Just like grown-up Republicans, College Republicans face an identity crisis.

Who's winning, who's losing, and why.
June 8 2009 10:15 AM

No Fight Left

Just like grown-up Republicans, College Republicans face an identity crisis.

US Sen. John McCain. Click image to expand.
John McCain

The College Republican National Committee is a famously cutthroat operation. Karl Rove and Lee Atwater learned the ropes there in the 1970s, dragging then-RNC Chairman George H.W. Bush into a disputed election. More recently, two people you never heard of (at least until their campaign was hilariously recounted in the New Republic) spent several hundred thousand dollars in a bare-knuckled fight for chairman.

By historical standards, then, this year's convention, which took place last week at the Renaissance Marriott in Washington, D.C., was tame. There was only one contested race—for the Midwestern regional chair, fought with Midwestern collegiality—and no constitutional amendments to debate. This uncharacteristic politesse could not have come at a worse time: the first convention in the age of Obama, the first in eight years without a Republican in the White House. After an election in which young voters went 2-1 for the Democrat, colleges Baracked the vote, and Sarah Palin was trotted out as a role model for youth, what's a young conservative to do?

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According to those headlining the conference, who ranged from the baby-faced Rep. Aaron Schock, 28, to the rapidly fossilizing Phyllis Schlafly, 84, the party needs to diversify. * And, oh, use Twitter.

On the first point: Most speakers exhorted the students to recruit more black and Hispanic members, to get outside the stuffy-white-guy stereotype that follows the party like a shadow. This became especially awkward at Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty's keynote speech, where seven white guys—including the College Republican of the Year, white guy Leigh Wolf—sat on the dais to his right. Last year's national leadership had three women; this year's has none. According to those present, in his speech, RNC Chairman Michael Steele singled out the one black woman in the room for special recognition.

But for one long-haired guy unaccountably sporting a red T-shirt that read "I am the revolution" on Saturday morning, the 200-person crowd generally matched the stereotype of a College Republican convention: well-groomed, power-suited Southerners punctuated with the occasional seersucker ensemble or platinum blonde. I haven't been to a College Democrats convention, but the CampusProgress conference that goes off every summer is distinctly scruffier around the edges, a 1,000-strong motley crew of interns from the city's assorted progressive outlets.

Then again, a Dutch student manning a booth against "radical multiculturalism" on American campuses should count for some kind of diversity. I spoke at length with a representative of the Youth for Western Civilization, whose logo is a medieval shield with a hand holding an ax, and which considers itself the guardian of Western culture, leaving the politics to the guys inside the room. Among its recent causes was a campaign against American University's production of Romeo and Julian. "There's a difference between something modern and something that is totally blasé," explained the dapper sophomore Vitus van Rij, in a slightly lilting accent. "While there's nothing wrong with that, I prefer the original." I later chatted with the guy manning the booth across the aisle, for the conservative gay rights group GOProud, imagining a big tent over all of our heads.

As for those principles, well, it was left to John McCain to rally the troops. "You are a brave band of warriors," McCain consoled the delegates. "And you will be able to look back some day and say look, I was part of the Republican Party when times were the toughest. … It's hard trying to do the Lord's work in the city of Satan."

Incoming CNRC Chairman Zach Howell, who graduated this year from the University of Utah, has his work cut out for him. Elicia Huffaker, an intern at the GOP Youth Convention—an outfit set up to bring young conservatives together over pizza and beer—seems exactly the kind of person Howell will need to energize. Her assessment of the GOP? "We're the dead-meat party," she said. "We need to be the happy meal." Adding injury to insult, Huffaker did not pay the registration fee and so was unable to hear the convention's speakers; she was stationed at a booth outside.

The group is also working on its technological chops, which outgoing president Charlie Smith told me should be the CNRC's No.1 priority going forward. David All, of the eponymous conservative media consulting group, tried to persuade a less-than-capacity crowd that Twitter was the future. "That's the thing that we need to embrace and evangelize every single day," he said. "We have a massive opportunity to grow the pie of conservatism because of the quickness of Twitter and because everyone is jumping on board."

When he asked who was on Twitter, about half those assembled raised their hands. Only a couple—including Charlie Smith—used the #crnc tag. One member piped up skeptically: "What is Twitter? I don't get it, I use it kind of begrudgingly."

The next morning, RNC chair Michael Steele addressed the conference, but it was closed to the press. Sitting at a table near the entrance, an imposing man requested that I move away from the area entirely, lest stray remarks drift through the doorway.

Exiled from the speech, all I had to go on were tweets from inside the ballroom—maybe that media strategy will work after all, as long as they tweet on message. "Michael Steele 2 College Republicans: 'Without U ... we die. Party's ovr.' "

Correction, June 9, 2009: The original version of this article said Phyllis Schlafly is 75. She is 84. (Return  to the corrected sentence.)

Lydia DePillis is a writer living in New York.