Young Republicans seek a new kind of party

Reflecting an Obama age, they want more diversity and pragmatism, less partisanship.

Mary Knox Merrill/Staff
Philip Henderson, a law student at The University of Georgia in Athens, is one of a growing number of idealistic young Republicans joining the conversation as the political party struggles to redefine itself after the 2008 elections.

Working out of the trunk of his car, recent law school grad Chris Dziedzic is criss-crossing New York State, talking about what he calls “true conservatism.” Party elders are all ears.

In San Francisco, Jenniffer Rodriguez – young, Hispanic, and a lapsed Democrat – is creating the country’s first Republican election central. It’s a blogging, broadcast, and policy center smack in the middle of what she calls the “bluest of blue cities.”

At the University of Georgia here in Athens, Steven Lee, the son of Korean immigrants, spends his days at the Student Learning Center blogging at about how the GOP can take advantage of an electorate clamoring for realpolitik instead of partisanship.

More inspired than dejected about the meteoric rise of Barack Obama to the presidency, young Republicans, often working from state capitals in the Democratic heartland, are mounting an ideological and technological insurgency to change the course of the GOP.

Their goal is to use lessons from the historic 2008 drubbing to tie political pragmatism, diversity, and idealism to traditional conservative values like small government and low taxes. Their aim is to broaden the Republican base and ensure its relevancy as a national party. Winning that internal debate over the party’s future, though, won’t be easy.

“I think young people could play a very central role in creating a more moderate and more pragmatic Republican notion of conservatism that is about change, but about change that is more consistent with traditional Republican principles,” says Professor Michael Delli Carpini, an expert on generational differences in politics at the University of Pennsylvania. “The Republican party has to figure out what it’s going to be, and you can see that battle taking place right now ... and young people can be very influential in [that debate].”

With only about a third of the under-30 crowd voting Republican in the Nov. 4 election, and Democrats opening up a 19 point lead in party affiliation among 18 to 29-year-olds, the GOP has rapidly – and, some in the party fear, irreversibly – lost ground among younger voters.
Mr. Obama’s unique political personality played a huge role in that transformation.

But key among many of its perceived faults, the Bush administration’s policies presented especially younger conservatives with the contradictions of a party that “ran against tax-and-spend Democrats and became cut-tax-and-still-spend Republicans,” says Wil Westholm, a 30-something Republican in Tucson, Ariz. It didn’t help that 25 percent of young people reported being contacted by the Obama campaign while only 13 percent said the McCain campaign courted them, according to the Pew Research Center.

GOP needs to attract younger voters

“Young people are the new trees in the deforested Republican party, and they have to plant new trees and water them and get them going, and I don’t think they’re doing a very good job with it,” says Steffen Schmidt, a political science professor at Iowa State University in Ames.

Still, the ups and downs of the Republican party in the late 20th century have been largely the result of actions by young ideologues. Conservative surges including the Goldwater era, the Nixon landslide, the Reagan Revolution, and Newt Gingrich’s “Contract with America” were fueled primarily by those under 40.

In fact, it wasn’t until the Clinton era that younger voters began trending more liberal than the overall population – a movement perhaps capped by Obama, who won 66 percent of the youth vote. In 1984, Ronald Reagan got 56 percent of the youth vote.

“We’ve now seen that the youth vote can turn out and will turn out if appropriately courted,” says Mr. Dziedzic, the recent law school graduate in Binghampton, NY.

But for Republicans, the solution may not just be in numbers. Perhaps the biggest challenge is how to incorporate, at the national level, an increasingly white, racially polarized, and Southern Republican base with the ambivalence about race and gender politics exhibited by the Gen-X, Gen-Y and Millennial age groups.

“This has to be real, and real means both that you look past ethnicity and race, but also that you understand ethnicity and race, and you understand that there are still issues that affect different groups differently,” says Mr. Delli Carpini.

A delegate to the Republican Convention, Ms. Rodriguez says the party’s “token nods” to diversity fell flat. Many immigrants “have conservative values, but they once again associate the Republican party with poor immigration strategies or the rich old white guy sitting up in his big corner office in D.C. What could he possibly know?” she says.

That’s in part why young Republicans like Philip Henderson, the son of a pentecostal preacher in Georgia, is talking about improving public schools instead of just focusing on charter schools and vouchers. Mr. Lee, for one, says Barack Obama exemplified a hunger for a new, less divisive politics that Republicans, too, can tap into. “I don’t equate idealism with any particular party,” he says.

Mr. Westholm says the Republican party dropped the ball on the environment, a key concern to younger voters. He points to the Paris Hilton flap during the election when he says many found the hotel heiress making more sense on how to save the environment than John McCain, who had tried to tie Ms. Hilton’s celebrity status to Obama.

And while Democrats abandoned the “Rock the Vote” model of reaching younger voters in favor of social networking and blogs, the Republican post-2002 “talking points” strategy seemed woefully out of date with generations who want to be engaged in dialogue, not be told what to say, says Westholm.

“We as young Republicans are now taking the lead on branding,” argues Dziedzic. “It can’t be astroturf. It has to be true grassroots.”
And it may be working. Pointing to Republican victories in Louisiana and Georgia after the Nov. 4 vote, Republicans are now batting .1000 in the post-2008 era. Rodriguez says she’s received more e-mails about joining the party in the month after the election than the entire run-up to the general election.

Independents a key target

“It’s the people who are independent, who lean toward the Republican party, and who haven’t really liked what we’ve been doing in the last few years,” says Westholm, a Navy veteran who now works for a defense contractor.

“It’s those people we’re seeing get active, and who recognize that now is the opportunity for the party to step back, reorganize, and get cohesive again,” says Mr. Westholm.

That won’t be easy.

To gain plurality, the party has to tie together three disparate and not easily reconciled strands: The rural and evangelical South and West, exemplified by Mike Huckabee and Sarah Palin; the libertarian fringe embodied by Ron Paul; and multiracial pragmatists, such as Gov. Bobby Jindal in Louisiana.

William F. Buckley saw the movement being larger than just one person, and there’s no one speaking to this group anymore like he did or saying what he did,” says Dave Woodard, a Republican strategist at Clemson University in South Carolina. “Whoever can begin to talk to youth about conservative values would be someone worth noting.”

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