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Republicans: How To Attract The Next Generation?


NPR's Tovia Smith has more on young voters.

TOVIA SMITH, BYLINE: One commentator called it the demographic cliff. With young voters trending blue, and more and more of them coming of age each election, it doesn't bode well for the GOP.

MEGAN HIGGINBOTHAM: What do y'all feel?

SMITH: Twenty-three-year-old Megan Higginbotham sat in a local restaurant in Georgetown, Texas, this week, commiserating with other members of her Young Republicans Club - like 25-year-old Kristen Smith.

KRISTEN SMITH: You know, I allowed myself to grieve. I let - you know, like, why didn't we win?

SMITH: But they came less for a sob session, than for some serious soul-searching. These young people have watched so many peers vote Democratic because of social issues like abortion and gay marriage, they're wrestling with the same question as party leaders - whether the GOP should veer right, to energize its base; or moderate, to win over the middle.


SMITH: They didn't mean it, but the song they picked for a slideshow recapping the election does reflect the tension in the party. Thirty-four-year-old Trevor Cheetham is one who says the GOP should just quit opposing gay marriage, for example. It's not only a loser for the party, he believes, but it's also un-Republican.

TREVOR CHEETHAM: People are going to do what people want to do. Gay people, even though the government doesn't recognize it, they're still together. So why is the government involved in it, at all?

SMITH: Another member, Eric Stratton, works with high school kids. With the nation facing a fiscal cliff, he says, it's like a knife in his heart to hear so many young people voting on social issues. In order to win them back, he says, the party doesn't need to change positions. It just needs to change the conversation.

ERIC STRATTON: It's not that we abandon who we are, and what we stand for. It's a matter of, how do we make the message fit these constituencies that we know we need to make come alive?

SMITH: Republicans can still win over young people, these activists say - if they have the right messenger, and if they stop letting others define them as intolerant, and lacking compassion. Kristen Smith says she feels that every day - as does her husband, who works with special-needs adults.

SMITH: Every single time he tells somebody in his line of work that he's a Republican, they look at him funny. They're just like, really, you actually care? You're Republican.

How awful is that?

JAMES CHRISTOPHERSEN: Unfortunately, the Republican Party did a horrible job of defending it.

SMITH: Twenty-five-year-old James Christophersen - with the Washington, D.C. Young Republicans - agrees the GOP doesn't need to moderate. It just needs to stand more firmly for what he calls its core values.

CHRISTOPHERSEN: The lack of turnout of the base, is what killed us. And so the solution is for the Republican Party to do a better job of messaging the platform that they have in place now; and do a better job of finding candidates who genuinely believe in those ideas, and can accurately and articulately defend them.

SMITH: Nearly 500 miles north, Harvard University Republican Club president Derek Bekebrede also worries about the GOP being seen as judgmental and extreme - for example, with comments about "legitimate rape." But he cautions against a panicked lurch to the center.

DEREK BEKEBREDE: I think there's a difference between saying we have to moderate, and we have to be big tent. I think we can still welcome people with a variety of opinions, but we're still going to hold to the true platform.

SMITH: Widening the tent, however, also has limits, as 21-year-old Owen Becker can tell you. He worked for Richard Tisei, an openly gay Republican who ran for Congress from Massachusetts. Tisei supports same-sex marriage and abortion - but still lost, Becker believes, because of his affiliation with a party that's seen as out of synch on those issues.

OWEN BECKER: A lot of people see an R next to a name, and they just say, oh, well, they're just bad. And so it kind of - almost stops them at the door.

SMITH: Growing up in Massachusetts, Becker has lived the extreme of what other young Republicans are just beginning to taste. In high school, he was the only one in his class not supporting Barack Obama. But, he adds, he also grew up a Red Sox fan. So he's used to being disappointed, and then coming out on top again.

Tovia Smith, NPR News.

INSKEEP: Mitt Romney is also analyzing the Republican defeat. In a call with donors, Romney said President Obama won by giving, quote, "gifts" to black voters, Latinos and young people. Romney suggested the president bought off targeted groups with immigration proposals; keeping the young on the health insurance plans their parents buy; and keeping contraception as part of the health plans that workers earn. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Tovia Smith is an award-winning NPR National Correspondent based in Boston, who's spent more than three decades covering news around New England and beyond.

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