GOP’s Next Generation

Fledgling Group Targets Young Conservative Voters

Posted January 2, 2004 at 2:12pm

In a dimly lit corner of Dupont Circle’s Savino’s Cafe and Lounge, 21-year-old Robert Nardo, a political science senior at American University — who moonlights as the spokesman for Generation GOP — leans forward intensely, as he explains why young Republicans will prevail over their liberal counterparts. He’s wearing gray slacks and a pale blue pin-striped shirt. A small hoop earring in his left ear adds a rather un-Washington touch to the ensemble.

“The youth organization on the Democratic side is highly fragmented,” he says, with the left’s contingency comprised predominantly of people who “scurry off to International ANSWER” and who hate “Tony the Tiger and Nike shoes.”

The surrounding clutch of 20- and 30-somethings nibbling tuna tartare hors d’oeuvres and sipping imported beers at Generation GOP’s inaugural fundraiser that night seemed to agree with Nardo’s assessment of the growing importance of the young Republican vote. Each had forked over $25 for the chance to get a closer look at a group, which, although still in its incipient stages, bills itself as “America’s premiere youth conservative movement,” and boasts plans to launch a major Republican youth effort in a handful of key swing states during this year’s presidential election.

Mike Chahinian, a former intern for Rep. Amo Houghton (R-N.Y.) who turned out that evening, says he was attracted by Generation GOP’s “established track record” and “expanding operation,” and was considering helping the group during the election.

Meanwhile, 25-year-old John East, a self-described “NASCAR Republican” sporting a “W” T-shirt and a baseball cap, says he is up to doing whatever it takes to maintain the GOP lock on both ends of Pennsylvania Avenue. “I want to help Mr. Daschle move out of town. And if the Republicans call me up — I’m strong,” he avers.

It’s such enthusiasm that Generation GOP’s chairman, R. Stuart Jones, hopes to tap into during the coming months with a combination of aggressive Web-based outreach and get-out-the-vote and other party-building initiatives.

If recent surveys showing an increased likelihood of young adult turnout prove correct, Jones says, there “will be a complete resurgence of the youth vote” in 2004. A vote, he believes, should be cast in the Republican column. Generation GOP “want[s] to be that nexus that presents it in a different way,” Jones says, referring to the GOP message. The group’s ultimate goal: nothing short of “secur[ing] the future of the Republican Party.”

Defining the Generation

Officially, Generation GOP has existed as a 527 group — named after the section of the Internal Revenue Code governing its activities — for less than two months. (Jones says the group’s goal is to counteract the proliferation of Democratic groups that have sought 527 status.)

Jones initially “scratched out the outline for Generation GOP” while working on Rep. Randy Forbes’ (R-Va.) 2001 special election campaign, though the Generation GOP formula was not initially implemented until 2002 when he served as youth coordinator for then-Sen. Tim Hutchinson’s (R-Ark.) re-election campaign and helped launch various incentive programs — ranging from tailgaters to college credits — aimed at getting the college crowd politically involved. In that capacity, Jones even helped organize street theater performances, such as one in which Sen. Mark Pryor (D-Ark.), Hutchinson’s challenger at the time, was depicted as a puppet of liberal special interest groups.

The result, says then-Hutchinson campaign manager Richard Bearden, was a “top-notch” effort, with about half of the campaign’s 72-hour task force volunteers channeled through Hutchinson’s youth campaign, which Jones dubbed Generation GOP.

“After the Senate campaign, people started kinda coming up to us and talking to us and saying, ‘That was really a great youth program you ran,’” says Jones, who proceeded to organize additional students under the Generation GOP mantle to participate in the December 2002 Louisiana runoff between Sen. Mary Landrieu (D-La.) and her Republican opponent Suzanne Haik Terrell.

Jones, along with other American University students, decided it was time to “put down on paper what had been accomplished” to expand their vision for an organization aimed at motivating voters in the 18-to-29 age bracket. Along the way, Jones sought advice from a wide array of right-wing stalwarts such as American Conservative Union Chairman David Keene.

“I think there’s a huge misconception that a majority of college students on campuses are liberal,” Jones asserts, pointing to a slate of “majority mentality issues” where he believes Republicans predominate — education, homeland security, lower taxes and Social Security — as proof that the GOP message resonates with younger voters.

‘Thinking Outside of the Box’

Central to Generation GOP’s 2004 strategy is the implementation of a nationwide effort to target a handful of states — including Oregon, New Mexico and Florida — where Bush won or lost the 2000 presidential election by less than 2 points, as well as others where the vote wasn’t as close but is still considered in play. That requires setting up an extensive ground operation across the country — the foundation of which is already being put in place through a combination of Web outreach and old-fashioned networking, Jones says, adding that the group is talking to people identified through its 10,000-strong e-mail subscription base.

Jones further points to an AOL service that sells e-mail addresses based on ZIP code, age group and other preferences as one way the group may pinpoint additional conservative-leaning individuals. Moreover, Jones would like to see the group develop the ability to use Flash animation and other “really catchy types of technological things.”

In less than two years of existence, the group’s Web site, www.generationgop.com, has received more than 1 million hits. The site includes playfully irreverent features such as “The Tank” for chastising liberals Generation GOP finds particularly offensive, like Howard Dean and Ted Turner, and hosts online discussion forums where participants have weighed in on everything from “The Liberal Agenda” to “Hot Republicans.” Generation GOP also recently launched a weblog and is set to kick off an online conservative writer’s bureau by the end of the month.

In some ways its approach is a smaller-scale version of Democrat Dean’s tech-savvy presidential campaign. But mention the similarities and you’ll get an earful about how Dean’s youth outreach organization — Generation Dean (founded in 2003) — is merely a poor copy of what Generation GOP pioneered.

Dean’s effort is “a flash in the pan,” Nardo says. “He can rip off Generation GOP, but he can’t replicate the effect,” he adds, referring to the similar appellation. (The group went so far as to post a message on Generation Dean’s official weblog, accusing it of stealing the “Generation” name.)

Beyond the Internet, Generation GOP is counting on two key groups to help implement their ground campaign: state Senators and state Representatives, and College Republicans — Jones is a former secretary of the College Republican National Committee — from across the country.

“The enthusiasm [Generation GOP] bring[s] to a campaign really is infectious,” says Rep. John Boozman (R-Ark.), who observed Jones’ efforts in Arkansas and is supportive of the group. “They are thinking outside of the box.”

At last November’s fundraiser, however, the gathering attracted a crowd comprised predominantly of white men in sports coats (to be fair, the invitation did specify business attire). And wearing a three-piece suit and puffing a Montecristo cigar, Edward Gerety, one of the event’s co-hosts, appeared every inch the textbook GOPer.

“He’s the token real Republican,” quips one slightly sheepish observer as Gerety makes his rounds.

But the fundraiser did attract a handful of notable exceptions, such as Karen Alston, a 35-year-old black business owner looking to get more involved in Republican Party politics. Alston says she left the Democratic Party because it no longer takes blacks seriously.

“The face of the [Republican] Party definitely skews white male,” she concedes, sipping a glass of Merlot, as she surveys the clusters of white male faces that evening. But Alston, who plans to campaign for Bush, maintains, “I feel very comfortable here.”

All in all, the group has raised about $5,500 since Oct. 1 and anticipates exceeding the $25,000-per-year threshold, which requires nonprofit organizations to file with the IRS as 527s.

“We’d like to get a lot of small donations from the age demographic we are targeting,” says Jessica deGraffenreid, Generation GOP’s executive director. “It would be hypocritical to only target 50-year-old chief executives to fund a youth movement.

“Obviously McCain-Feingold changed a bit what we are doing. … We can’t be collaborating with campaigns so that’s a little bit different,” she adds.

As to how effective the group will prove in delivering the goods — volunteer hours and votes — the jury is still out.

While Generation GOP has plans to open a Washington, D.C., office with about two or three paid staffers, is putting together a board of directors and a steering committee, and has inked a deal with Campaign Funding Direct to begin direct-mail solicitations early this year, many Republicans say it’s premature to predict how important the group will be to achieving party goals in 2004.

After all, it is Jones, a 25-year-old Arkansan currently pursuing his master’s in international security studies at the University of St. Andrews in Scotland, that is really the heart of the group, according to several observers.

“My view is if Stuart Jones disappeared, Generation GOP would disappear,” says Tim Griffin, the RNC’s national research director, who emphasized that he was speaking as a friend and not for the national party. “In terms of the numbers they can mobilize, I think that remains to be seen,” he says, though he praised Jones’ indefatigable energy and efforts on behalf of Republicans to date.

As for Jones himself, with Generation GOP beginning to take flight he’s already on the lookout for other ways to grow the party of Lincoln — no matter how counterintuitive they might appear at first glance. Along these lines, he recently received 501(c)(3) status for another organization — The Next Generation Foundation — a nonpartisan group that will aim to get young people involved in politics.

Given his ambitions for the Republican Party, isn’t Jones concerned that this latest initiative could backfire?

To the contrary, he says.

“If you get people involved in politics … a lot of them will become Democrats, but I think more of them will become Republicans.”