Millennial Republicans: Who might this next generation of conservatives be?
Political experts will tell you that in most parts of the country, young people tend to vote Democratic, with college students traditionally leaning liberal.
But after this November’s election where Republicans defied common beliefs, the pundits and pretty much everyone, college Republican groups are on the rebound and feeling their oats.
On campuses across the country, young Republicans who might have been shy before or just weren’t aware their politics leaned conservative seem to be stepping out from the shadows, said College Republicans leaders.
Consider Missouri. Last year, 18 College Republicans chapters were on campuses throughout the state. In February, five more chapters were added, and by this month the total had climbed to 26 campus chapters.
Moreover, College Republicans, which is the political youth organization of the Republican Party, is preparing to certify two more chapters that have started organizing since the election.
“I think an organization like ours has definitely seen a revitalization in the last seven or eight months,” said Jake Buxton, chairman of the Missouri Federation of College Republicans.
He said that while the state federation has been pushing a legislative agenda all year to help grow chapter numbers, any upswing “will definitely be enhanced by this Republican victory,” Buxton said.
To be sure, Buxton said, College Republicans are thrilled that their party won the White House and have already noticed their voice amplified on campus.
A few days after Donald Trump’s win, a group of Republican students and some Warrensburg residents clashed with Hillary Clinton supporters holding an anti-Trump rally on the University of Central Missouri campus. No one was injured, but a nonstudent was arrested.
Before then, “no one would walk on to this campus and see our presence at all,” said Jacob Davis, president of UCM’s College Republicans chapter.
Many students with conservative ideologies, Davis said, have kept their opinions to themselves for fear they would be stigmatized as racist, sexist or insensitive to the plight of the poor. As with most college campuses, most students and faculty at Central Missouri are socially liberal, he said.
“Students definitely were afraid to say they were for Trump,” Davis said. “But in the ballot box, you could express your feelings. No one could see you.”
One week after the election, a group of about 20 UCM College Republicans held a victory celebration, college conservative style. Nothing was identifiably different about this group of mostly male students in T-shirts and jeans.
Students carried in a small sheet cake decorated like the American flag, and then tacked up a calendar displaying the face of Ronald Reagan. They hung their blue College Republicans banner. And the celebration opened with praise for the many hours some members had committed to winning local races in the state.
Then talked about how excited they were to go to the annual Conservative Political Action Conference in Washington, D.C., where Trump is scheduled to speak in February.
“As Republicans, we are not big fans of socialism, so the more you work the money the more you get to go to CPAC, and it’s a heck of an experience,” Davis told the group to encourage fundraising for the trip.
Then for entertainment, the group watched recent Saturday Night Live skits where cast members poked fun at Trump. Some of the students smiled, but no one laughed out loud, even though they admitted the jokes were pretty funny.
Kansas College Republicans organizations are also feeling some momentum. The Kansas Federation of College Republicans lists nine chapters on its website, including chapters at Kansas State University, Wichita State University and the University of Kansas.
Members of local chapters said they have already heard from dozens of students asking about membership, and they fully expect that the Election Day sweep will change how college conservatives have been viewed on campuses.
Adam Steinhilber, a senior political science major at the University of Kansas and president of the KU College Republicans group, said he’s been in classrooms with other young Republicans who wouldn’t speak up during class discussions where only a liberal viewpoint was being expressed.
“I definitely think that stigma is alive and active on college campuses,” said Steinhilber, whose chapter has close to 60 members. “I have experienced it. It definitely plays a role in stopping students from actively expressing their beliefs.”
But things have changed, Davis said.
“Now the country has to realize they have to contend with 50 percent of the nation who feel the same way as we do, and they are going, ‘Oh my gosh, they were here all along.’ We are a force to contend with.”
National studies show that young people 18 to 29 years old haven’t gone Republican since the 1980s, when Reagan and then George H.W. Bush each pulled the popular vote and won the White House.
That didn’t happen this time. An estimated 24 million young people voted in the 2016 presidential election. Trump won the Electoral College, but Clinton won the popular vote.
A lot of young Republicans did not vote for Trump.
Davis supported Independent candidate Gary E. Johnson, then posted how he voted on Facebook. Davis admits he had to put up with some social media threats because of it. And some off-campus student Republicans even suggested that he be impeached as UCM’s chapter president.
This generation of college Republicans does not so easily align with the anti-immigration, sexist and racist rhetoric that Trump used during his campaign, said Kei Kawashima-Ginsberg, director of the Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning and Engagement, a youth research organization located at Tufts University.
In fact, she said, information collected during the primaries showed that two-thirds of the young Republicans did not support Trump. Instead, they backed Marco Rubio, Ted Cruz and Ben Carson.
“When it comes to social issues,” she said, “today’s young Republicans may be much more socially progressive than the old Republican guard.”
Brady Herrington, a 19-year-old UCM freshman from Sedalia, Mo., said he identifies with Republicans because he’s fiscally conservative and supports small government. But like a lot of other College Republicans, he also supports “individual freedoms,”
As a group, College Republicans include libertarians, social conservatives and fiscal conservatives, said Steinhilber. But what bonds young College Republicans, he said, is support of “limited government and more freedoms in our own lives.”
Buxton said the “big tent” that houses College Republicans is a diverse group. And a lot of them support issues like gay marriage and a woman’s right to choose to have an abortion.
“I think there is a lot more tolerance among young people,” Herrington said. “I would say it’s a new generation of Republican.”
Maybe so, Kawashima-Ginsberg said. But she also said that what made the difference in this election was another group of millennials who are conservative but not likely to become College Republicans members. And they are in the tent, too.
This is a group of young Trump supporters who had been quiet on campuses — until they showed up at the polls and voted Republican. But Kawashima-Ginsberg said the data show they are not your typical College Republicans who have been politically engaged and openly supporting the party, working in local campaigns and tacking up signs.
“These were straight Trump voters,” she said. “They want the wall built. They don’t see any racial inequity in the nation’s prison system. They voted for Donald Trump, not the party,” Kawashima-Ginsberg said.
The challenge now is that they “may be hard to mobilize if they don’t engage with the traditional party — and partisan — organizations that for many youth provide structures and opportunities for political and broader civic engagement,” Kawashima-Ginsberg said.
Steinhilber said that this group exists is no surprise.
“We realize that the country is greater than the bubble we live in on our respective college campuses and college towns,” he said. “What we are trying to do is build connections with other people, build good relationships and grow our numbers.”
But Steinhilber said he’s also aware that now that Republicans have won, College Democrats — which has more than 600 campus chapters nationwide and is the youth organization of the Democratic Party — are likely to crank up their political machine for a fight in four years.