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Youngest state GOP chairman looks to appeal to 'buffet generation'

By Peter Hamby, CNN Political Reporter
updated 4:46 PM EDT, Wed June 19, 2013
Despite looking more like a College Republican than a party boss, Matt Moore brings considerable Republican pedigree to the job of South Carolina party chairman.
Despite looking more like a College Republican than a party boss, Matt Moore brings considerable Republican pedigree to the job of South Carolina party chairman.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • 31-year-old state chair's resume includes a number of GOP politicians and organizations
  • Matt Moore says party's efforts to attract younger voters starts with its message
  • Chairman predicts this is not the year of immigration reform, given country's polarization

Washington (CNN) -- When the chairman of the South Carolina Republican Party abruptly resigned two weeks ago to take a new job in Washington, GOP activists appointed Matt Moore, the party's former executive director, to replace their leader.

Moore earned another distinction in the process. The boyish-looking 31-year-old is now the youngest state party chairman in the country, in either party.

At first glance, Moore takes over a party organization in terrific shape.

South Carolina Republicans control all nine statewide offices and six of the state's seven congressional seats.

In May, Sanford handily won a special congressional election despite being badly outspent by Democrat Elizabeth Colbert-Busch and her national allies. Mitt Romney beat Barack Obama in the Palmetto State by 10 points.

But beneath the surface lie a number of challenges.

State Republicans are grappling with a long-standing flame war between libertarian activists and the party establishment, a conflict that may rear its head next year as Sen. Lindsey Graham seeks re-election.

In the state legislature, conservatives recently teamed with Democrats to scuttle Republican Gov. Nikki Haley's attempt at ethics reform. There are also financial worries: the party has less than $40,000 in the bank and is struggling to repay a six-figure loan taken out in 2012.

Despite looking more like a college Republican than a party boss, Moore comes to the position with considerable Republican pedigree -- experience he'll need to confront those problems.

Moore has the added burden of steering one of the GOP's most important state parties, an organization that finds itself at the center of national politics every four years as the guardian of the state's "First-in-the-South" presidential primary.

Moore, a Georgia Tech grad, has worked for former Georgia Gov. Sonny Perdue, former South Carolina Gov. Mark Sanford, the Republican Governors Association, the conservative organization Club For Growth, the South Carolina GOP, and most recently, for the state's newest senator, Tim Scott.

The chairman spoke to CNN about the difficulties facing his party, and what it means to be a fresh face in the GOP as the national party struggles to win over a younger generation of voters.

CNN: How does the Republican Party attract young voters after President Obama won almost two-thirds of voters under the age of 30?

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Moore: It's a multi-step process. We are certainly well aware that Barack Obama won five million more votes among people under 30 than Mitt Romney. Of course, Governor Romney won the over-30 vote by two million people.

I think it begins with our message, which is we have to have a positive message that attracts voters. We've got to tell voters why they have to be with us instead of against the other guys. The line is that we've got to hire Chick-fil-A as our marketing team.

Q: What do you mean by that?

A: We always joke here that the Republican Party needs Chick-fil-A to do its marketing because we have got to have an inviting message that tells people why they ought to vote for their product instead of against the other guy's product. Chick-fil-A doesn't send out fliers that say "McDonald's stinks." They send out a picture of a great-looking chicken sandwich and we eat it.

Q: Do conservatives in the party need to downplay their adherence to certain social issues, specifically opposing same-sex marriage, to win back some of those younger folks whose attitudes are fairly different from older generations?

A: I think if we allow the Democrats to put wedge issues front and center, we are making a mistake. We have to be out there fighting for people's hearts and souls on the issues that, at the end of the day, affect their families, affect their pocketbook, affect their small businesses. Republicans have always had success fighting for pocketbook issues. If we allow the Democrats to set the playing field with divisive issues -- well, we shouldn't do that.

Q: What advantage do you think your relative youth gives you over older party leaders?

A: I think I bring a fresh way of solving problems. Our generation -- and when I say our generation I mean those probably ages 20 to 40 -- our generation is not as locked into political groups, or social groups, or community groups as they once were. That, for us, presents unique challenges and opportunities in that things can change very quickly.

We are kind of like the buffet generation. I might like a little bit of the Republicans' fiscal conservatism, I might like something about the Democrats, but at the end of the day its up to us to make a winning, positive and compelling message for voters and earn them to get them to our side. We really want to expand the size of the tent in South Carolina. We need to do a better job of reaching young professionals and students. We think the next generation of voters should be conservatives who are tired of the assault on their personal freedoms.

Q: Immigration is always a hot-button issue for South Carolina Republicans and Sen. Lindsey Graham is once again knee-deep in the immigration reform push and will have to face questions about it in his re-election campaign next year. Do you think reform will pass? Do you need it to pass for the party to evolve?

A: Lindsey Graham is going to be an incredibly hard candidate to beat. He has a lot of money in the bank. He is a tough campaigner. He has a good team. He will be tough to beat.

Look, I think we can all agree on the need for reform. I think when you get into the specifics, that's where the disagreements are in the party and nationally. I certainly think that most people are supportive of some sensible immigration reforms, but it begins and ends at enforcing and securing the border. I don't think that anyone on our side thinks that the administration is good at doing that. We continue to see broken promises. I don't see it happening. It's hard to see how immigration reform happens this year with the polarization of the country.

Q: State and national Democrats think they can unseat Gov. Nikki Haley next year in her rematch against state Sen. Vincent Sheheen. Do you see any positive trends on the horizon for South Carolina Democrats that give you pause?

A: Democrats were sorely mistaken this spring. They thought they had a great candidate in Elizabeth Colbert-Busch against Mark Sanford. We proved them wrong in doing a few things. One is getting out there and spreading that message of Republicanism, which is limited government, individual freedom and free markets. Democrats had a two-to-one cash advantage and Mark Sanford still won. We had an outstanding ground game. It's going to very, very hard for Democrats to make any inroads here. I'm not going to say it's not going to happen, but we have been building the kind of infrastructure here that the RNC and others did not build after 2004 nationally.

We can't make the same mistake the RNC made in 2004 after (George W.) Bush's re-election, which is they didn't invest in infrastructure, they didn't invest in the kind of outreach and relationships necessary to build long term. That's the goal here in South Carolina. We want to build a majority that last 20, 40, 60, 100 years, even at the county level.

Q: What kind of infrastructure are you referring to?

A: Last year, we did most of our technology in-house. I directed a good bit of. We had our own list-building systems that were better than the RNC. Look, technology is more than just Facebook and Twitter. Technology is using tools available to augment and add to traditional sort of campaign strategy. If you don't have a good message, you don't have a good product and a good candidate, it's still going to be hard. If we use technology well, we will be successful, but it begins and ends with having good candidates with a positive messages.

So we are going to use more Facebook targeting, we are going to use more ad targeting, we did some of that in the Sanford race. We are really getting away form silo-ing that the RNC and others didn't do well in the mid-2000s, creating a unified system where our finance team is talking to our communications team and our e-mail team. Just really having a unified product.

Q: Your party doesn't exactly have a lot of money in the bank right now. What are your fund-raising plans?

A: The party raised $4 million over the past two years. That's a staggering amount of money to raise. We made significant investments in a lot of races last year. We made a $200,000 investment in the Mark Sanford campaign. We did almost all of the grassroots outreach, TV ads and mail in that race. Obviously it paid off. Parties have a place to save money for rainy days, but I'd argue that a congressional race is a rainy day, we are not in the business of saving money, we are in the business of spending money and winning elections when it matters.

Q: In 2012, Newt Gingrich ended the South Carolina primary's long-held streak of picking Republican nominees. Is the primary still relevant?

A: The South Carolina primary is as important as ever. We are the first presidential primary in the South. I am going to fight tooth and nail for it. South Carolina is the first place where you come to appeal to the three-legged stool of the Republican Party, which is the foreign policy, social- and business-minded Republicans. You've got to compete across three geographic areas, across a large state. South Carolina's primary is as important as ever and it will remain that way in 2016, regardless of who comes here to campaign. We have (Kentucky Sen.) Rand Paul coming here soon, and this fall we will be announcing more events with potential candidates.

Q: Speaking of Rand Paul, is the GOP becoming more libertarian?

A: I don't know about libertarian. I think society as a whole is more worried about government infringements on their personal liberties, and there has been a big fight over this now in Washington for six or eight weeks. I don't think the fight is over. The fight is just beginning. We are all on the same page now about limiting the size and scope of government. I think all Americans can all agree on that.

Q: How do you plan to work with the liberty movement, those Ron Paul supporters in South Carolina who've been been a thorn in the side of the party establishment for years?

A: I welcome anyone who believes in those core principles of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. We can disagree from time to time, but I think the Republican Party is the home of those people naturally. The Republican Party is the naturally the home of those people. We are a far cry from the Democrats on those core issues.

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