The College Republicans are worried – partially about their Democratic peers on campus but also about other young people who call themselves Republican.
The more moderate among them say they fear far-right students’ “antics” will corrupt the party. Their counterparts argue the party is too stodgy to capture the attention of undecided voters. In California and Washington, the groups fractured over who should lead them.
Underlying the college conservatives’ fears: that the Republican Party as a whole is in trouble.
For young Republicans, embracing a conservative identity while enrolled in college is a decision to be an outsider. Many of them say they feel ostracized on their campus for their beliefs, which fosters an “us vs. them” mentality.
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That might partially explain why they host events such as “affirmative action bake sales,” in which they sell treats at different prices based on a person’s race. These types of events are meant to rile college communities, and they often succeed. Students both broadcast their views against affirmative action and generate as much attention as they can.
At the University of Washington last May, a group calling itself College Republicans hosted such a bake sale. The campus conservatives found themselves the subject of national headlines, and the statewide organization of College Republicans denounced what the group did. The state organization instead recognized a different group – the Husky College Republicans. The original group declined to speak to USA TODAY unless members were offered anonymity. Members said they feared for their safety.
Jack Pickett, the western vice chairman at the College Republican National Committee, was part of the College Republicans at the University of Washington and also led the statewide group. He was involved in the decision to start over.
The chapter, he said, crossed the line a couple of times, and the bake sale was the final straw. Pickett recalled he was not happy when leaders brought Milo Yiannopoulos, a far-right speaker, to campus in 2017. Outside that event, a man protesting was shot by someone who had come to see Yiannopoulos.
Pickett considers himself a conservative but said he didn’t initially support Donald Trump’s campaign for president. (He now does.) He threw his support behind businesswoman and politician Carly Fiorina in 2016.
His critics have seized upon what he described as a more traditional type of conservatism, calling him a “Republican in Name Only.” People have attacked him online for his weight and claim he doesn’t deserve his position. The old group of college leaders he helped to oust still meets.
Battling over the identity of a college group is vexing, Pickett said. It distracts from a larger, perhaps more difficult goal: recruiting new conservatives.
“It’s very difficult to do that when you have a group who’s misusing your name and working almost intentionally, it often seems, to drive people away with their antics,” Pickett said. “That’s not something that anyone, even right-leaning students, want to be a part of.”
The Republican National Committee doesn’t appear worried about potential divisions in its youth movement. The party is running an effort to register voters called “Make Campus Great Again.”
“When it comes to issues college students care about, like securing a job after graduation, the choice is clear: a booming economy under President Trump or a government takeover of every aspect of their lives under Democrat leadership,” RNC spokeswoman Mandi Merritt said in an email.
College Republicans: ‘Inflammatory’ or conservative?
The split between conservative policy wonks and energized activists is one that Amy Binder, a sociologist at the University of California-San Diego, and Jeffrey Kidder, a sociologist at Northern Illinois University, have studied for years. They’re writing a book on student activism.
They found individual students straddle those lines. They join the traditional College Republican groups because of the political connections they can build, but they might also join a group such as Turning Point USA. Founded by Charlie Kirk in 2012, when he was 18, the conservative group is known for its attention-grabbing tactics at colleges. It started the Professor Watchlist, a project meant to track, “expose and document college professors who discriminate against conservative students and advance leftist propaganda.” It hosts summits often attended by major figures in the Trump administration, including the president, Education Secretary Betsy DeVos and former Attorney General Jeff Sessions.
Kidder said such groups probably do a better job of appealing to students interested in more than traditional, campaigning-style politics.
Conservative and liberal students tend to organize differently, Binder said. Students on the left may feel more comfortable within the university. Many have student affairs offices directed toward minority students, such as black or LBGTQ cultural centers. Conservative students may be drawn off campus to groups such as Turning Point, which have a lot of money and resources to help them organize.
Joaquin Romero, 21, a junior studying economics at the University of New Mexico, chairs the New Mexico Federation of College Republicans. He has long been involved in state and city politics. In New Mexico, the state with the largest percentage of Hispanics in the country, Democrats hold all seats in Congress, the governor’s office and both the state House and Senate.
Romero said his goal is to shift the college Republican group away from the incendiary approach some have taken. In 2017, the UNM group invited Yiannopoulos to campus, and police intervened to break up protests. Romero said he understands some people appreciate watching things burn, but he sees those efforts as counterproductive.
“Things like the Milo event, where you have someone on stage that says inflammatory things that are in my opinion not even conservative,” he said, “it not only drives people away, but it also ignites the wrong kind of people.”
The goal, Romero said, should be to recruit people who want to carry on the “conservatism of (Ronald) Reagan.” That lasts longer, he argued, than the furor generated over provocative speakers.
At San Diego State, ‘America first’
Infighting among conservative students in California prompted a majority of the state’scollege Republicans to start a new organization altogether. They split off from the California College Republicans about a year ago to create the California Federation of College Republicans. That group’s chairman, Matt Ronnau, also heads the chapter at University of California-Berkeley.
Initially, Ronnau said, the divide among College Republicans was between those eager to embrace President Trump and those who wanted to embrace a more traditional model of conservatism. The split came down to differences in how to run the organization. The new group, the federation, has 30 chapters and is recognized by the College Republican National Committee. The old group, the California College Republicans, didn’t return a request for comment.
Ronnau describes himself as a member of the “Trumpian camp” but said many of the federation’s members are not. Some have swung far to the right. The San Diego State College Republicans, who belong to the federation, describe themselves as “unapologetically Nationalist + America first” in the group’s Twitter profile. They have retweeted Michelle Malkin, a controversial figure who supports far-right writer Nicholas Fuentes and VDARE, an anti-immigration website popular among white nationalists.
Oliver Krvaric, president of the San Diego State group, said a split exists between establishment Republicans and the next generation.
Krvaric, 21, a senior studying international security and conflict resolution, said he’d rather the group focus less on helping conservative students land political jobs, a traditional role for College Republican groups, and instead work to wage the “culture war.” For instance, although he wouldn’t say where he stood on issues such as same-sex marriage, he said generally men and women are better suited for different roles. Many group members oppose abortion rights and hold hard-line views on immigration.
Ronnau said he is unconcerned that the San Diego chapter’s views could be seen as reflective of the federation as a whole.
“We want to let clubs operate kind of more or less the way they see fit,” Ronnau said. “San Diego State is much farther to the right than other clubs in our state federation, but we all coexist together.”
Ronnau doesn’t expect a return to the era of Republicanism that would be familiar to the Mitt Romney- or John McCain-types. He said many young people support the president, and more young people will step up to push the “right-wing populist agenda.”
Columbus Day post rocks University of Maine
Kirk and his fellow Republicans used to be some of the most vocal conservative voices on college campuses. But some young Republicans view him as too moderate.
Jeremiah Childs, vice president for the College Republican group at the University of Maine, pushes an “America first” agenda that’s unabashedly Trumpian in support of strict immigration policies. The group often posts criticism of Democratic presidential hopefuls and support for gun rights and the military.
He said groups such as Turning Point spend too much time talking about economic issues rather than cultural ones, such as the anti-abortion movement. Childs said he worries about the rise of concepts such as nontraditional gender roles and “third-wave feminism.”
In October, the group posted a message on Facebook in support of Columbus Day, describing some Native American tribes as “corrupted by rampant ritual sacrifice and cannibalism.” The post generated backlash. Childs said that the intent was not to rile and that he didn’t think Native Americans in the area cared about the controversy over Columbus Day.
An indigenous student group protested the post, according to Inside Higher Education. A tribal ambassador of the Penobscot Nation told an NBC affiliate she was in favor of stripping Columbus’ name from the holiday, calling him a “war criminal.”
Childs said the outrage was the result of “left-wing activists.”
The College Republicans at the University of Maine recently also came under fire for their plans to bring in Malkin. The hotel hosting the event pulled out, but the students found a new venue, Childs said.
The group’s adviser resigned after the students invited Malkin. Dan Demeritt, spokesman for the University of Maine, said the club isn’t official without one. Childs said they have candidates lined up.
Malkin supports Nicholas Fuentes, a far-right writer. Though he said he is not a white nationalist, he attended the 2017 Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, a gathering of white nationalists. Counterprotester Heather Heyer was killed after James Alex Field drove a car into a crowd of anti-racist demonstrators.
Fuentes has joked the Holocaust didn’t happen. His fans have coordinated attempts to heckle speakers from Turning Point USA and another conservative group, the Young America Foundation, according to the Daily Beast.
Childs said his group does not endorse Fuentes and is not associated with him.
The Maine group posted a poll featuring Kirk of Turning Point USA, whom Childs described as a “Country Club Republican,” and Fuentes.
“The major question,” the Maine students wrote, “seems to be should the Republican Party move towards ‘Nationalism/America First,’ or towards ‘Libertarianism’ with a softer approach towards social issues and immigration?” In the students’ poll, Fuentes represented the first option, Kirk the second. Eighty-two percent of the 5,200 who voted went with Fuentes, the rest for Kirk. (These types of internet polls can be easily gamed, especially by young digital natives.)
Childs said he doesn’t think conservative critics understand the circumstances of poor and rural Americans. He said they probably come from prosperous backgrounds.
Childs’ sentiment reiterates what many of these young conservatives say about each other: They just don’t get it.
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