By Melissa Davlin, Idaho Reports
On Friday afternoon, Russ Fulcher, Republican nominee for Congressional District 1, addressed conservatives gathered from around the state at the Idaho Republican Party State Convention.
Among his two sets of grandparents, one side was Republican, while the others were Democrats. Still, they agreed on most issues, Fulcher told the crowd.
That wouldn’t be the case today, he continued. While the Republican party has remained true to its small government principles, “let’s look what happened on the other side,” he said. Arguments on economic issues and open borders would be making his grandparents “turn in their graves.”
While Democrats both in-state and nationwide champion new leadership, fresh faces and progress, Idaho Republicans spent time at their convention celebrating their unchanging values.
All the while, the Republican Party is trying to navigate how to interface their core beliefs with public policy. Meanwhile, some young conservatives are wondering if they have a place in the GOP’s present, and when they’ll be welcome to be involved in its future.
Looking for a welcome mat
A few hours earlier before Fulcher’s speech, Dom Gelsomino sat in the Holt Arena’s stadium seating, quietly discussing his plans to challenge a platform proposal opposing same sex marriage during a Saturday morning floor session.
“I will be arguing that government has no place in marriage whatsoever,” said
Gelsomino, a 25-year-old former legislative candidate from Boise. He pointed to then-candidate Donald Trump’s speech at the 2016 Republican National Convention, in which Trump said people should be more open minded toward the LGBT community.
Plus, Gelsomino added, marriage equality is a conservative issue. “We need to end this constant expansion of government in the affairs of marriage.”
Sen. Jim Rice, R-Caldwell, sat behind him and listened. “So how should we deal with divorce issues related to property and custody?” asked Rice, a divorce attorney.
“That’s an interesting matter,” replied Gelsomino, adding civil issues such as those are different than who should be allowed to ordain a marriage.
Ultimately, Gelsomino said, the majority of young Republicans favor gay marriage — a statement backed up by Pew Research Center, which reports 58 percent of Republicans born after 1980 are in support. A similar majority is in favor of marijuana legalization.
But for the most part, attendees of the Republican convention were born well before 1980. That’s not a problem for the Idaho Republican Party right now. The state party has a reserve of active organizers and candidates, as well as donors with deep pockets.
But Gelsomino says the party is losing out by not listening to younger voices.
“There are issues that I don’t feel are being addressed, or are addressed but end up being defeated,” Gelsomino said citing CBD as another example. While the party welcomes young participants on the surface, most Republicans stand firm in their beliefs without allowing much room for discussion on other viewpoints, he said.
Rice argued it’s not that the party doesn’t make room for young people. Rather, he said, “our tendency is to desire articulate, thoughtful leaders, and people become more articulate and more thoughtful as they age.”
By that measure, the Idaho Legislature is theoretically full of articulate, thoughtful lawmakers; The average age was 63 in 2016.
But there is an influx of relatively young faces in the House GOP caucus, said House Assistant Majority Leader Brent Crane: Priscilla Giddings, Dustin Manwaring, Bryan Zollinger, James Holtzclaw, Paul Amador, and Greg Chaney, and newly elected representative Britt Raybould, all in their 30s and early 40s.
There are also young Republicans working behind the scenes: A number of state party staffers, campaign workers and volunteers are in their 20s. But most prominent elected GOP officials are in their 50s, 60s or 70s.
Crane, a Nampa Republican, was elected to House leadership when he was in his 30s. Now 44, he acknowledges that nationwide, Democrats have done a better job of engaging young people.
“I think the Democrats are looking to the future,” Crane said, pointing to 28-year-old Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, a Democratic Congressional nominee from New York.
Republicans, however, “have some work to do.”
The challenge, said Idaho State Tax Commissioner Janet Moyle, is tying traditional values to societal and generational changes.
“Because the truth of the matter is the youth is our future, and if you exclude them your party doesn’t go anywhere,” Moyle said.
Gelsomino has had friends ask why he doesn’t identify as a Democrat. “Because I’m a Republican,” he quips. Gelsomino grew up in an Italian Roman Catholic family, and believes in small government and other conservative principles.
He sees a future for himself in politics. The question is the timeline. He recalled a conversation with a older Republican lawmaker — he declined to say which one — who said he would do well in office “when you’re my age.”
That’s not going to work for Gelsomino, he said. “I can’t wait forty, fifty years.”
Saturday morning, as the party considered plank proposals during the convention’s floor session, Gelsomino walked up to the microphone and made his argument.
With a clear voice, he argued that conservatives should embrace limited government in people’s personal lives, that Christianity encourages love and acceptance, that President Trump is on the same page.
Rice stood in the back and listened. The longer Gelsomino spoke, the more the crowd began to grumble, with some people yelling for order. “I don’t care if someone’s gay,” one delegate muttered to Rice.
“Dom needs to say this,” Rice countered.
Ultimately, the Republicans voted against Gelsomino and adopted a plank proposal asserting the right of states to reject federal definitions of marriage. But, Rice noted, a number of delegates sided with Gelsomino.
“What Dom had to say will percolate in people’s minds,” Rice said. “Minds don’t all change at the same rate.”
But are young minds more open to new ideas than those in their 60s and 70s?
Not necessarily, Rice said. “They just have more time to change.”