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Youth in revolt

Forget the Tea Party. Montana's GOP is struggling to appease a more vital demographic: young conservatives.

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Chris Greil, 29, brings his hand down on the table, trying to drive home a point he's been arguing for the past 15 minutes. The political tirade he's launched into is going a long way toward keeping a nearly deserted Rowdy's Cabin alive on a recent Monday night, and the nods from his audience indicate he's preaching to the choir.

"I think we should draft a letter to the editor," Greil reiterates to the four other members of the Clark Fork Young Republicans seated around him. "This issue's in the national scope right now. If we take a stand in the next week, we'll get a lot of attention. It'll force the members in the upper echelons to finally give us some credence."

Greil is outraged over the GOP's renewal of a state platform plank calling for criminalizing homosexual behavior. To him, and to the other young conservatives at the meeting, the party line in no way reflects his beliefs. If anything, it's driven him to demand that the Clark Fork Young Republicans—YRs, as they're known in casual conversation—step forward and publicly declare their condemnation of the plank.

Club Secretary and Treasurer Sandra Sullivan, 27, agrees that issuing a public statement will ultimately benefit the core 15-member group that represents the interests of Republicans between 18 and 40 years old in Missoula, Ravalli and Mineral counties. But Allie Harrison, 23, the club's vice president, is hesitant to make such a rash move. Drafting a letter to local media could drive a stake between the YRs and the senior officials with the state GOP, she says, despite how unanimous the group's opinion on this particular issue might be. With President Steve Dogiakos out of town for the week and the reputation of the year-old club potentially on the line, Greil's argument is reduced to a notation in Sullivan's notebook.

"Personally, there's an awful lot of things within the GOP platform I don't like at all," Greil says an hour later, as the meeting winds to a close. "What we talked about tonight is a shining example. But with the Democratic platform, it's the same way...The parties, I think, exist almost solely to focus on social issues, the divisions in social issues, because they're the easiest to drum up emotion and pander to a base and create a division. It's as if politics were a football game, and how unfortunate. On any football team there are good players and bad players. At the end of the day, you can have players that went to prison, but everybody still roots for the team."

Kirsten McDonnell, Jocelyn Galt, Steve Dogiakos and Sandra Sullivan, left to right, help make up the Clark Fork Young Republicans, a group started roughly a year ago as a way for conservatives between the ages of 18 and 40 to get engaged in local politics. - PHOTO BY CHAD HARDER
  • Photo by Chad Harder
  • Kirsten McDonnell, Jocelyn Galt, Steve Dogiakos and Sandra Sullivan, left to right, help make up the Clark Fork Young Republicans, a group started roughly a year ago as a way for conservatives between the ages of 18 and 40 to get engaged in local politics.

Those at Rowdy's agree that, while they may support core conservative issues like lower taxes and smaller government, their differences with some of the particulars of the GOP's state platform stem from a more liberal perspective on social matters. They view the positions of entrenched Republicans on homosexuality, medical marijuana and the death penalty as antiquated, and feel the party's future hinges on becoming more inclusive. Through their present and future involvement, the Young Republicans hope to change the GOP in Montana to reflect the values of a more modern and open-minded conservative base. But change comes slowly, and simply overcoming their reputation as election cycle workhorses, as Sullivan puts it, is an ongoing struggle that has the YRs growing weary.

"They really want us to come and work, they want us to come and help," Sullivan says. "But they don't really want to hear what we think. Will [Deschamps] is going to read that and literally kick my butt, but it's the absolute truth."

"We're like the kids that come to work with their parents," adds Sarah Borrelli, a self-proclaimed Libertarian. "We'll put out the signs, we'll do all the handouts, the pamphlets. We're just their lackeys. They don't respect us at all crabbing our own opinion."

In many ways, the frustrations of these young conservatives over their limited influence within the Republican Party mirrors that of the Tea Party movement nationwide. Disillusioned conservatives have flocked to the Tea Party over the past year, hosting anti-tax rallies, competing against mainstream Republican candidates in the primaries and trying to pull the GOP further to the right without actually crafting a cohesive political message. But unlike the decentralized, disorganized populist phenomenon that's been the focus of so much attention this election cycle, Greil and his fellow YRs have a very specific claim over the GOP that Republican Party Chairman Will Deschamps is quick to emphasize. Even Deschamps has admitted over the past year that the party needs to shake its ingrained business-as-usual approach to politics, and he says he's pushed older Republicans to embrace what the Young Republicans offer.

"People like me are going to be gone in a few years," Deschamps says. "We're not going to be as involved as we are right now, so we need somebody to step in. There's more and more enthusiasm at the college level and in that 18- to 40-year-old YR group, and it's driven by leadership. There has to be somebody who cracks the whip, says, 'Let's do this' and gets them organized. This isn't just a bunch of amoeba cells that came together and said we're going to do something great...These people are looked upon as leaders by their peers."

Local Republicans gather for a recent Friday meeting of the Five Valleys Pachyderm Club. Young Republicans feel these weekly luncheons are hardly geared toward younger members of the party, and instead meet regularly at Rowdy’s Cabin to talk politics over drinks. - PHOTO BY CHAD HARDER
  • Photo by Chad Harder
  • Local Republicans gather for a recent Friday meeting of the Five Valleys Pachyderm Club. Young Republicans feel these weekly luncheons are hardly geared toward younger members of the party, and instead meet regularly at Rowdy’s Cabin to talk politics over drinks.

And by that logic, soon these young Republicans will have to be accepted as leaders by the very folks who currently offer them little credence. If they are to influence the future of the GOP and ensure the party's continued survival, the YRs believe now is the time those in charge embraced change.

Several days before the YRs' meeting, area conservatives gathered for a small informal picnic hosted by the Missoula County Republican Central Committee in Lincoln Park. The party's older members outnumbered the young by a good two-to-one ratio, but the event lacked any undertones of frustration between the two age brackets over the need for transformation. Deschamps auctioned off a few humorous items—a stuffed star-spangled elephant, a Hillary Clinton nutcracker—and several candidates running for state and county offices spent their time chatting with their constituents and chowing down on barbecue. If anything, the longtime party members seemed to celebrate the presence of young blood at the social function.

"I can see them taking over at both a local and a national level," says David "Doc" Moore, Republican candidate for HD 91. "I think we're on the cusp of seeing a lot of change in both parties. These are hard times, but they're also exciting times because young folks are getting more involved with where we're taking the country and the state."

The youth vote has been gaining momentum in the United States in the latter years of the past decade, with an estimated 23 million voters under the age of 30 turning out for the 2008 presidential election—the highest turnout of that age group since the early 1970s. Young Democrats energized by Barack Obama's 2008 presidential campaign led the surge, accounting for roughly 66 percent of young voters that year according to national nonprofit Rock the Vote. But Rock the Vote's most recent research shows enthusiasm among liberal youth suffered a serious blow in the aftermath of the 2008 election, with 59 percent saying they've grown more cynical regarding politics in the last two years. Recent studies by the nonprofit show only 51 percent of young Democrats say they're likely to vote Nov. 2, compared to the 60 percent of young Republicans who plan to hit the polls.

"The 2010 young electorate looks to be much different than the one that turned out in 2008," states Rock the Vote's analysis of young GOP voters. "Republicans have a clear vote enthusiasm and vote interest advantage with these voters. Republican candidates would be well served to identify and target potential young voter supporters. These voters are motivated, interested, and open to the appeals the Republican candidates will be making."

With the parties vying for congressional majorities and the Tea Party's anti-incumbency sentiment adding to the likelihood of high Republican voter turnout, these young voters will doubtlessly play a major role in the outcome of the upcoming election. The University of Montana College Republicans alone have swelled from a few dozen in 2008 to more than 100 this fall.

"There's been a lot of movement independent of the mainstream Republican Party—the central committee—of young people just going out and doing," says Steve Dogiakos, president of the Clark Fork Young Republicans and 2008 candidate for HD 93. "They're not waiting for the prompt to say, 'Hey, can you do this?' It's more of, 'Hey guys, we're over here doing this. Come on.' We're leading the way."

The Young Republicans rely heavily on the informal atmosphere of their monthly Pub Politics meetings at Rowdy's to attract new members in Missoula who might not otherwise get involved in political discussions. Before William Selph founded the group in August 2009, the Republican Party in western Montana had little to offer young voters beyond regular meetings and social events hosted by the Five Valleys Pachyderm Club, the Ravalli County Republican Women and various central committees. To Dogiakos, it seems obvious that those groups—with their quiet luncheons populated mostly by conservative retirees—aren't exactly geared at inciting youthful enthusiasm and attracting newer, younger membership.

"We're drawing people out that have never been involved with politics before," Dogiakos says. "They just come to drink with us at our Pub Politics or come bowling with us at our different events or whatever. New blood is our biggest contribution."

Montana Republican Party Chairman Will Deschamps says he’s encouraged entrenched members of the state GOP to embrace the new ideas of younger members of the party. “These people are looked upon as leaders by their peers,” he says of the YRs. - PHOTO BY CHAD HARDER
  • Photo by Chad Harder
  • Montana Republican Party Chairman Will Deschamps says he’s encouraged entrenched members of the state GOP to embrace the new ideas of younger members of the party. “These people are looked upon as leaders by their peers,” he says of the YRs.

Yet bolstering the ranks of young conservatives is still a game of catch-up for the GOP. Rock the Vote's research shows that roughly 28 percent of young voters identify as Republicans, compared to 47 percent who identify as Democrats. The left historically commands a clear edge over the Republican Party when it comes to attracting youth, and young Republicans recognize the Democratic Party is not an easy force to overcome.

"Musicians, artists, actors, pop culture [are] heavily, heavily geared toward the Democrat mind," says Mike Sopuch, 32, co-owner of Universal Automotive and Republican candidate for HD 98. "Those people come out in vocal support and financial support of Democratic candidates...A lot of our opinions are formed by those media, and it's a very formidable opponent, Hollywood and everything that comes out of there."

By comparison, Sopuch sees the traditional GOP as "stale, antiseptic, devoid of enthusiasm." And for the Young Republicans, ideas on how to change that stereotype for the better have been met with reluctance or hesitancy from the party's old guard.

Dogiakos' toughest sell has been the need for increased web presence. He currently operates his own freelance web-design business in Missoula, and the Republican Party has become one of his most frequent customers. In the past year he's set up websites and online profiles for the UM College Republicans, the Montana Young Republican Professionals, Missoula's Republican Central Committee and the local Pachyderms. He's also put together campaign sites for a number of party candidates including Missoula County sheriff candidate Nick Lisi and HD 100 hopeful Champ Edmunds.

But Dogiakos says numerous party leaders have opposed his push to take the Republican Party to the Internet, or have simply refused to listen. He's tried to show them the efficiency of new media through his work as secretary of the Missoula County Republican Central Committee by storing meeting minutes online and distributing them via Facebook and Twitter. The hesitancy displayed by those holdouts is less a judgment on youth, Dogiakos says, than an ingrained skepticism of anything new.

"The reaction that they're having has nothing to do with the age," Dogiakos says. "It's just their general reaction to new people, to new ideas and new thoughts. It's resistance and it's slow—baby steps."

As a result, the question facing the Young Republicans—and even young candidates like Sopuch—is how can they work to make a real difference within an entrenched and reluctant GOP.

"The Republican Party is using a rotary telephone," Sopuch says. "They're kind of old school, and we know that. It's been hard to marry our ideas with their ideas. The people that developed the platform are the same people that have been developing the platform for the last three decades. Those are their ideas, and we agree for the most part on 90 percent of those ideas. But things need to be more socially appropriate, a little bit more modern."

Increasing the number of young conservatives in the local GOP is only the beginning of the YRs' recent contributions to the party. They've volunteered with individual campaigns and endorsed candidates for state offices. And since they possess many of the same legal abilities as the GOP's central committees—in particular the ability to help drum up candidates and to contribute financially to campaigns—they enjoy more opportunities to approach party leaders than the College Republicans.

"Right now, the Young Republicans and College Republicans are teaming up to do a phone bank, and we're getting some help from the central committee," Dogiakos says. "But that was definitely instigated from our group, and that was a big thing. There wasn't going to be any type of office or county-wide coordination for phone banking at all."

But as Sullivan and Borrelli are so quick to point out, the Young Republicans' involvement in the GOP has so far been limited primarily to grunt work. They have no voice in the greater workings of the party, and their ability to influence the GOP's message is still a ways off.

"The people who speak at platform committees on the Republican side are the candidates, the chairs and the committee people," Dogiakos says. "So as a Young Republican organization, we don't have any say in it."

For the Young Republicans, 2010 is a proving ground. Dogiakos and Harrison already possess solid reputations with local GOP leaders based on their youth recruitment efforts, their volunteer contributions—and Dogiakos' candidacy—in the 2008 election cycle, and their past involvement with the College Republicans. But many of the newer faces in the group have yet to make a lasting impression. By making a difference during the current election cycle, Dogiakos says, they'll go a long way in gaining more respect with members of the old guard.

"It's a matter of putting in your time, taking your lumps at sort of the lower levels," Dogiakos says. "Even people who are 45, if they've never been involved with the central committee, they have to start at the bottom peg...I think YRs will help people understand how all the cogs fit into place within the Republican organization, especially in Missoula. And in the next five to 10 years, the people who we're meeting with on Mondays at Rowdy's will be the people leading the Republican Party."

House District 98 candidate Mike Sopuch, 32, recognizes the need for the Republican Party to become more inclusive of a younger generation of conservatives. The future of the party lies with those under 40, he says, and the GOP’s “stale, antiseptic” ways only serve to steer prospective new members away. - PHOTO BY CHAD HARDER
  • Photo by Chad Harder
  • House District 98 candidate Mike Sopuch, 32, recognizes the need for the Republican Party to become more inclusive of a younger generation of conservatives. The future of the party lies with those under 40, he says, and the GOP’s “stale, antiseptic” ways only serve to steer prospective new members away.

The Young Republicans aren't the only conservatives seeking to wrest control from the entrenched GOP and steer the party's future in a different direction. The so-called "patriots" behind the ever-growing Tea Party movement have moved from the fringe to center stage in 2010, fronting candidates against Republican incumbents in nationwide primaries and publicly deriding GOP leaders for not being conservative enough. They've generated infighting within the Republican Party and clouded political debates over lower taxes and smaller government with calls for abolishing the Federal Reserve and radically increasing states' rights.

The Tea Party continues to jockey for greater influence over the Republican Party, placing the GOP in the middle of a tug-of-war between the far-right agenda of grassroots patriots and the socially liberal leanings of young conservatives. The future face of the Republican Party will depend heavily on which side inherits leadership.

Working toward those leadership goals is pivotal in the Young Republicans' push to create a more inclusive GOP. Party delegates will gather in 2012 for the next state platform convention, and for Dogiakos, having as many Young Republicans as possible at that table will ensure their ability to impress the values of a younger generation on the party's guiding document. He doesn't anticipate a "180-degree flip" in the GOP's values, but it's a rare opportunity he doesn't intend to pass up.

"I'm going to encourage everyone in the Young Republicans to be part of the platform committee in 2012, for sure," Dogiakos says. "Personally, there's a number of different [changes] I'd love to see. I'm starting to get involved with abolishing the death penalty. It has nothing to do with the fact that I'm young...I'm just strongly against it."

On a personal level, Dogiakos also hopes to take action on the issue of capping interest rates on so-called payday loans. He takes a "step aside from the party stance" concerning I-164, which seeks to cap interest rates at 36 percent. Whereas traditional Republicans maintain government regulation of payday loans contradicts the concept of a free market, Dogiakos says hitting people with high interest rates does nothing to keep them economically active. He leans more in favor of regulation on this particular issue, and says it's yet another example of a discussion older Republicans would just rather not have with him.

Young Republican Ethan Heverly, 28, has yet to see the GOP leadership in Montana tackle the issue of federalization of the student loan process in the party platform. Officially condemning that federal oversight would go a long way in making the Republican Party more attractive to those under 30.

"I owe the government several thousands of dollars now that I've graduated college and my student loans have been basically taken over by the federal government," says Heverly, who worked as the Montana student coordinator for Sen. John McCain's 2008 presidential campaign. "I think that's something the Republican Party—the party of conservatism, the party of fiscal responsibility, low taxes, less spending—should probably take up as their mantra. I feel like that's a good opportunity to win over some college-aged students there."

Greil's argument against the GOP's plank on homosexuality is a particular sore spot for young conservatives even outside the group, and touches on a broader issue they'd like to see addressed. John Quandt, 30, a 2009 Republican City Council candidate for Ward 3 in Missoula, says many young conservatives aren't against civil unions for same-sex couples. The question of marriage is moot, he argues, because states shouldn't seek to regulate a religious institution.

"There are certain things within the party that I don't really see as something I find attractive," Quandt says. "Those are very few, but those things I don't like let me get involved and see what I can do to change it."

If the Young Republicans have the drive and the reputation by 2012, that change may well be on its way. Sopuch believes that's the first step in creating a newer, younger, more inclusive Republican Party.

"Young people are always going to be the deciding vote," Sopuch says. "If you can get the youth galvanized under a basket of ideas and those ideas seem sane to everyone, then I think you have a winning set of ideas for a winning party. But some of these older ideas, they just rub people the wrong way."

Ultimately, however, the Young Republicans hope to affect a broader change in the GOP, and in political debates in general. They feel the current focus on extremely divisive issues make for few advances for either party—and the country—in the long run.

"One of the things that the youth want to see done is doing away with the bickering partisanship," Heverly says. "[Politicians] get absolutely nothing done. There's nothing but fighting back and forth and they focus on the extremes on both sides...They know they're never going to agree, so they're just wasting their time and our money doing it."

Republicans of all ages seem to agree that the glut of state races on deck for 2012 will be the real tell in determining the longevity of Young Republican involvement. Quandt says conservatives need to realize that harnessing the power of youth is a marathon, not a sprint. Should the party fail to keep those 18 to 40 year olds interested and involved in politics beyond Nov. 2, they'll suffer the same drop in enthusiasm among young voters that Democrats are now struggling to overcome.

Retirees outnumber young conservatives at most Republican events in Montana, but research from national nonprofit Rock the Vote shows enthusiasm is building among younger voters. One study found 60 percent of young Republicans plan to hit the polls in November, while interest among young Democrats has dropped to just 51 percent. - PHOTO BY CHAD HARDER
  • Photo by Chad Harder
  • Retirees outnumber young conservatives at most Republican events in Montana, but research from national nonprofit Rock the Vote shows enthusiasm is building among younger voters. One study found 60 percent of young Republicans plan to hit the polls in November, while interest among young Democrats has dropped to just 51 percent.

"The Republicans need to realize, we as a party need to realize, that we now have a whole new generation in our corner with us and we need to harness that power," Quandt says. "We can't just let this be a wave we're riding. This needs to be something we look at as a generational thing. This generation looks at conservatism positively; how can we keep that? What's the best way to harness that and allow it to flow to other decades? I think part of that is making sure that the party's inclusive of the young conservatives, that we're not seen as just a workhorse, that they see us also as people with good ideas."

Deschamps claims the GOP's leaders recognize that need and have plans to engage young Republicans immediately after the 2010 election, mostly through more campaign activity. He says he went before the UM College Republicans recently to spread the word that, "Number one is Nov. 2, number two is Nov. 3."

With that urgency in mind, Dogiakos says he's pushing to increase membership in Ravalli and Mineral counties, conduct more aggressive fundraising and put more young people in higher leadership roles within the party—efforts focused beyond the simple grunt work of another election cycle.

"We're definitely expanding where we are," Dogiakos says. "I'm going to make a major push to recruit precinct people out of our Young Republican group here in Missoula and in Ravalli, too. I don't see any reason not to have people who are interested, active and involved stepping into those roles."

The Young Republicans at Rowdy's show up week in and week out for a variety of reasons—love of politics, disillusionment with the status quo, a desire to influence positive change for the future. Some, like Colter Cumin, hope to run for office someday. Others, like Allie Harrison, who also serves as vice president for the Five Valleys Pachyderm Club, have already ascended the lower ranks of the local GOP and gained a notable reputation with the old guard. Like their backgrounds, their opinions on issues may differ radically; for example, Sarah Borrelli's take on marijuana—"legalize it and tax the shit out of it"—is far from unanimous among the group's membership. But they all claim their end goal is mutual.

"To motivate young voters," Sullivan says. "We're young and our generation doesn't vote."

There's a bigger picture that the Young Republicans are beginning to grasp, one that looks past 2010 and even 2012. As the inevitability of a change in leadership is gradually recognized, the socially liberal leanings of these conservatives will likely spell major change for the GOP, its platform, and its ability to attract youth. And, as young conservatives are so fond of reiterating, change isn't something that comes easy to the old guard.

"Younger people obviously are going to have more liberal ideas," Sopuch says. "They just are. That's just the nature of our progressive society. So if the new Republican Party makes their platform more inclusive of those ideas, they'll feel more accepted and feel more akin to the young Republicans or whatever the new Republican Party is going to be...The ranks will swell and the median age will drop in the membership, I can almost guarantee you that."

Dogiakos believes the changes youth will bring to the face of the GOP are simply part of answering a more immediate and pressing question for the party as a whole.

"What's next?" he says. "We're still relying on a lot of older methods for politics, for the elections. Our old methods of identifying people by phone don't work anymore because everyone has a cell phone, no more landlines. We're being outpaced because we're still doing 72-hour 'get out the vote' calls but 65 percent of the county is voting by mail-in ballots and those are going out [this] week. We're only focusing on these small chunks, and we're missing the bigger picture."

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