, Proud Boys and white supremacists reportedly used force or intimidation at public events.
In Post Falls, Idaho, self-styled militia members showed up to the city library to “harass students who turned out for an LGBTQ-friendly program,” the report said. In Washougal, Wash., a self-proclaimed Proud Boy showed up to a school board meeting to harangue members and residents about their “cowardice” on mask mandates and critical race theory. He drew applause and cheers.
Rural activists who stand up to far-right forces often do so alone.
“Daily life has become filled with foreboding, intimidation, threats, and ugliness,” Neiwert wrote in the liberal Daily Kos.
That climate is why one liberal Eatonville couple - supporters of school board candidate Cole - requested anonymity to freely describe changes in their community that make them uneasy. They worried that their decision not to use their names might be judged by outsiders who don’t understand the subtle pressures of living among members of a far-right group.
“Someone looking at it would think, ‘Idiots, stand up for something. For Chrissake, democracy is on fire, kick some ass,’” the husband said. “But it’s those little social, nuanced things where you see Matt Marshall with a crown of bullets, in his boogaloo boys shirt, stomping around Olympia. And it does make you stop and think.”
During the Trump era, the couple said, they observed local views drifting further to the right, taking on militant overtones. The woods around their house now crackle with gunfire, sometimes thousands of rounds on the weekends, seemingly more than just casual target practice. They noticed when a neighbor put up a Trump sign the day after the Jan. 6 attack. Another neighbor spotted their Biden sign and asked when they’d become “leftists.”
The couple consider themselves “run-of-the-mill” Democrats, the husband said, but suddenly they’d been cast as a radical enemy.
“We are the minority. We clearly understand that we’re the minority,” he said. “But there was a space.”
Now, they said, that space is shrinking. One fall evening before the 2020 election, a car rolled by as they were sitting on their front porch. The driver saw their Biden sign, backed up and rolled down the window to yell, “Get the f--- out of here!”
“I was like, are you kidding me? At my home?” the husband said. “I brought the .38 and sat it out there and then I thought, ‘No, don’t do that.’”
“We felt so threatened because we’ve lived here for so long,” the wife said, tearing up. “We built our own house our own selves here. We raised our kids here.”
Infuriated, the wife plunged back into her research, using Google and social media to explore the local reach of far-right activity. She mapped out connections and learned how extremists organized by latching onto Stop the Steal and anti-mask events. She started to understand “just how many Three Percenters we have around us.”
When Sova ran for school board, the couple said, they saw a way to quietly push back. They donated to their friend Cole’s campaign and helped to boost her on social media.
Drawing from her research, the wife put together a 24-page dossier, compiled from public information, that documents Sova’s ties to the Washington Three Percent and how she was supported by influential right-wing figures and a sympathetic PAC. It’s a forensic, time-stamped look at how one local race was influenced by a simultaneous right-wing showdown with state leaders over vaccine mandates.
Before sharing it with The Washington Post, the couple hadn’t released the information. They said they worried about retaliation if it were traced to them. Plus, it dawned on them that it might backfire if voters knew more about Sova’s Three Percenter bona fides.
“We think it would’ve helped her,” the wife said with a sigh. “That’s what the concern was.”
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An accidental politician
Two hours before she was to be sworn in at her first school board meeting, Sova was in mud-spattered boots feeding farm animals on her family’s 12-acre compound, which is nestled in the woods behind a tall metal gate with signs warning that trespassers would be shot.
Sova said she would change her shoes and try not to cuss, but that otherwise, she intended to be 100% herself on the board.
“I’m a conservative. I’m a Republican. I’m not anti-government, but I believe the government needs to work for the people,” Sova said. “That, I think, has gone away.”
Sova is an accidental politician, recruited as a last-minute replacement when another candidate, a local right-wing activist, realized that his address was just outside the district. She said she never previously sought any public role - “Oh sweet baby Jesus, no!” - and didn’t think she had much of a chance at winning.
Sova saw running mainly as a way to register conservative discontent on the issues of the moment: mask mandates, diversity and inclusion efforts, sex education lessons. Before filing, Sova said, she had family check-ins with her husband, a Slovakian immigrant whose family’s escape from communist rule influenced her politics, and their three children, ages 16, 15 and 10. The kids have been home-schooled since 2014.
“It was a big decision for us,” Sova said of entering the race. “I knew right now, in this era, that I was going to get a lot of crap.”
And she did, mostly related to her Three Percenter activity, which Sova brushes off as being “in the country doing country things.” She said she doesn’t take part in protests at the state capitol. She joined because she shares the group’s “constitutionalist” stances and wanted to learn survival skills like canning and butchering.
“We have bonfires over here where the music is loud and the neighbors don’t care. Where we’ve got a big fire going, kids jumping on the trampoline and everybody’s running around and having fun,” Sova said. “That, to us, is Three Percent.”
Sova’s critics reject that idealized image, especially after seeing Three Percenter flags among the rioters at the U.S. Capitol.
Parents opposing Sova dug up photos of her two sons making the Three Percent hand sign. During the campaign, Sova peeled off the Three Percenter decals on her car, not to appease anyone, she said, but because she was tired of detractors taking pictures when she parked in town.
Sova said she also installed extra security measures to stop people from breaching her property to snap photos of a black U.S. flag that she said symbolized “America in distress.” Researchers say it’s a popular right-wing signifier of a readiness to revolt.
“Believe me, I heard it this whole campaign,” Sova said of the “extremist” label attached to her. “I got called a white supremacist, a racist, a bigot.”
Things had taken a more sinister turn in recent weeks, Sova said, with a series of incidents that she suspects were politically motivated but can’t say for sure. There were bullet holes shot through her campaign signs and inspectors showing up to look into claims of animal abuse or reports that the family was running an illegal scrap yard.
And, most disturbingly, there was security camera footage showing how someone cut through the fence on one of their properties and lured away their 5-month-old German shepherd.
“We’re probably never going to get him back,” Sova said.
Sova said she expected hostility because of her politics - after all, Democrats in her own family stopped inviting her to Thanksgiving years ago - but she never imagined this level of ugliness over a school board race.
After the rancor of the campaign, Sova admitted, she was a little nervous about her first meeting. She glanced at the time and took a deep breath. Sova said she planned to stand by her own beliefs but also would look for common ground with her critics.
For starters, she agreed to wear a mask at meetings in accordance with board policy, a concession that could be seen as either shrewd or sincere.
“How do you make a change if you try to go against literally everything about the system? You can’t,” Sova said. “The best way to make a change is you go in there and listen. And I have to vote the way my heart tells me.”