Paul Ryan, a Republican leader Millennials could love?

As speaker, Paul Ryan represents a changing of the guard and a chance for the GOP to tweak its image. But the underlying challenges haven't changed.

Gary Cameron/Reuters
Newly elected House Speaker Paul Ryan wields the speaker's gavel for the first time on Capitol Hill in Washington, Oct. 29, 2015.

In the prairie town of Abilene, Kan. – boyhood home of GOP President Dwight Eisenhower – two young men are very concerned about the future of the Republican Party.

So they recently helped organize and moderate a panel discussion on how to grow the Grand Old Party. The event drew a pretty strong turnout for a Monday evening, but hardly any young people showed up. Mostly, it was retirees.

Now along comes Republican Paul Ryan, elected on Thursday as speaker of the House. At 45, he’s the youngest speaker since 1869, a generational changing of the guard. And that lifts the spirits of both Travis Sawyer, who like Speaker Ryan belongs to Generation X, and his friend Kenny Roelofsen, a Millennial.

“I’m excited,” says Mr. Sawyer, a financial adviser in Abilene. He remembers Ryan as Mitt Romney’s running mate in 2012, and he hopes that the new speaker, known for his conservative budget proposals, can “get down to the dollars and cents” of fixing America’s debt problem.

He also likes Ryan’s ability to “work past differences and find areas of common ground.”

Ditto on all that for Mr. Roelofsen, who is part owner of a family tractor-parts business. “Plus,” he adds, “Ryan’s younger, and I like to see that, too.”

Ryan may not be running for president (yet). But his energy and charisma, as well as his “opportunity for all” message, could help his party as it tries to entice more young voters, observers say. The high visibility of his office will help him project that.

“It’s possible that Ryan could present an attractive new face for the Republican Party,” says Matthew Green, a political scientist at Catholic University in Washington. “The last time we had a speaker this young, it was a very different time with no television, no Internet,” says Professor Green, author of the book “The Speaker of the House: A Study of Leadership.”

Ryan’s youth, after all, is one reason he was chosen to be a vice-presidential candidate in 2012. One way Ryan can help attract Millennials is to unite the fractious Republican conference, says Douglas Heye, a former House GOP leadership aide.

“Millennial voters are as tired as anyone, if not more so, by the constant bickering in Washington, and Paul Ryan is someone who wants to really break that,” Mr. Heye says.

As it stands, political divisiveness within the GOP and between the parties will work against him, Green says.

Republicans have a steep climb in attracting more young voters. When Barack Obama first ran for president, 66 percent of 18-to-29 year-olds voted for him, according to exit polls. Republicans fared better the next time, but barely. In 2012, 60 percent of young voters backed President Obama.

When Ryan was running alongside Mr. Romney, the campaign played up his youthful interests, like the rap-metal band Rage Against the Machine. Ryan may be worth millions now, but when he was a low-paid legislative staffer, he moonlighted on Capitol Hill as a waiter and fitness trainer. He does yoga, too.

Because Ryan wants to spend weekends at home with his wife and three children in Janesville, Wis., the new speaker says he won’t be repeating the heavy fundraising schedule of his predecessor, John Boehner. Young fathers like Sawyer in Abilene, who has two sons, find his example of work-life balance appealing.

But as Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders has shown, age is not the determinant in attracting young people. It’s the message – and his authenticity – that attract.

A 2014 study by the Pew Research Center shows that Millennials vote heavily for Democrats and support liberal views on many issues, from same-sex marriage and marijuana legalization to support for activist government.

Ryan, on the other hand, is a conservative’s conservative, advocating smaller government, steep budget cuts, and paying down the debt. He and Romney touted a plan to turn the costly Medicare system into a voucher plan for future seniors – though traditional Medicare would still be available. Democrats attacked it and voters rejected it.

But included in that orthodoxy is a kind of inclusiveness that will attract young people to the GOP, says Arthur Brooks, president of the American Enterprise Institute, a right-leaning think tank in Washington.

A special focus for Ryan is poverty. His mentor was the late Republican Jack Kemp, a congressman and vice-presidential candidate, who championed “enterprise zones” offering tax breaks to foster businesses in poor neighborhoods. Ryan spent much of 2014 visiting urban neighborhoods, and welfare reform is one of his priorities.

“We are going to do all we can so working people get their strength back and people not working get their lives back. No more favors for the few. Opportunity for all – that is our motto,” Ryan said in his acceptance speech Thursday.

“Paul Ryan believes very strongly in a new kind of message, a new opportunity society,” Mr. Brooks says. Democrats such as Senator Sanders can offer “halfway” solutions, he says, but Republicans such as Ryan want to tap aspirations.

“It’s not a generational thing. It’s a new way of thinking about old issues,” Brooks continues. Ryan, he says, is helping conservatives remember why they are conservatives.

“It’s not because we care about tax breaks for billionaires, for Pete’s sake. That’s so boring. We got into this because our country is hurting people we’re supposed to help.”

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