Throughout Northern California, a swath of conservative, sparsely populated counties have headed in a dramatically different direction politically in recent years to the rest of the state. Nowhere is this more clear than in Shasta County, home to 179,000 residents and a mecca to mountaineers and hikers from around the world. In November 2020, while two-thirds of California voters chose Biden over Trump, in Shasta those numbers were reversed. Nearly 63 percent of local voters supported the coup-plotting MAGA man.

Shasta, along with roughly a dozen other northern and eastern counties in the state, has a dismal Covid-vaccination rate—just over 50 percent have received one dose of the vaccine, but significantly under half the population has received two or more doses—and a political environment increasingly fractured around the issue of mask mandates, public health restrictions, and vaccine requirements. The low vaccination rates have, especially during the Omicron surge, translated to high rates of infection, hospitalization, and death. At the same time, conservative residents have grown increasingly hostile to any and all public health measures intended to rein in the pandemic.

Last year, a recall effort was launched against three members of the county’s board of supervisors, whom activists deemed weren’t conservative enough, especially when it came to pandemic policies. One of the three campaigns, against supervisor Leonard Moty, got enough signatures to qualify for the ballot—Moty says that his well-financed opponents targeted him, in particular, on the assumption that once he fell, the county government would immediately tilt toward the alt-right. The recall election was set for this past Tuesday, February 1.

Moty is a Republican, and the former police chief in the town of Redding; but, despite these credentials, he and two of his colleagues, Joe Chimenti and Mary Rickert, were targeted for recall by conservatives after they voted to censure the other two county supervisors, Les Baugh and Patrick Jones, for letting the public into the board’s chambers on January 5 of 2021 in the face of a countywide order banning in-person meetings. The three were also criticized by conservative opponents for not withdrawing the county from Governor Newsom’s color-tiered system, in place for more than a year, that set different levels of restrictions on businesses and on public gatherings depending on what the infection levels and test-positivity rates were in each county.

While not all of the votes have been tallied yet, early returns from Tuesday’s election strongly indicate that Moty will lose the recall. As of Wednesday evening, the no-on-recall side was trailing the yes-on-recallers by more than 5 percent, and the conservative activists were preparing to evict Moty, whom they deride as a RINO (Republican In Name Only), from his county office.

With many thousands of mail-in votes still to be counted, it is, of course, still mathematically possible for Moty to emerge triumphant, but local media and Moty himself expect the recall to prevail. If the supervisor loses, the front-runner to replace him is a conservative anti-crime activist named Dale Ball who, ironically, has a slew of problems with the law in his own past. At least one local media outlet reported that in the 1990s, Ball picked up several DUIs and a couple other criminal charges. The Record Searchlight, a newspaper with a circulation of 30,000 based in the region’s largest town, Redding, also reports that he was arrested in 2006 on child endangerment charges after apparently beating his girlfriend’s 13-year-old son with a flashlight. Ball claimed that he hit the boy in self-defense, and he pleaded no contest to a misdemeanor charge in the case. He also argues that his long track record of volunteerism, including organizing efforts to clean up homeless encampments, ought to carry far more weight than a sixteen-year-old misdemeanor charge. (Moty counters that, yes, Ball did clean up the encampments, but he says that Ball also ran with a vigilante group that called itself the Redding Area Transient Patrol, more colloquially known as the Rat Patrol, because, says Moty, “They consider homeless people to be rats, and they were going to clean up the rats.”)

Whether or not Ball’s volunteerism was colored by a vicious animus against the homeless, as homeless advocates allege, and whether or not Ball’s somewhat dubious past should count against him a generation later, there remains the broader question of political affiliations. Both The Sacramento Bee and KQED, the local public radio station, report that if the recall effort succeeds, a majority of the county board of supervisors will be aligned with militias and with the Proud Boys. If that is indeed the case, Shasta will be the first county in California to elect a far-right majority to its board of supervisors. Its members will include those who want to turn the county into a “Second Amendment sanctuary county,” and who want to bypass all public health mandates around Covid.

Inevitably, this will put the rural county on course for a head-on collision with the state government. It will also likely trigger similar political upheavals over the coming election cycle in a number of other counties, school board districts, and town governments in the rural far north of the state.

“They’re extremists, ‘my way or the highway,’ and they’ll stop at nothing to get there,” Moty told me earlier this week. “They think federal and state government is the enemy, that counties should not accept federal and state money. But 85 percent of our budget comes from state and federal money. If we don’t accept that money, it’ll be very hard to operate. You’d have to cease HHS services, homeless services, assistance for the mentally ill.”

The alt-right’s ascendancy in Shasta gives a window on what could be a fractious political future for California’s rural north. Collectively, the dozen or so rugged, mountainous counties of the north, all conservative, all with vaccination rates of under 50 percent, have a population of fewer than 2 million, or about 5 percent of the state’s population; but geographically they represent a large proportion of the state’s landmass. Over the past few years, these counties, so different from California’s urban south, have formed the heart of a growing movement to secede from California and to form a separate state—perhaps along with some of the more conservative rural counties in Oregon—named Jefferson.

In 2014, voters in Tehama County voted, in a nonbinding election, to secede from California. Two other counties opted not to secede. That same year, however, several other county boards of supervisors also voted to explore the concept of secession, with three of them voting to secede from the state. More recently, pro-Jefferson secessionists have detailed ambitious maps showing that the new state would include 23 of California’s 58 counties, taking with it roughly 2.5 million of the state’s nearly 40 million residents. As with Shasta, these counties are overwhelmingly rural and conservative, and, in the Covid era, they tend to be under-vaccinated and hostile to statewide mandates, though not all of them to quite the same extent as is Shasta. In last year’s recall election against Governor Newsom, all but one of the counties east and north of Sacramento voted in favor of recalling the Democrat.

Shasta’s recall vote this week doesn’t bring the fever dream of Jefferson any closer to being implemented, but it does send a warning shot across Sacramento’s bows. There are powerful conservative and radical-right currents swirling below the surface, even in deep-blue states like California, and the pandemic is continuing to provide combustible fuel for this political conflagration.

“This is going to be the model they are going to use to try to take over a lot of other rural counties,” says Moty, as he contemplates the new political realities of his county. “If they can do this to me, with my history and reputation in the county, they can do it to anyone. And then it will be school boards and city councils next.”