To end its losing streak, Washington's GOP should adopt the old Ronald Reagan strategy and think young.
Kyle Curtis, a University of Washington sophomore and president of the Collegiate Republicans on campus, believes that the Republican party “needs to go back to core conservative values” like small government, and not focus so much on gay marriage or abortion.
Lauren Pardee, a 24-year-old volunteer in Rob McKenna’s losing campaign for governor, agrees. “We have to lighten up as a party,” she says. “We can’t have older white guys talking about rape. It doesn’t help our cause on bigger important issues like education reform.”
These are the voices that Washington State Republicans need to hear as they gather at Ocean Shores later this month for their annual Roanoke Conference, a strategic planning retreat. Republican losses at the state and national levels in this last election have forced some serious soul searching throughout the party. The two big questions on the Roanoke agenda will be: How do we grow the party, and where do we go from here?
To look forward towards solutions, Republicans may want to first look back — to a political strategy that worked for Ronald Reagan, their iconic hero. They could start by inviting a lot more young people like Curtis and Pardee to the conference, and rather than offering them internships, they could put some young Republicans on the podium and listen.
The American youth vote has often been associated with the winning campaigns of Bill Clinton and Barack Obama. But it first emerged more than 40 years ago, as a political force that propelled Reagan to the White House in 1980 and again in 1984.
“The oldest president in U.S. history and the youngest members of the nation’s electorate have forged one of the strongest bonds in American politics” is how The Philadelphia Inquirer characterized the phenomenon in 1986, adding that “Reagan has encouraged Republican strategists to think that they may be able to nurture the youth vote to help the GOP regain majority status in U.S. politics.”
Ronald Reagan’s courting of the young proved prescient, and effective; Republicans would go on to gain a majority in the House of Representatives — for the first time in 40 years — and win three terms in the White House, one for George H.W. Bush and two for George W. Bush.
Like today, the mood among Republicans was dark in the late 1970s owing to Watergate and to the successful, populist campaign of Jimmy Carter. Reagan’s focus on young voters lifted the dark cloud. In a 1984 poll, voters under age 25 approved of Reagan’s presidency by a ratio of 67 percent to 31 percent. Two years later, they liked it even more: 79 percent to 20 percent.
That’s quite a contrast to last fall’s presidential race when Mitt Romney lost the youth vote by a huge margin. (Sixty percent of young voters who cast ballots chose Obama.)
And those young votes mattered. The Tufts University Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning and Engagement (CIRCLE), which studies youth voting trends, found that if Romney had split the vote in Ohio, Pennsylvania, Florida and Virginia he would have been elected.
The 2012 exit polls showed that the participation of young voters nationally increased slightly over 2008, which was a big year for young voters. Not so in Washington State, where 62 percent of voters aged 18-24 cast ballots in 2012, down from 68 percent in 2008.
University of Washington Collegiate Republicans
In the Evergreen State, slightly less than one million voters fall into the 18-29-year-old demographic. In the last several election cycles, not more than 35 percent has gone Republican. In 2008, it was less than 18 percent. If elections continue to be tight, those youth votes could prove decisive.
Interviews with young Washington Republicans over the past several months show that the party has its work cut out for it when it comes to wooing its younger base. Though still committed, many young Republicans wonder if there is any use in pursuing statewide offices in a place like Washington where elections are largely determined by liberal Seattle.
More to the point, they argue that the Republican brand of politics and policies must change. And many see themselves leading that transformation.
UW sophomore Kyle Curtis is also gay, part Yakama (he left White Swan in the heart of the reservation to attend school) and secretary of the Washington State Log Cabin Republicans (LCRWA). Curtis agrees with Washington’s newly-elected Secretary of State Kim Wyman, the sole Republican to win statewide office last fall: “We need to be more principle-based and less platform-based,” says Curtis who is hopeful that Republicans’ recent losses at the polls “will cause us to reflect on what we’re doing wrong.”
As a self-proclaimed “moderate” Republican, Lauren Pardee believes that “the national party has to rebrand itself, become more inclusive and more moderate.” Pardee is a Republican because she believes in personal responsibility. She would like to see the party get back to its roots and focus on economics. She is skeptical of federal government solutions. “Decisions closer to the people who are affected is best,” she says.
A 2011 UW graduate, Pardee says she “was always willing to put myself out there as a Republican. It’s not very popular to do that.” Kyle Curtis, by contrast, often leaves his Republican affiliation off resumes and job applications.
While friends who are Democratic Party volunteers find jobs in government offices and progressive nonprofits, Republican volunteers like Pardee return to work at retail stores and restaurants.
Tony Williams, chair of a Bellevue-based Republican political consulting firm, served as chief of staff to former Sen. Slade Gorton. Back then he recalls employing 20 young people who were learning government as well as politics. "Team Gorton" was a formidable force in local politics, and its alumni went on to powerful roles within Microsoft, Boeing and other Northwest organizations.
"Today we don't know what to do with our young people,” says Williams. “They are attracted to movements and Rob's campaign (we thought) was a movement.” But what started as a movement fizzled by late summer.
“It was crushing to be honest,” says Pardee, about the loss. “It’s hard to get involved unless you really believe. When Rob lost it was like the air went out of the room.”
Asked if the loss made her more determined or less determined, Pardee pauses. “If you asked me three days after the loss I would have said I’m getting out of politics," she says. "Rob (McKenna) became grief counselor to everyone. He wants us to stay involved. Rob pushing is something that helps.”
In the wake of the 2012 election season, Kyle Curtis and his Collegiate Republicans got together to ask themselves two questions: Why did we lose? And what does the party need to do in order to survive?
There were predictable suggestions about more outreach to minorities, and about avoiding hot button social issues such as abortion and gay marriage. There was a sense that McKenna did not need to challenge Obama’s health care reform policy known as Obamacare, and support for Paul Ryan’s balanced budget approaches. And there was lots of frustration about being outclassed by the Democrats in campaign technology, something especially frustrating for younger workers.
A document written by UW's Collegiate Republicans noted that Democrats were better organized and resourced, especially from a technological standpoint. The Democrats provided UW students with a hotel room equipped with high tech phones, a set-up that completely outmatched the Republican phone-calling capacity.
A source familiar with the GOP's national campaign organization told Crosscut that there is a group of underlings in national headquarters who are interested in technology but that the party's leadership doesn’t really get it.
“They know they need to infuse technology into campaigns,” says the source, “but they are not yet in positions of authority to really make the budget shifts.”
The former Republican operative added that “campaign cycles and tech cycles always overlap so we can’t afford to go into lulls in between elections. This is the timeframe where we should be doubling down on technology (for the next cycle).”
“How can you win elections if you are not providing volunteers with the right tools?” asked one UW student, giving voice to a common complaint among young Republicans.
GOP strategist and McKenna for Governor campaign director Randy Pepple feels their pain. After all, it doesn’t seem like that many years ago when he was one of them.
“What attracted me (to the party) was foreign policy,” said Pepple. “I was an anti-Communist. I was more focused on the foreign policy journals.”
Throughout the campaign, Pepple worked closely with young interns and volunteers. “There is a conservation ethic, more moderate and more libertarian,” he said. “They see the importance of trade, higher education and economic development. Education is an area where we can make headway.”
He agrees that “you don’t admit your Republican in certain circles and we need to change that. We need to spend more time asking what does it mean to be a Northwest Republican. We couldn’t overcome the negativity of the national brand.”
As young Republicans return to college campuses and to entry-level jobs, the sting of losing has abated and there is a sense of optimism. Ah, youth.
Kyle Curtis said that the UW College Republican online listerv and Facebook friends are growing. Meetings are becoming larger and more lively, recruitment strategies more refined.
The final line of the College Republican brainstorm is a message, in ALL CAPS, that reads like a scream to party elders: “REACH OUT TO THE YOUTH.”
If GOP leaders are smart, they'll listen.