How Young Republicans on One Campus Are Adapting to a Fractured Party

April 27, 2016

Courtney Kueppers
Bobby Lindsey II (left) and Ryan Kromsky are co-founders of the U. of Maryland Progressive Republican Club. The group, with more than 75 members, is committed to staying in the Republican Party, but is willing to concede the fight over social issues.
When Bobby Lindsey II first arrived at the University of Maryland’s flagship campus here, he couldn’t find a student group that represented his political beliefs. In fact, as a moderate Republican, he said he felt so marginalized that he decided to carve out his own space.

In the fall of 2014, Mr. Lindsey — now a senior who will graduate next month — along with his fellow student and friend, Ryan Kromsky, founded the University of Maryland Progressive Republican Club. The club — the first of its kind in the nation, they say — is founded on simple principles: conservative economic policies, and a willingness to concede the fight over social issues, in hopes of re-energizing the party and attracting more diverse people to vote Republican. As Mr. Kromsky put it, they "firmly believe in conservative economic policy" and limited government, but they won’t spend time "arguing over abortion."

Members of the Progressive Republican Club 'firmly believe in conservative economic policy' and limited government, but they won't spend time 'arguing over abortion.'
Fast forward a year and a half to today, and the group has more than 75 members and meets monthly. (Mr. Kromsky has since graduated, but Mr. Lindsey still serves as co-president, along with Nolan Quinn, a sophomore who will take over in the fall.)

The club has championed LGBT rights in collaboration with Campus Pride and reforms in policing with members of the university’s NAACP chapter. They may not reflect the norm in Republican politics, but members say they are committed to staying in the party.

"If we were to jump ship now, all that does is cede that much ground to the Democrats," Mr. Kromsky said. "We think it’s more important to fight for the change we want to see rather than just to assume that it will happen."

But they aren’t the only young Republicans on the campus fighting for the party’s future. In fact, the sheer number and variety of conservative groups at the university — and the tension among them — mirrors the splintering of the Republican Party that has played out on the national stage.

Varying Views

Mr. Lindsey and Mr. Kromsky went to high school together in Maryland’s Baltimore County. They have been discussing and debating Republican politics since their days in AP Government, which is obvious in their rapport. They feed off each other when talking about their club and what it stands for.

Mr. Lindsey, who is black, believes the Republican Party should be a space for everyone, regardless of race, religion, or background. He thinks the College Park group has done on a micro level what the national Republican Party ought to do on a macro level.

On Monday night, on the eve of the state’s primary, the club’s leaders had accepted that Donald J. Trump would likely prevail in Maryland (he did, by a large margin). But the real-estate mogul wasn’t getting their votes. The executive board of the club has unanimously come out against Mr. Trump, and they haven’t given up hope for a contested national convention.

"We’re really hoping the party can speak up before it’s too late," Mr. Kromsky said.

Other Republicans on campus, however, are excited about the possibility of Mr. Trump winning the party’s nomination. In early March, a new student group was founded: "Terps for Trump," in reference to the school’s mascot, a diamondback terrapin. The group has more than 100 likes on Facebook and about 40 active members, and its support for the GOP front-runner is scrawled in chalk on the campus mall.

Members of Terps for Trump are wary of backlash but embrace it, too: 'We are trying to start discussion.'
Shubham Chattopadhyay, a freshman computer-engineering student who is a member of the group, said he was excited to cast his vote for Mr. Trump in Tuesday’s primary. He has enjoyed being politically involved, even if that means venturing out to chalk at 2 a.m. — which the group does to protect members’ personal safety, Mr. Chattopadhyay said.

"There is a lot of backlash against us," he said. "That’s also kind of part of it: We are trying to start discussion. And people are talking about it. I try to monitor it and fan the flames and keep the discussion going."

The findings of a poll released Monday by Harvard University’s Institute of Politics show that groups like Terps for Trump represent a small number of young conservatives. The poll found 57 percent of young Republicans view Mr. Trump unfavorably.

It’s no secret that college students are more likely to vote for candidates on the left: 34 percent of this year’s college freshmen identify as "liberal" or "far left," while about 22 percent identify as "conservative" or "far right." The latter figure is down from about 26 percent of students in 2006, according to the annual Freshman Survey by the Cooperative Institutional Research Program, part of the Higher Education Research Institute at the University of California at Los Angeles.

David Karol, an associate professor of government and politics at Maryland, said young voters tend to still be figuring out their political identity, so if right-leaning students aren’t excited about their Republican options, they may decide to vote Democrat.

"Younger people in general are trying on different identities," he said. "It’s a time when people are in flux in their lives and get exposed to new, diverse influences. Hillary Clinton got to college and she was a Goldwater girl, she was a Young Republican, but she evolved during her time in college."

There are many examples of changes like that, going in both directions, Mr. Karol said. "When people are younger what’s going on right then is very influential in shaping them."

Committed to the Cause

Historically, campus chapters of the College Republicans, founded in 1892, have been spaces for young Republicans to band together and voice their support for candidates. According to the organization’s website, there are more than 1,800 campus chapters, and 250,000 members across the country.

Just a sophomore, Jacob Veitch was recently elected president of the College Republicans chapter here.

Mr. Veitch is poised and polished. He speaks confidently about his desire to "build coalitions" with other political groups on campus, both those that agree with the Republican agenda and those that don’t. And he said he thinks there is room for a wide range of political clubs on the campus.

"It’s been really phenomenal to see a lot of involvement," he said. "We do say we are a very politically active campus, one of the most politically active in the country. Sometimes you forget that, but it’s been renewed with this cycle."

Both Mr. Veitch and Mr. Lindsey said there has been tension between the College Republicans and the Progressive Republican Club. Their differences were highlighted in a debate between the groups last fall, which one student called "feisty," according to the university’s student newspaper.

So why not just join the already established College Republicans chapter?

Mr. Lindsey said the group just isn’t progressive enough, plain and simple. But he does say that students are more than welcome to be members of both groups, saying his organization is not looking to edge out the other club.

"We are not opposed to the College Republicans," he said. "We didn’t form in response to them, we formed in response to a larger problem."

Mr. Lindsey is moving on from Maryland, but he intends on bringing his club with him. After graduation next month he will enroll at Harvard Law School, where he hopes to continue to spread progressive Republican ideas, and even found a chapter.

"I want to make this a new thing for college students everywhere," he said. "We’re the future of the Republican Party, so we have to start moving forward."