ROCKLAND — After consecutive thumpings in presidential elections, the Republican Party has a lot of ground to gain with young voters in Maine, and party officials say they know just who should lead the charge to bring more Millennials into the Party of Reagan.
The popular narrative holds that in the era of President Barack Obama, the political proclivities of young voters are a foregone conclusion. In Maine, more than twice as many voters under 30 voted for Obama as voted for John McCain in 2008 or Mitt Romney in 2012. Nationally, Romney lost the youth demographic by roughly 5 million votes.
Enter the Maine GOP’s young leaders, who are launching a new initiative to put a youthful face on the party. While downplaying divisive social issues that have historically driven away young voters, they’re encouraging more young people to sign on with “the party of the individual.”
“I don’t want the government telling me how to live my life,” said 22-year-old Ashley Ryan of Portland, who last year was elected to the Republican National Committee, making her the youngest committeewoman ever. She said the limited government and emphasis on jobs — a top issue for Maine’s young, who have an unemployment rate more than twice that of the general population — are winning messages for the party in recruiting young people.
“For me, it’s all about small government, across the board,” she said during an interview Friday. “I don’t want the government in my wallet, and I don’t want the government in my bedroom.”
Young leaders launch #GEN207
Ryan isn’t the only young Republican in Maine to claim a national superlative: National committeeman and Assistant House Minority Leader Alex Willette, 24, of Mapleton is the youngest lawmaker in the country to be elected to a state legislative leadership position; the state GOP’s executive director Jason Savage is 34; and Maine Republican Party Field Organizer Joe Turcotte is 24.
This year, the party launched a new initiative called “#GEN207,” an effort to highlight the state’s young Republican leaders and engage more young voters.
The name is built for a generation that lives on social media, styled for engagement on Twitter, Facebook and anywhere else young people congregate online. The initiative is a communications effort, a recruitment tool and a way to rally the young people already in the party, Turcotte said.
On Friday, #GEN207 held its first open forum at the Trade Winds Motel in Rockland. Ryan joined Maine Sen. Garrett Mason, R-Lisbon, 28; RSU34 committee member Lee Jackson of Old Town, 19; and 1st Congressional District candidate Isaac Misiuk, 25, to to answer questions and talk about where the party is going, and how and why young people should get involved.
The young Republicans on Friday’s panel were diverse in their political leanings, running the full GOP spectrum from Mason, a self-described “social conservative,” to Jackson, a moderate Republican.
The differences of opinion were sometimes stark, especially on social issues, but unlike the emphasis on party purity and unity that dominates the caucus in Washington, D.C., the young Republicans in Rockland were more than willing to focus on policy areas of agreement, letting differences fall by the wayside.
Those common areas included positions held by many of the elders in their party: An emphasis on lowering taxes, limiting the size of government, fighting the national debt and creating jobs.
What wasn’t discussed is equally telling. Gone were the hawkish positions on national security that were hallmarks of the party under President George W. Bush, positions that have been pushed back to some extent by the ascendant libertarian wing of the party. (Ryan was one of the Maine delegates supporting Texas Congressman and small-government icon Ron Paul at the 2012 Republican National Committee Convention.)
The young leaders also de-emphasized divisive social issues such as abortion and gay marriage. Said Misiuk, in an interview: “Social issues are important, but I think they’ve been blown out of proportion. Debating abortion isn’t going to reduce the federal debt.”
#GEN207 is a move straight from a National Republican Party’s playbook. After the 2012 election, Republican National Committee Chairman Reince Priebus wrote a plan for the GOP to fight back the demographic tide that helped Barack Obama handily win two elections in a row. A big part of that strategy is doing more to bring in young voters.
Priebus’ “ Growth and Opportunity Project,” encouraged state party committees to highlight youth leaders and soften rhetoric on issues that have traditionally been losers with young voters.
“We must change our tone,” Preibus wrote, “especially on certain social issues that are turning off young voters. In every session with young voters, social issues were at the forefront of the discussion; Many see them as the civil rights issues of our time. We must be a party that is welcoming and inclusive for all.”
Willette, who did not attend the first #GEN207 forum, said there is more room for diverse opinions on social issues than outsiders might expect.
“Democrats like to simplify the discussion and say we’re an old, antiquated party because of social issues, but the Republican Party is really the party of the American Dream,” Willette said in an interview Thursday. “Every young person wants to do what our parents and grandparents did, which is work hard and advance our lives.”
Turning the demographic tide
Regardless of the message, the party has an uphill battle with young voters, who in Maine are less conservative than the state’s active voters as a whole. While the GOP commands just over 27 percent of the total active voters in the state, only about 19 percent of voters ages 30 and younger are enrolled in the Republican Party, according to 2013 data from the Department of the Secretary of State.
Most of that difference is made up with higher than average youth membership in the Green Independent party, which holds 7 percent of young people but only 3.8 percent of the total voting population. Young voters are also more likely to be unenrolled in any political party — 46.4 percent compared with about 37 percent of all active voters.
But that only tells half the story: More than twice as many young people voted Democrat than Republican in 2008 and 2012, according to exit polling data compiled by Tufts University. Obama’s campaigns had energized young people nationwide. It was a watershed moment for Democrats in Maine, who had more or less split the youth vote with Republicans in 2004 and 2000.
The young Republican leaders on the #GEN207 panel on Friday said they think they can break the Democrats’ youth wave in with an anti-Obamacare message.
Republicans can capitalize on the botched website rollout that frustrated millions of Americans trying to sign up for health care on the new marketplace in late 2013, and the broken promise Obama made when he said people who have private health insurance could keep their plans if they liked them. Last year, millions of private policyholders were informed by their insurance companies that their coverage would end because it didn’t comply with the Affordable Care Act.
“One big thing that’s going to help Republicans in 2014 and beyond is Obamacare, Obamacare, Obamacare,” Ryan said. “Nobody thinks it’s going well.”
A core pillar of the Affordable Care Act is a requirement that everyone buy health insurance, thus increasing the risk pool and lowering rates for everyone.
Mason, the state senator, said that’s a bad deal for young people, who are usually healthy and utilize health care far less than other groups.
“For young people, there is no inherent benefit for health insurance unless you get really hurt,” he said.
Emboldening young Republicans in hiding
Misiuk of Gorham is running against U.S. Rep. Chellie Pingree in the 1st Congressional District this year. He’s taken time off from school and his job selling cars to run for office. He’s vastly outmatched financially and, as a political newcomer, faces an uphill battle on name recognition.
But he said he’s not daunted by the task. There are Republicans out there who will support him, even in the ultra-liberal 1st District, he said, and more younger ones than meets the eye.
Misiuk said that when he took over the University of Southern Maine College Republicans, membership included just him and a few friends. After his first year in charge, membership had swollen to several dozen.
“The party has a horrible reputation of being an old, white party,” he said in an interview Friday. “But I think there’ a lot of young people who are more afraid to come out because of the scrutiny they’ll face.”
Jackson, the 19-year-old school board member and University of Maine student, said he also knew that there were lots of quiet Republicans at his school, who didn’t speak out because they were outnumbered or because of the perception that professors are all liberal.
But he said there’s no reason not to engage in debate. Striking a more bipartisan tone than most of those in Congress, he said solutions to problems facing Maine and the country will only be solved through conversation with everyone — liberals, conservatives and moderates alike.
“Neither party has a monopoly on good ideas,” Jackson said. “… To be on my team, all that matters is that your goal is to help the people of Maine.”