Karly Matthews is a climate activist. She’s also a Republican.
The 24-year-old Pennsylvanian – who serves as the communications director for the American Conservation Coalition, a conservative environmental group – often gets pushback from both Democrats and Republicans who say her beliefs are contradictory.
“At this point in my life, I kind of laugh off criticism like that,” Matthews told CNN, adding that she received similar feedback in college for being young and conservative, as if the two are mutually exclusive.
“Caring about climate change and being conservative and believing in small government are compatible,” she said.
Matthews is representative of the young conservatives who have come of age in a time marked by one crisis after another – from 9/11 to the 2008 financial collapse, school shootings, climate change and Covid-19.
Youth activism on these issues, both in the streets and online, gives the impression that this generation is exceptionally liberal, and young Americans ages 18-29 do lean to the left – only 36% voted for former President Donald Trump in 2020, according to CNN’s exit polls. Yet there are a number of young voters who are for limited government and fiscal conservativism but didn’t align with Trump and his policies.
Now, frustrated by record-high gas prices, grocery prices and Russia’s invasion in Ukraine, conservatives believe that both Trump voters and non-Trump voters alike will rally around these core issues, leading to electoral success for Republicans in the 2022 midterms.
“Young Americans are being left behind in Biden’s America – we’re facing skyrocketing prices, Biden’s gas hike, and we’ve lost precious time in the classroom that we can’t get back. Meanwhile, states with Republican leadership have led the way in economic recovery and getting students back in school and young Americans back to work,” RNC Deputy Press Secretary Will O’Grady told CNN in a statement. “The RNC has been on the ground since last cycle, engaging and recruiting our next generation of conservative voters who value freedom, opportunity, and love for our country.”
The RNC said that ahead of 2022, it continues to build out its network with young Americans and is recruiting campus team leaders as part of its Campus Team Leader Initiative, a youth engagement program which started as part of the Trump Victory Fund.
One of the largest groups of young Republicans, the College Republicans organization, told CNN it has beefed up its “volunteer strike force” which, ahead of the midterms, will focus on making phone calls and knocking on doors for GOP candidates.
“On the right, we’re really motivated right now because we’re fed up and want change,” Courtney Britt, the 25-year-old chairman of College Republicans, told CNN. “The youth vote in the middle is leaning our way right now because they see the things Democrats promised them are not coming to fruition. Maybe it’s time to give Republican policies a try.”
A chance for the GOP to win back moderate young Americans
Midterm elections usually don’t bode well for the party in power, and 2022 may be no different. It presents an opportunity for the Republican Party to win back some young conservative voters who either withheld from voting for president or voted for Joe Biden in 2020.
Since taking office, President Biden’s approval rating has declined among young voters and non-Democrats who once supported the Democratic President, according to CNN’s latest full CNN/SSRS poll.
According to the poll, those younger than 45 make up 60% of the voters who say they cast a ballot for Biden in 2020 and don’t approve of the job he is doing. They’re only 33% of the voters who say they voted for Biden and approve of him.
“Leadership is up for grabs with young people. We’re just really hungry for leadership,” Matthews, who didn’t vote for president in 2020, told CNN.
Matthews said that despite not casting a ballot for president in 2020, her decision did “not necessarily,” mean she was “rejecting the conservative movement.”
“I think Republicans should be looking at 2022 as a huge opportunity to really appeal to the young disillusioned voter,” she said.
Like Matthews, Ally Chun, a 20-year-old Republican from New York, said, “I think that a lot of people are extremely dissatisfied with how things are going now.”
“How Biden has acted during the situation we’ve been in with Ukraine is a huge red flag,” Chun, who voted for Biden in 2020, said. “I think that’s really going to incentivize young Republicans and people who are moderate.”
In 2020 groups like College Republicans for Biden and Gen Z GOP formed, aiming to give center-right Gen Z voters a home amid a Republican administration and presidential reelection campaign they felt did not represent their beliefs or values.
At the time, these conservative voters – who said they prioritized small government, capitalism and free market values but cared deeply about climate change, racial justice and health care access – told CNN they were disillusioned with Trump and the state of the Republican Party, which they said spewed hate and misinformation. But they were also uncomfortable with Biden and the Democratic platform.
For his part, Christopher Trzaska, who founded College Republicans for Biden in 2020 and is from New Jersey, said in 2021 he excitedly cast a ballot for Jack Ciattarelli, the then-Republican candidate for governor in his home state.
The 21-year-old, who told CNN he disaffiliated with the Republican Party after the insurrection at the Capitol on January 6, 2021 and re-reregistered as an independent, is eager to vote Republican again in 2022, he said, insisting he is still and always has been a conservative.
“You could drop me in the Bush administration, and I’d feel right at home,” Trzaska said, although he does understand Gen Z’s craving for something new and different. “Gen Z and many conservatives of my age are looking for someone to shake up the system, but not to burn the country down in the process.”
He noted that his vote for Biden wasn’t an endorsement for progressives like Reps. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York or Ilhan Omar of Minnesota.
“Looking ahead to 2024, who knows? If it’s Trump, absolutely not,” Trzaska said. “But if it’s Ron DeSantis against Kamala Harris, that’s a decision to make, and that’s not a given one.”
“Trump is the leader of the Republican Party, I think that’s pretty evident in terms of just the mathematics of it,” Trzaska said, and while he opposes the former President, he said that “not every Trump endorsement is created equal,” adding that he could back a Trump-endorsed candidate, depending on who that candidate is.
The key issues for young Republicans: Gas prices, grocery prices, and foreign policy
According to Britt, who listed high gas and grocery prices as issues for young Americans, College Republicans are “not as different from the general population” when it comes to the issues they care about most this election cycle.
“We definitely hear from a number of people especially with inflation these days, complaining about gas prices and groceries and other day to day things that affect them,” Ebo Entsuah, a city councilman in Clermont, Florida, said.
Despite his position as a nonpartisan elected official, Entsuah, who is 28 years old, leans to the right.
Entsuah said he’s heard from many of his peers, even those who lean further to the left who feel, “fed up and sick of the way the current administration has been going about its work and having nothing to show for it.”
“What’s happening in Ukraine right, and with foreign policy, just adds to additional frustration that Republicans across the board have with this current administration, have with Congress. That doesn’t fare well for Democrats in 2022,” said Iowa state Rep. Joe Mitchell, a Republican who founded Run GenZ, a group that is recruiting, mentoring and training young conservatives to run for down ballot office. The group plans to work with 36 candidates across the country running for state and local offices in 2022.
Likewise, Topher D’Anna, spokesperson for Karoline Leavitt – a Gen Z Republican running for Congress in New Hampshire’s 1st Congressional District – said the young voters Leavitt talks to along the campaign trail have expressed the same concerns as their older counterparts.
“In years past you’ve seen younger voters be focused on issues such as climate change or things like that, and they still are, but the turnaround if you will… you have all of these generations focused on the same thing is pretty incredible,” D’Anna said.
“Despite these people being younger, high gas prices are hitting them. They’re seeing the cost of inflation as well. So it’s a lot about the economics and why we need fiscal conservative policies in the cycle that we’re in right now,” he said.
Leavitt, who worked as an assistant press secretary in the Trump White House under press secretary Kayleigh McEnany, and following the 2020 election, served as communications director for GOP Rep. Elise Stefanik of New York, is part of House Republican Leader Kevin McCarthy’s “Young Guns” recruitment program, which includes promising candidates in competitive races who have met key fundraising benchmarks. The congressional candidate has also touted false claims that Trump won the 2020 presidential election.
While young Republicans are emphasizing spending and inflation as the issues they care about most this election cycle, a focus on the economy is not unprecedented for young conservative voters.
“It is not remotely unusual for economic issues, debt, to be top of mind for young Republicans,” said Abby Kiesa, who has been polling young Americans for over a decade and is the deputy director of CIRCLE.
On top of inflation and concerns about the war in Ukraine, John Olds, the 22-year-old founder of Gen Z GOP, said that young Americans still care about the lasting impact of Covid-19 restrictions.
“When you’re a young person, you’re super frustrated that your senior year of college was ruined by the pandemic, or you’re not getting to go to your own graduation or your own prom, or any one of these seminal life moments that we used to take for granted,” Olds said.
“Life has been put on hold for little bit too long and that sentiment is associated more with Democratic leadership,” he said.
Like Olds, Gurtej Singh Narang, who is the vice chair of Georgia College Republicans and a student at Georgia State University, believes that politicians’ comments and actions on Covid restrictions will also be the “number one messaging factor with GOP for young people in Georgia,” he said.
“When it comes to (the race) against Stacey Abrams, we were one of the first states to open,” Narang, who is 22 years old and worked on both of Trump’s presidential campaigns as well as Georgia Governor Brian Kemp’s 2018 election campaign and former Sen. David Perdue’s 2020 reelection campaign, said. He believes young Republicans will automatically assume Abrams holds many of the same policies as the Biden administration and Democrats who were strict on Covid restrictions.
Trump’s pull still there but waning with younger Republicans, some say
As for young Republicans’ vision for the party moving forward, both Olds and Narang said they believe the weight of Trump’s endorsement is still noteworthy but waning with younger Republicans.
“The Trump endorsement kind of has been losing its power among young people,” Narang told CNN.
“That being said there are your kids that still like are very, ‘whoever Trump endorses should be the guy,’” he said, adding that Trump is “definitely” still a factor in Georgia’s GOP primary races, especially when it comes to the state’s gubernatorial race between Kemp and Perdue.
Olds said he believes the Republican party is making an effort to recruit “post Trump” candidates, citing Virginia Gov. Glenn Youngkin, who notably improved the GOP’s standing with younger voters since the state’s last gubernatorial election in 2017.
“Donald Trump obviously still has a hold on a good bit of the party, but I think that hold is certainly weakening,” Olds said. “Just speaking with activists on the ground and seeing what happened in Virginia, you can tell that the party still values electability, and since the former President lost, his brand is not as associated with electability.”
While Olds’ view may match other moderate young Republicans, on the whole Republican and Republican-leaning voters are about evenly split between wanting their party to nominate Trump again (50%) or wanting a different candidate (49%) in 2024, according to a CNN poll conducted by SSRS last month.
“Where we see ourselves plugging in is defining where the party is moving forward, and not necessarily on the past,” Olds said of Gen Z GOP, who phone banked for Youngkin.
According to CNN’s exit polls, 45% of 18- to 29-year-olds voted for Youngkin in Virginia last fall, compared to the 32% of 18-year-olds who voted for 2017 Republican candidate Ed Gillespie.
“If Virginia’s elections last year indicated anything, it suggests that we are holding and gaining momentum on the right and they are losing it on the left, at least among youth voters,” Britt said, noting College Republicans enthusiasm for Youngkin in Virginia last fall.
After his victory, Youngkin was credited with writing a new Republican playbook for keeping Trump’s base engaged without alienating the voters who were repelled by the former President in recent elections.
His popularity with younger Republicans suggests there may be momentum for the “post-Trump” candidates Olds described.
“Young Republicans might not be marching in the streets, but they are mobilizing,” said Mitchell, who, in his role as president of Run Gen Z, travels the country speaking to young Republicans across the ideological spectrum including chapters of College Republicans, Young Republicans and Turning Point USA – the right-wing organization closely tied to Trump.
“It’s not necessarily the sexy protest scene that you’re going to see on TV, but you’re going to see these things on college campuses, in local races, and so I think all those things add up to proving that there is a lot of mobilizing happening that maybe hasn’t happened in years past,” Mitchell said.
“Will there be a larger number of young Republicans who show up in 2022 than in the last midterms in 2018, 100%,” he said. “I do think this year – 2022 – will be an unprecedented year for Republicans in the midterms, which naturally will bring along young Republicans as well.”