By Elana Schor - 07/06/05 12:00 AM EDT
At the top of the hotel escalator, every young man and woman toted two indispensable items: an “NRA For Tom DeLay” sticker and a flier for free drinks. One boy greeted new arrivals by asking earnestly, “Are you ready to have a blast?!”
Late last month, the 113-year-old student group College Republicans descended on the Crystal City Marriott for the group’s annual gathering and national election.
The College Republican National Conference (CRNC) is far from the regular campus club. It’s a fundraising machine, an ideological juggernaut that eclipses many state parties and, for the more than 600 group members who attended the convention, a powerful social bond. When pundits note the power of the GOP hierarchy, continuously churning out disciplined future party leaders, it’s the College Republicans they’re talking about.
Jordan Selick, 19, has been a College Republican since his freshman year at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. He also joined a fraternity soon after arriving on campus but forged even stronger friendships volunteering in last year’s presidential election.
“These are my best friends,” Selick said of his fellow conservatives. “College Republicans provides not only an avenue for people to express their political opinion but a network.”
And an alumni list most universities would kill for. Former College Republican officers often ascend to jobs in state GOP offices, and the sometimes cutthroat atmosphere of internal CRNC politics has proved to be a phenomenal training ground for national Republican superstars. Famous ex-College Republicans include Bush administration strategist Karl Rove; conservative superlobbyist Grover Norquist; Ralph Reed, former chief of the Christian Coalition; legendary operative Lee Atwater; and Morton Blackwell, founder of the Leadership Institute think tank.
“There are no rules in a knife fight. You don’t need permission to become political,” Norquist told a packed ballroom of thrilled College Republicans as their convention kicked off. Like most of the CRNC convention speakers, Norquist skipped the usual attempts at inspirational rhetoric and spoke to the students with the political sophistication of his adult colleagues.
How do thousands of young people mobilize so efficiently when their friends are still sleeping off keg parties and racing to make it to a 10 a.m. class? The College Republicans’ secret is that keg parties are their organizational strategy. Two dueling bashes at the convention were a Reagan-tribute dance party, featuring nonstop 1980s tunes and a bustling bar scene, and the more posh Casino Night party that lured teens in low-cut dresses to mock craps tables with an enticing invitation to “Come Get Lucky.”
College Republicans’ welcoming attitude tends not to extend to the media. A tall boy with acne scars dotting his cheeks was decked out in a black suit and earpiece, looking like a trick-or-treater in a Secret Service costume, and accosted this reporter outside the casino party with a nervous query.
“Did you get permission to take pictures of this?” the College Republican asked. When press credentials were proffered, he added, “I’m just doing my job.” Other College Republicans notably cringed when approached by reporters at the back of the convention hall, and one, after granting an interview, asked to take his remarks off the record to preserve his future congressional career.
Tom Jardon, a 21-year-old senior at the University of Florida, was proud to talk about being president of his school’s College Republicans. For Jardon, dedicating himself to the group was a natural part of the personality redefinition that many students experience while living away from home for the first time. But that change came to Jardon in an unusual way — instead of rebelling from the social conservatism his Cuban-exile parents hold dear, Jardon embraced it.
“Once I was through partying my freshman year, I thought I should get more involved,” Jardon said. “Most people are apathetic. That’s our biggest enemy, not just the left on campus.”
Most College Republicans are energized by their pariah status among friends and classmates who would rather talk about Tom Cruise than Tom DeLay. When they take flak for working too hard, whether volunteering for local candidates or toting “Viva Bush” signs through moving traffic during last year’s presidential campaign, College Republicans respond by working even harder.
“This is not a battlefield; this is behind enemy lines,” Selick said of his political work on campus. Setting up tables to catch students going between classes and start a good-natured discussion can turn into full-scale ideological warfare. “We’ve had our American flag burned. It’s just ridiculous how many people would say F-you or go to you-know-where.”
Some of the CRNC’s awareness drives actively court controversy. In the fall of 2003, scores of College Republican chapters coordinated “affirmative-action bake sales” to get people talking about what they believe is the unfairness of race-based recruiting. A cookie at these bake sales cost $1 for white people, 50 cents for women and a quarter for African-Americans; for some College Republicans, holding the bake sales provoked brutal fights with other students.
Such emotional intensity sends an increasing number of College Republicans to the Internet, where they can communicate across long distances and boost the community’s morale. College Republican Web logs have sprouted like online weeds as group members compare partisan battle wounds — the blogs boast such names as “CRNC Truth Caucus” and “CR Veterans for Truth.” John Plecnik, a home-schooled Duke University law student who is revered by his fellow North Carolina College Republicans, has used his home page to place columns in conservative journals.
College Republican clubs are rarely short on passion, commitment or resources, but moderates are an endangered species and often teased by their friends in the group. One CRNC member, when asked why the group has a reputation for extreme conservatism, dashed off a line he attributed to the late President Ronald Reagan: “The only things you find in the middle of the road are road kill and moderates.”
Another touchstone of College Republican membership is outside interest-group membership. The hotel hallways that became home base during the students’ convention were crammed with booths from leadership clubs seeking new members, and CRs lined up three deep to hear employees of the Young America’s Foundation, Americans for Tax Reform, the Clare Booth Luce Policy Institute and the National Right to Work Committee.
If the club tables and free late-night parties did not hold the College Republicans’ attention, there was always time to shop. Among the plentiful convention merchandising were jeweled elephant brooches perfect for the collars of denim jackets and bumper stickers with quips such as “The 2nd Amendment: The Original Homeland Security.” One trendy T-shirt designer’s $20 creations bore slogans such as “Kick A Commie for Ronnie” and, in a historical reference that many adults might not grasp, “Be Cool for Coolidge.”
“Being the generation we grew up in, coming off of Reagan and now Bush, we kind of have the advantage that conservatism isn’t this big, nasty thing,” Jardon said. “It’s something we walked into and embraced.”
According to Jardon and his friends, there are three types of College Republicans. The first is students who are “in it just for themselves,” he said. “Those kinds of people don’t really adhere to one ideology. They’re more interested in career opportunities and such.” These “CRs,” as group members are commonly known, joined to take advantage of the CRNC’s vast alumni network and the GOP’s majority power in Washington. Few if any group members will admit to being a Type One conservative.
The second subset of College Republicans, Jardon said, are less overtly conservative and thrive more on the horse race. “They do believe in everything the party preaches, but it’s almost like politics is sport and they thrive off competition.” Jardon identifies himself as a Type Two, and he campaigned vigorously in this year’s heated race for CRNC chairman.
The third group are “real ideologists, who not only believe what the party preaches but believe the party should be doing more,” Jardon said. These CRs are called “3-a.m.-ers” for their superhuman energy and commitment. Selick’s heartfelt personal politics mark him as a Type Three, but his College Republican club extends olive branches instead of throwing red meat.
“We try to reach out and co-sponsor a lot of events with the Young Democrats,” Selick said. “We try to involve people from the black student movement … to have a respectful dialogue instead of just a yelling match.”
The strange blend of precocious cynicism and wide-eyed idealism that characterizes College Republicans lends itself to idol worship. Apart from Reagan and Bush, most of the students cited Rove as their role model, suggesting that CRNC members are more likely to toil behind the scenes than get in front of C-SPAN cameras themselves.
After a morning of speeches from party leaders, though, Rep. Mike Pence (R-Ind.) had become several students’ new favorite Republican thanks to his most important political value: personal integrity.