Reports coming out of the Young Republicans convention last weekend in Indianapolis range from the disappointing to the disturbing.
The organization, which represents Republicans under 40 — a demographic where the GOP has been rapidly losing ground — seems to have taken a radical turn with this convention which does not bode well for the future of the party.
Controversy at the convention centered around the election of the new YR chairman, where a moderate candidate was beaten out by a narrow margin by a candidate who has been accused of racism, homophobia, and engaging in dirty campaign tricks.
According to a series of reports in The Daily Beast and confirmed by other sources, incoming YR Chair Audra Shay has a history of attacking other Republicans and making racially insensitive and homophobic statements and engaged in a smear campaign before and during the convention against her main challenger for the chairmanship, Rachel Hoff.
Shay describes herself as a “true conservative” and seems to be a movement conservative in the tradition of Karl Rove and Lee Atwater — who themselves took control of the College Republicans through similar divisive tactics and dirty campaigning back in the 1970s.
In contrast, Hoff is a moderate interested in party reform and notable for her support of same-sex civil unions.
To observers, Shay seems to represent the entrenched interests and failed agenda of the religious right and neoconservatives, while Hoff at least offered an alternative and relatively innovative perspective which would certainly be more appealing to a young audience. The candidates were also quite different in age, with Shay at age 38 almost too old to even run for the office and Hoff in her early 20s and more representative of the demographic the YRs are supposed to represent.
John Avlon’s coverage of Shay has been absolutely merciless, depicting her as an embodiment of the ugly face which the left likes to try to paint on Republicans. Much of his criticism centers around racist remarks made by one of her Facebook “friends” which she appeared to endorse or at least condone and around Shay’s vocal criticism of President Obama which is really not out of the norm for even more progressive Republicans, and could be considered legitimate given his professed beliefs and policies.
But Shay has also said things herself which are troubling and suggest a cavalier intolerance of minorities and for that matter anyone who does not share her exact beliefs. Certainly Shay has said some intemperate things and comes across as bitter, egotistical and vindictive, but it’s not entirely clear that she’s as bad as Avlon makes her out to be. On the other hand, reports of her campaign techniques are less equivocal. She seems to have benefited from a vicious rumor campaign suggesting that Hoff was a lesbian based on her choice to wear a suit instead of a dress at the convention and her support of civil unions. Perhaps most troubling was Shay’s successful effort to block a motion to hold the vote for chairman by secret ballot, opening the door to intimidation and reprisals against delegates who supported Hoff.
Shay’s victory by a margin of 470 to 415 votes is sure to prove divisive. At the convention there were already delegates who had been elected to office who were refusing to serve on a board headed by Shay, and scuffles on the floor during the election came close to breaking out into full-on fisticuffs. This struggle within the Young Republicans, where progressive reformers were stomped on by hardliners seems to mirror a struggle which is going on party-wide. Unfortunately, if the pattern shown here continues the GOP is likely to lose a lot of traction with younger voters and minorities which it desperately needs to increase its membership and broaden its appeal.
Shay’s election and her remarks certainly alienated black Republicans, including Lenny McAllister of HipHopRepublican, who commented:
“They just voted for a candidate who has a demonstrated tolerance for racial intolerance. She has joked about lynching and then claimed to be a victim. As a black man, I still don’t see what’s funny about that.”
In reference to comments Shay made about criticisms of her which she compared to a lynching. McAllister went on to write of the convention outcome:
“I do not advocate, support, or condone the failure of leadership recently exhibited. It is my ardent belief that the Party of Lincoln will return to its proud history of being avant garde regarding freedom, equality, and prosperity. I personally will not rest until the battle of conscience for what’s just within the Republican Party and throughout America has been won by the side of equality sans bigotry. I believe that there are plenty of Republicans and Americans throughout our nation that share this sentiment with me, one that strongly contrasts the one supported by Ms. Shay.”
McAllister’s concern about the direction that the party is going in is shared by many young Republicans who characterize themselves as “progressive” or “moderate” and whose beliefs are usually more centrist on issues like the environment and civil rights. Although they failed to prevail at the Young Republican convention, they still make up 47% of the constituency of that group, and with Audra Shay in charge there is a real danger of a split in the younger wing of the party or that many of them will just drift away from the party or even become Democrats.
On the other hand, this could present an opportunity for a powerful alliance between moderate, young Republicans and the Liberty Republicans of the Republican Liberty Caucus. Although their beliefs are not identical they do have many interests in common and the membership of the RLC skews very young demographically, possibly younger than the YRs are as a group.
The RLC has lots of college-aged members and young professionals and has a reform agenda whose goal is to return the GOP to its ideological and constitutional roots, an interest which moderate Republicans seem to share with their frequent allusions to the “Party of Lincoln.” The RLC believes in individual liberty, smaller government and personal responsibility, a simple and appealing platform which is not incompatible with support for many of the positions which moderates advocate.
As the Young Republicans descend into chaos and lose their relevance in a party which desperately needs reform, this would be a good time for Liberty Republicans to reach out to their disaffected members and show them that with common interests and an established nationwide organization the RLC can offer young Republicans the opportunity to put their energy to work making a better party which we can all be proud of. An alliance between moderates and Liberty Republicans could be a powerful force for change in the GOP.