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These young Republicans want the GOP to invest in Gen Z, but it's an uphill battle

Karoline Leavitt at a campaign stop in New Hampshire, just days before her loss on election day. Leavitt would have been one of the first members of Generation Z elected to Congress, and the first Republican.
Reba Saldanha
Karoline Leavitt at a campaign stop in New Hampshire, just days before her loss on election day. Leavitt would have been one of the first members of Generation Z elected to Congress, and the first Republican.

Updated December 23, 2022 at 3:52 PM ET

The GOP, known as the Grand Old Party, isn't usually considered the political party of the young.

In the midterm elections, a majority of Millennial and Generation Z voters – those under 41 – cast ballots for Democratic candidates, according to exit polls.

"This is the greatest challenge for the Republican Party today," said Karoline Leavitt, a 25-year-old Republican congressional candidate who lost in this year's election. "The midterm results certainly proved that."

Young conservatives like Leavitt are looking back at the midterms with a warning for their party: the political power of the youth vote can't be ignored. (The Republican National Committee did not respond to NPR's request for comment on this story.)

In 2022, voters under 30 alone supported Democrats by a 28-point margin. These numbers fall slightly short of the record-breaking 2018 midterms but far surpass young Democrats' margins in 2014, which was the last time the party held both the presidency and the House.

So, instead, to convince Millennials and members of Gen Z to vote for conservative candidates, Leavitt says Republicans need to hone in on certain issues young voters are passionate about, including environmental concerns and the cost of college and housing.

But missing from that list is the topic of abortion.

This cycle, Democrats championed a handful of social issues that young voters turned out for, notably safeguarding abortion access in the wake of the Supreme Court's decision to overturn Roe. v. Wade.

That policy disconnect between young abortion advocates and young conservatives complicates the Republicans' revised outreach plans.

Younger Republicans may also need to balance calls for change with the larger direction of the party — which is supported by an older and more conservative voter base.

"There's very little, to no chance for a Republican candidate to win the vote of a 'Zoomer' [a member of Gen Z] if they're not willing to recognize a woman's right to control her body," said John Della Volpe, the director of polling at the Harvard Kennedy School's Institute of Politics.

The same argument applies to issues like protecting LGBTQ rights, curbing gun violence, and addressing climate change, Della Volpe says.

"If you're not willing to recognize those things, you can't have a conversation with Gen Z. If you can't have a conversation with Gen Z, you're not going [to be] able to motivate them to vote," he added.

That's why Republican Iowa state Rep. Joe Mitchell, 25, says conservatives can't shy away from addressing divisive topics.

"We have to be able to be unapologetic about our stances," said Michell, who also heads the organization Run GenZ, which supports young Republicans running for state and local office.

"Coming front and center on these issues to say, no, we believe in reasonable exceptions for these sorts of things," Mitchell said, referring to abortion, which he voted to restrict during his time in the Iowa legislature.

On issues related to the environment and gun violence, Mitchell says Republicans have answers too.

"We believe in having a more renewable energy future when that works and when that's appropriate. And obviously, we want to make sure that kids are safe in school, and we just have different ideas of how to protect them," he said, adding, "So, I think taking these issues head-on is important when they're asked about."

Mitchell made history four years ago as the youngest person elected to the Iowa House of Representatives. He lost reelection this year to fellow Republican state Rep. Jeff Shipley, who, during the campaign, criticized Mitchell's support of LGBTQ rights.

Like Mitchell, maintaining her stances unapologetically is 25-year-old Isabel Brown, a conservative media personality and contributor for the political organization Turning Point USA, one of the largest organizations created to nationally engage young Republicans.

Brown thinks the Republican party needs to actively refocus away from just economic policy when talking to young voters.

"Generation Z is a very humanistic, empathy-first, feelings generation. We care about social and cultural issues far before we care about political issues," Brown said, adding, "for whatever reason, in this last election, the Republican Party held on very substantially to the idea that people vote with their pocketbook and their wallet first. And we just didn't see that to be true."

But social issues do not hand election victories to Republican candidates the way economic messaging does, says Republican pollster Jim Hobart, a partner at the firm Public Opinion Strategies.

For Republican candidates, Hobart says, it's still more politically advantageous to allocate resources to courting older voters – especially in midterm election years where voters over 45 turn out at higher numbers and skew Republican.

"Yes, with infinite money, you would have a strategy to appeal to 18 to 34-year-olds, 35 to 54-year-olds and a 55-plus strategy, you spend equal amounts of money and all of them. The reality is that that's not typically the case," Hobart said.

"You do have to make these hard choices. And on average, where are you going to go? Where more voters are, both in terms of your likelihood to get them and their likelihood to turn out," he explained.

But as the older electorate ages, Della Volpe points to one sobering data point: young voters will dominate the electorate over the next decade. In 2024 alone, nearly 40% of Millennials and Gen Zers are expected to vote.

"[The] Republican Party seems to only focus on taking everything they can get today and mortgaging the future of their party," Della Volpe said. "If that's the game they're playing, they've been more successful than anyone would have thought. In terms of the Dobbs decision, those sorts of things, but to what cost?"

And while Republicans' path with young voters remains unclear, the same age group is not a safe bet for Democrats either.

Despite voting with Democrats this cycle, recent NPR polling shows that just 41% of voters under 40 have a favorable opinion of the party – virtually tied with their view of Republicans at 42%. One-in-five is unsure of both parties.

For youth organizers that ran grassroots voter campaigns for Democratic candidates this year, they haven't lost sight of that larger vulnerability.

"There absolutely is room for Republicans to make gains. And that's what keeps me up," said Dakota Hall, the executive director of the Alliance for Youth Action, one of several youth-led voter organizations that worked to propel Democratic candidates across the finish line this cycle.

"I think they can have infrastructure. They just don't know how to play it politically well with young people at this moment," Hall added, referring to Turning Point Action, the political organizing wing of Turning Point USA.

Representatives from Turning Point Action did not respond to NPR's request for comment on mobilizing metrics. But founder and President Charlie Kirk as said that the organization "directly contacted and engaged over 5 million voters."

For Leavitt, keeping her own campaign experience in mind, Republicans need to address the age disparity in their voting base by restructuring their online outreach specifically – both on social media and with advertising.

She can also acknowledge that her party lacks the same level of nationwide grassroots organizing that the Democrats have.

"It's not that young people in conservative households don't exist. Of course, they do," Leavitt added, "But we're not mobilizing them in the vast way that the Democrats are."

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Elena Moore is a production assistant for the NPR Politics Podcast. She also fills in as a reporter for the NewsDesk. Moore previously worked as a production assistant for Morning Edition. During the 2020 presidential campaign, she worked for the Washington Desk as an editorial assistant, doing both research and reporting. Before coming to NPR, Moore worked at NBC News. She is a graduate of The George Washington University in Washington, D.C., and is originally and proudly from Brooklyn, N.Y.