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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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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.

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