Last Friday night, Colorado’s Federation of Young Republicans drew a crowd of nearly 200 to a swanky ballroom in the the high-end Broadmoor hotel and resort in Colorado Springs, the conservative heart of Colorado, for a first-of-its-kind masquerade ball.
The mood was festive, the masks varied — some steampunk, some feathered, some glittery; several stars and stripes; one papier-mâché elephant. The goal was simple: “It was really meant to show off that we do have young people in our party,” said Lyndsay Pierzina, chair of the Colorado Federation of Young Republicans.
Pierzina coordinated with state party Vice Chair Sherrie Gibson to plan the all-ages evening, which cost $40 for non-students and which they themed, “Unmasking the Future.” It was a sort of rebranding effort for a party that has seen both renewed interest and increased criticism in the wake of the Donald Trump presidency.
William Witt, a field director for the conservative youth nonprofit Turning Point USA, said the country is in the midst of a major cultural shift in which conservatism is “the new counterculture,” making its proponents “the new cool kids.” Their mission — “saving this country,” mostly — steers clear of identity politics and focuses instead on economic issues, which Libertarian-minded Witt said resonate strongly with Generation Z.
“Nobody hates gay people. Nobody hates African Americans,” he said. Rather, it is the embrace of the free market and other Libertarian ideals that draws millennials to conservatism. Said Pierzina of the Young Republicans’ own avoidance of social issues, “We very much have stayed away from anything divisive so we can continue to grow and build.”
Witt will soon be heading to work for PragerU, a conservative media company that produces slick YouTube videos with titles such as “Build the Wall,” “Just Say ‘Merry Christmas’” and “The World’s Most Persecuted Minority: Christians.” In one video about fake news, the narrator said that because major news outlets are so biased to the left, “mainstream American news is all fake.”
Once guests had filled up on turkey, brisket and loaded mashed potatoes, the ballroom quieted and the speeches began. The crowd stood for a prayer, during which the Lord was thanked for delivering the White House. “Are we going to have a Grand Old Party tonight?” asked Stephen Bates, secretary of the state’s College Republicans group. “I think we are.”
Four of the eight candidates vying to be Colorado’s Republican gubernatorial nominee — Steve Barlock (in a devilish mask), Greg Lopez (looking rather pirate-like in a mask and feathered hat), Victor Mitchell and Doug Robinson, both maskless — took to the podium to appeal to the young voters with their plans to tackle Colorado’s most pressing needs: more affordable education, better transportation infrastructure and higher quality jobs.
Mitchell announced his plan to freeze tuition costs throughout his term.
Robinson called for more funding for STEM fields and vocational training.
Barlock emphasized that he was the only candidate who “used their sphere of influence to elect Donald Trump.”
And Lopez said, “We are in a fight for the soul of Colorado. For the soul of our country.”
Former candidate George Brauchler stopped by and explained why he dropped out of the race and is now running for Attorney General. (In short, Cynthia Coffman’s bid for governor made that race less appealing — and left a glaring vacancy for AG).
But the night clearly belonged to the youth, who stuck around the dance floor for everything from Taylor Swift to the Cupid Shuffle to the Macarena. Eighteen-year-old Andrew Townsend, a senior at Elizabeth High School in Elbert County and president and founder of his school’s Young Republicans group, took a short break for an interview near the end of the night.
Setting his sweaty “Make America Great Again” hat on the table, he explained that he started his school’s club after watching a “staunch liberal” paint an inaccurate picture of the Republican Party during an interview with Sean Hannity.
“I figured it was time to do something, because otherwise we’re never going to win another election again, and our country’s gone,” he said. Raised Southern Baptist, Townsend said he looks to the Bible for guidance on things like gay marriage, but calls himself “not a big social issues guy.”
Townsend said he first connected with the local Republican organization in majority-conservative Elbert County through family friends before starting his own group at school. Now, the two groups often work together. Andrea Richardson, a member of the Elbert County Republicans, says they were having trouble recruiting younger members. “We started trying to figure out what gets kids going,” she said, “and it started with Donald Trump, of all things.” Townsend was too young to cast his vote for Trump last November.
Scott Neff, an undergrad at CU Denver and treasurer of the Colorado Federation of Young Republicans, said he has more support for the Republican Party at the local, county and state levels than nationally.
Republicans govern better at the local level, he said — “Crime rates are usually lower, businesses are usually better, bigger” — but the national party’s follow-through on promises to “fix” immigration and Obamacare has been “pretty disappointing.” He added, “There’s that disconnect, and I feel like millennials aren’t being listened to.” Neff called the House Republican plan to increase taxes for graduate students “absolutely ridiculous.”
Jillian Likness, a young Republican herself and a candidate for Colorado House District 18, says she, too, is far more focused on state issues than national politics. To her, the masquerade ball was part of an effort at “re-messaging, changing the narrative, and setting [the Party] in a new direction.” The focus is on “being the party of freedom and liberty, and helping people chase that dream, whatever that is,” she said. “I think the president, I think he’s doing what he needs to do, but I can’t speak to what he’s doing because I’m not in D.C.”
According to Jake Viano of the Denver County Republican Party, young people are getting out of school and “realizing that the communist principles that they’re indoctrinated with in the universities just don’t work.” They’re tired, he said, of living in their parents’ basements, and see conservative ideology as the answer. “They’re putting two and two together and finding out that the American dream is still alive and well.”
As the older guests buzzed around the bar and ballroom, refilling their glasses, the Elizabeth high schoolers remained committed to the dance floor, decked out in cowboy hats, masks and even one star-spangled blazer.
One moment saw them gathered in a tight circle, jumping up and down in unison, hands in the air, shouting along to DJ Khaled: “All I do is win win win, no matter what.”
Photos by Kelsey Ray