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Young voters tend to lean Democrat. Conservatives are trying to win them over

AYESHA RASCOE, HOST:

Republicans are up against a widening generation gap. In the midterms, voters 18 to 29 supported Democrats by almost 30 points, according to exit polls. Younger voters tend to break with Republicans on issues like abortion and climate change, but some young Republicans hope to change that. NPR's Sarah McCammon was in Milwaukee this past week for the first Republican primary debate and has this report.

SARAH MCCAMMON, BYLINE: At just 17, Brilyn Hollyhand is too young to vote in his home state of Alabama's presidential primary next year. He'll have to wait until next November to cast his first ballot as a Republican. And he wants more young voters to join him.

BRILYN HOLLYHAND: We drastically underperformed in the midterms. I mean, it was embarrassing.

MCCAMMON: Hollyhand is co-chairman of the Republican National Committee's new Youth Advisory Council, which is working to meet young voters where they are, he says mostly online. He says the RNC assembled a diverse group of voters under 35 for the council.

HOLLYHAND: That was important to us - that it wasn't just what the traditional Republican Party was of, you know, 10 old, white, straight males sitting in a board room and trying to tell the country how to run things. We didn't want that.

MCCAMMON: Hollyhand sees his values reflected in the Republican Party and the conservative Supreme Court justices appointed by former President Trump. As a young, white male himself, he says he was concerned that affirmative action might hurt his chances of getting into the best colleges.

HOLLYHAND: I am a white, straight male. I'm bottom of the totem pole. And I really am.

MCCAMMON: So Hollyhand was pleased with the Supreme Court's recent decision rejecting race-conscious admissions. His co-chair on the RNC Youth Advisory Council, C.J. Pearson from Georgia, says he agrees.

CJ PEARSON: As a Black man in America, I do not want anything that I achieve to be thought about as, oh, well, sure, I know he's smart. He's pretty articulate. He's pretty well-spoken. And, you know, he's a good resume. But at the same time, though, like, did he really earn that, or did he earn it because he's Black?

MCCAMMON: As a young, Black Republican, Pearson is an outlier. The GOP lags behind not just with young voters but with voters of color and with women. Young female voters have expressed particularly strong support for abortion rights. But for 24-year-old Alyssa Rinelli of Milwaukee, the Supreme Court decision overturning Roe v. Wade is moving the country in the right direction. Rinelli says it will promote what she describes as greater personal responsibility when it comes to sex.

ALYSSA RINELLI: If you're going to, you know, do the thing, make sure that you're protected, and you're being responsible, and perhaps you're choosing the person that you are going to do it with a little bit more carefully. And so I think that that's what it's promoting.

MCCAMMON: Rinelli also thinks her party needs to do a better job making its case to younger voters. She recently started a local Milwaukee County Young Republicans chapter.

RINELLI: They're really just not in front of young voters the way that Democrats are. They don't always have, you know, quote, unquote, "sexy appeal" that the Democrats do in terms of their policies and the things that they put forth.

MCCAMMON: But getting the Republican message in front of younger voters may not be enough, says Melissa Deckman, CEO of the Public Religion Research Institute.

MELISSA DECKMAN: Yeah, they can outreach to young voters, but right now that message, I don't think, is going to be received very well.

MCCAMMON: Deckman notes that younger Americans are more diverse, less religious and more likely to identify as LGBTQ.

DECKMAN: The Republican Party right now is not exactly embracing the sorts of issues that those voters care about.

MCCAMMON: Young Republicans like Brilyn Hollyhand will be out talking to their peers over the coming months, urging them to get involved.

HOLLYHAND: My big push over the next two months is educating and making sure that our generation knows how to vote, where to vote, when to vote, all of that.

MCCAMMON: This election cycle, the Republican Party is actively embracing early voting, hoping that push brings in new conservative voters. Sarah McCammon, NPR News, Milwaukee. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Sarah McCammon
Sarah McCammon is a National Correspondent covering the Mid-Atlantic and Southeast for NPR. Her work focuses on political, social and cultural divides in America, including abortion and reproductive rights, and the intersections of politics and religion. She's also a frequent guest host for NPR news magazines, podcasts and special coverage.