When I speak to Colorado Republican and conservative groups, there is a sense of resignation about my generation (Millennials, born 1981-1997). They seem to be at a loss. With left-wing figures like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Bernie Sanders seemingly adored by young people, is it even possible for the Right to connect with them – let alone win them over?
Not only can the Right swing Millennials (and the younger Generation Z) to embrace conservative ideas – it is essentialif the Colorado GOP is going to survive and grow. Fortunately, some Republicans are already taking the initiative with ideas that can win the day.
Between 2014 and 2018, Colorado achieved a net gain of 802,610 registered voters. Notably, a whopping 61% of them were between the ages of 18 and 34. That’s roughly 489, 592 new young voters!
Republicans are certainly aware of their low favorables among young adults. A 2018 survey by NBC News/GenForward found that roughly six out of 10 Millennials nationally have an unfavorable view of the GOP, with fewer than one-third holding Republicans in favorable esteem. This is amplified by a 2016 Pew survey of Millennials that found 54% of Millennials either consider themselves liberal or lean liberal, while just 33% lean conservative or are conservative. And 12% self-described independents round out the survey.
But there’s hope for the GOP. The 2018 poll showed that Democrats have only a 44% approval rating with 42% negative. And Pew’s survey should be read more optimistically: 55% of Millennials are not ideologically solidified – meaning they are “Politically Marginal Millennials,” or persuadables. That means there is tremendous room for growth on the Right.
Indeed, a close study of both the so-called socialist and AOC phenomena reveals one fundamental truth. Young adults will consider conservative candidates who seem to care about the causes and issues that affect them – rather than being dismissive or displaying a lack of empathy. That means acknowledging that challenges like student loan debt, the cost of college, good-paying jobs and climate change are worthwhile concerns – and offering up principled, practical solutions to address these concerns.
To make inroads with young voters, Republicans must not be viewed as the merely “Party of No.” This requires proposition, not just opposition. Fortunately, this is principally a problem of perception – not reality – largely because GOP ideas tend to get less media play.
For example, student loan debt – which now surpasses $1.5 trillion – is at crisis levels. Many think that presidential candidates Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders are the only ones leading on the issue. That’s because they’re offering radical, expensive, unrealistic ideas like student loan forgiveness and tuition-free college that the media latches onto. In contrast, Colorado’s own Republican U.S. senator, Cory Gardner, has proposed a sensible, market-based, realistic way to help borrowers pay back their debt more quickly with his Student Loan Repayment Acceleration Act.
On climate change, the GOP just says, “No.” Meanwhile, Democrats propose things like AOC’s “Green New Deal” and Colorado’s SB181 (on oil and gas) – and concern over global warming has been engrained in Millennials and Gen Z’ers. Conservatives dismiss it outright at their own peril.
More Republicans are taking an approach like that of Florida Congressman Matt Gaetz – a Millennial – who’s offered up his “Green Real Deal” – a set of proposals to address climate change through the free market rather than government control. On the state level, Republicans should educate the public about the progress we’re making in oil and gas. As Attorney General Phil Weiser told me last week, oil and gas and renewables are “lowering our carbon footprint, we've lowered it in Colorado.” More people need to know this.
Good-paying jobs are critical, especially for young people in the early stages of their careers or just entering the job market. Democrats keep pushing for a $15 minimum wage, but they miss the mark. Conservatives recognize that individuals do best when they don’t rely on the government. Colorado Republicans need to vigorously keep advocating for increased access to good-paying trade fields and entrepreneurship by cutting excessive occupational licensing requirements and entrepreneur-strangling red tape.
Colorado’s political landscape is rocky for conservatives, but all is not lost. Young voters offer a tremendous opportunity for a concerned, empathetic, solutions-oriented GOP that is smart, strategic and forward-thinking.
Jimmy Sengenberger is the host of Business for Breakfast on KDMT Denver’s Money Talk 1690 AM and The Jimmy Sengenberger Show on News/Talk 710 KNUS. He is the president and CEO of the Denver-based Millennial Policy Center.