College Republicans take their message (and pizza) to frat parties

Forget political pamphlets. The newest generation of College Republicans have a better way of winning over acolytes: blue solo cups, Orange Crush and Little Caesars Pizza. They tout Uber and Facebook as exemplars of the conservative way and avoid focusing on issues that could potentially alienate their peers, such as same-sex marriage and drug policy.

That’s all part of a softer approach to political advocacy that the GOP is adopting on campuses across the country. The goal: to convince younger voters that this isn’t their grandfather’s party.

Fusion met with a group of young Republicans at La Salle University in Philadelphia in the days before the midterm elections to learn about the strategy. The venue was a frat party where they hoped to sell fellow students on the benefits of a free market economy.

“Rather than dividing about what we disagree on, we’re trying to find what values we share as a generation,” John Longacre, a field representative for the College Republican National Committee, told students.

Around thirty people gathered to hear the GOP pitch. The students — some dressed in fraternity and sorority letters — listened intently and watched a promotional video, with the promise of a party after the meeting (pizza and soda, no alcohol). Some were receptive, but many said they didn’t plan to vote in the midterm elections.

“There’s a pretty big misconception of the Republican Party in general,” Michael Bautista, another College Republican who is also a member of Sigma Phi Epsilon fraternity at La Salle, said. “There’s actually more young Republicans than people notice…there’s a lot more than you would think, more people are starting to notice the Republican Party as breaking away from that old image as gray-haired old men in suits.”

Most likely voters ages 18 to 34 identify as Democrats, according to Fusion’s Massive Millennial Poll. But the gulf between the two parties isn’t as wide as you might expect. The survey found that Democrats made up 41 percent of young voters while Republicans made up 28 percent.

Other national polls — notably one conducted by the Harvard University Institute of Politics — have shown an even bigger swing toward Republicans among young voters.

Still, Democrats have rejected the idea it might represent an ideological shift. In a statement, Rob Flaherty, youth media director for the Democratic National Committee, said the idea that young people are moving to the right is “not based in reality” and “shouldn’t be read as a ‘break up’ with the values of the Democratic Party.”

Such sentiments won’t stop College Republicans from trying to make up the difference in coming years. They’re experimenting with projects like “Operation Red Campus,” as the midterm effort is known. The old model for college conservatives was to leave campus to knock on doors and volunteer at phone banks. Now students stay on campus to spread the message.

At the same time, the group still flexes its muscles on the national stage. The College Republican National Committee has spent over $2 million on advertising in critical races ahead of the midterms. One of its ads for Florida Gov. Rick Scott attracted nearly half a million views on YouTube, even if it was deemed sexist by some.

The College Republicans have been around since 1892 when the first chapter was founded at the University of Michigan. Those early activists helped elect several presidents, including William McKinley and Calvin Coolidge. Modern-day GOP notables such as Karl Rove, Lee Atwater and Ralph Reed are all former College Republican leaders.

crnc_karl_rove_college_141103Karl Rove with Presidents George H. W. Bush (left) and Gerald Ford (right), circa 1973. (Courtesy: College Republican National Committee)

But for the party to thrive in the coming decades, it will eventually need to win over more young, diverse voters, like Krys Henry, a College Republican and senior at the University of Central Florida. Henry comes from a Caribbean immigrant family and feels like he breaks the stereotype of what constitutes a Republican.

“There’s a stigma about the Republican Party that they’re all old rich white guys who are in D.C.,” Henry said at the La Salle gathering. “I’m not old, rich or white.”

Henry said they are willing to go anywhere to reach students and talk to them about the issues they may have in common with the GOP. That includes frat parties and tailgates, essentially trying to rebrand the party by, well, bringing the party.

“We just like to hang out in social setting like this and just talk kind of naturally and organically about things that are important to us,” he said. “If that’s where college students are, that’s where the Republican Party needs to be.”