Mississippi native Mandy Gunasekara scoffs at the notion that the GOP is in disarray. In fact, Republicans are more energized than ever, said the veteran Republican strategist
Gunasekara, who most recently served as chief of staff at the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency under the Trump Administration, now runs a political consulting firm, Section VII Strategies.
“For a long time, the conservative movement felt more like Baby put in a corner,” Gunasekara said, referencing the famous line from the movie Dirty Dancing.
“There are a lot of negative characterizations right now of the state of the Republican Party and the conservative movement, but if you set aside the rhetoric and look at what has actually happened, I’m really excited about where the Republican Party and the conservative movement is going,” she said.
The South has been the heart and soul of political conservatism and the Republican party for decades. Some of the biggest names in today’s Republican politics are Southerners, from high-profile and veteran legislators like Ted Cruz in Texas and Lindsey Graham in South Carolina to firebrand newcomers like Rep. Madison Cawthorn in North Carolina and controversial lightning rods like Marjorie Taylor Greene in Georgia.
The South has also been the core of Republican voter engagement strategies. For example, the GOP created the Southern Strategy as its political cornerstone in the 1960s. Later, Ronald Reagan chose Neshoba County, Miss. and a speech about states’ rights as the launchpad for his 1980 election campaign. Republicans have relied on the South.
But if the recent presidential election and Georgia’s special Senate elections showed the nation anything, it’s that Republicans could find that even the South, once their political heartland, is their new battleground. As Republicans grapple locally and nationally for the soul of the party in the post-Trump era, some Republicans are looking to their younger Southern wing.
Reckon spoke with millennial and Gen-Z Republican Southern politicos across the conservative spectrum about where the party is headed and how the South might help it get there.
Looking for fighters
Gunasekara recently attended a virtual meet-and-greet with the Republican freshman class of congressional representatives. She said she came away feeling more hopeful than ever about Republican prospects, even in a time where Democrats control both chambers of Congress and the White House.
“We have one of the most diverse coalitions ever, the most Republican women ever, an increase in the number of minorities, in the number of immigrants and also people from all walks of life – from small business owners to veterans to dairy farmers,” she said.
One of Donald Trump’s legacies is leaving behind a base of voters looking for fighters, said C.J. Pearson, an 18-year-old Georgia native and conservative social media star who’s been profiled in national outlets including Time and CNN. He has nearly 340,000 followers on Twitter, tens of thousands more on YouTube and most recently served as the executive director of Teens for Trump.
“Young conservatives want people who know how to fight for their beliefs – limited government, low taxation, the ideals of our founding fathers,” Pearson told Reckon. “When their back is against the wall, do they fight to achieve their goals?”
Anson Knowles is a self-described Liberty Republican who works in North Alabama to recruit conservatives to run for office. He’s looking for fighters, too.
Knowles believes the last time the Republican Party rose to meet the moment was during the growth of the Tea Party circa 2010.
“The right is really lacking now because they like to sit back instead of getting their hands dirty,” Knowles said. “The Democrats are going to push policies people don’t like, and that will mobilize conservatives who are inactive, and we’ll have another opportunity for conservatives to make a comeback.”
But some are less bullish about the Republican Party’s ability to continue exciting and attracting younger voters. Matt Stokes, a conservative writer based in Birmingham, Ala. area who’s launching a center-right newsletter, believes Trump did “incalculable damage” to the Republican Party.
“I think there’s a significant core of younger Republicans who are conservative by disposition and they want to find a political home but are struggling to do that because Trump has messed all that up,” he said. He believes Trump turned off younger conservatives who might agree with traditional Republican ideals like smaller government and the protection of individual liberties but were disgusted with his behavior and rhetoric.
If someone had told Pearson he’d see his home state of Georgia flip blue in his lifetime, he would have called the person crazy. In January, Democrats cinched control of the U.S. Senate by winning a pair of special elections in Georgia, and Trump narrowly lost the state last November.
“What (recent elections) did is really show Republicans we cannot take these states for granted,” he said. The South, now the fastest-growing region in the country, is also growing more diverse.
“The influence of the South is going to be felt across the nation,” said Pearson. “I think there’s going to be a bigger emphasis on Southern voices being elevated, and that’s on both sides.”
Gunasekara likes to say there’s “a strain of conservatism for everyone,” even the younger voters who tend to eschew labels.
“People don’t like somebody else defining who they are and what they think,” she said, “and that’s especially true for folks attracted to the conservative movement.”
Even Congress’ newest Republicans are harder to define than some of their predecessors, she said.
“I think we don’t know 100% today what they’re ultimately going to look like, if they fall into the existing caucuses on Capitol Hill,” she said, giving examples including the hardline Freedom Caucus, the moderate Tuesday Group caucus, or the pragmatic party leadership trying to hold it all together.
Pearson takes a fluid approach to labels. He has supported presidential candidates including Ted Cruz, Bernie Sanders and Trump.
“What we’ve seen in recent years is the two-party system really failed the American people,” Pearson said. “There’s definitely more rejection of labels. This belief that both parties have failed the American people is a prevalent view in my age group.”
Pearson considers himself “a bit more populist these days” and said the bare–knuckles style of politics popularized by Trump is more appealing to Gen-Z conservatives. He said he hasn’t encountered many young Romney fans.
“I think there’s a lot of appeal in folks like Donald Trump Jr., folks like Ted Cruz, because of their willingness to be unapologetic in their advocacy,” said Pearson. “My generation has grown up not liking political correctness and you don’t see that from those guys.”
Stokes would disagree.
“You’ve got some portion that was always cool with Donald Trump,” he said, “but I think the younger crowd seems bothered by the lying about the election, disturbed by the violence at the Capitol and bothered by the posture of our entire Republican delegation in the House trying to disenfranchise voters in other states,” he said, referring to the Alabama’s Republican Congressmen siding with the 147 House Republicans who voted to overturn presidential election results the night the mob stormed the Capitol.
Instead, he Stokes said, younger people are less interested in labels and more interested in workable solutions.
“You’ve got some younger Republicans saying, sure, we need to ensure our border isn’t open and porous, but they’re not interested in deporting the guy at the dry cleaners,” Stokes said.
“Even with illegal immigration, they recognize it’s a logistic impossibility to deport 11 million people.”
Pearson said he was tired of politicians running on platforms like “repeal Obamacare,” only to break promises and fail to offer viable alternatives.
“What you’re going to see from my generation is people who care more about the issues and policies than just toeing the party line,” Pearson said. “That’s something I’m excited about. For far too long we’ve let these self-erected labels define our country.”
Who needs Capitol Hill experience?
Pearson was labeled a YouTube star and “conservative whiz kid” by national media outlets like USA Today and Business Insider before he hit high school. His breakout moment came in 2015, when his YouTube video criticizing President Barack Obama went viral, reaching more than 2 million views.
The traditional pipelines grooming the next generation of conservative leaders no longer apply, he said.
“Social media has made it so easy for people to vocalize their political beliefs,” he said. “That access has created commentators out of so many young people, even almost unwittingly sometimes.
“With the advent of social media and this influencer-driven culture, you’ll see, not necessarily folks going on Fox and CNN every night, but people cultivating audiences just from their phones.”
Even for political animals who get their start via more traditional routes, like interning on Capitol Hill, behind-the-scenes horse trading can pale in comparison to the lure of the media spotlight.
“Are (young Capitol Hill staffers) digesting really thoughtful policy or are they trying to help their boss get on the Sunday talk shows? I worry it’s more of the latter,” said Stokes.
“They want a good Twitter or Instagram account for their boss, and they want to get their boss on Fox News Sunday, and they think that’s what governing looks like.”
Stokes thinks the Republican party hasn’t done enough to recruit candidates capable of creating detailed, workable solutions to the problems facing Americans. There’s more incentive instead, he said, to be “the biggest loudmouth in Congress.”
“We’re producing political leaders who are not articulating clear ideas that they can then communicate to the voters,” Stokes said. “You saw in the last election cycles where they just peddled grievances. Voters are left trying to make the best of it and they don’t have a lot of good options.”
Gunasekara said there are more Republican organizations than ever that are targeting specific groups for candidate recruitment, such as women and people of color.
“We want a deep bench,” she said. “That’s good for the growth of the party and the long–term viability.”
Knowles, the North Alabama Liberty Republican active in local politics, tries to look outside of traditional political pipelines for average people with strong Conservative principles who might not have considered running otherwise.
“If I run across somebody who is tired of establishment politics, then I encourage them to run,” he said. “Asking a politician to do something for you is not as effective as being a politician yourself.”
More passion, more energy
Stokes thinks it would be best if the GOP’s major factions “roll up their sleeves and fight each other for a while.” He doesn’t think the party can function with dramatically different ideologies constantly competing for supremacy.
“One of those is going to have to give at some point,” he said, naming the more moderate wing of legislators like U.S. Sen. Mitt Romney versus the far right led by Republicans like Reps. Matt Gaetz of Florida, Jim Jordan of Ohio and Mo Brooks of Alabama. “Even if the party doesn’t split, one of those groups is going to have to have a much smaller voice.”
Pearson wants to see the Republican party articulate conservative policies that would help struggling communities of color whom he thinks liberal policies have failed.
And it’s time to show voters that Republicans are ready for a fight, Pearson said.
“More than we’ve seen in the past, I think you’re going to see a party that’s infused with more passion, more energy, people who aren’t afraid to fight the tough fights and be in the thick of the issues,” Pearson said. “It will be a party delivering for everyday Americans and not just big business.”
Stokes wants to see people get more interested and involved in politics at local levels, rather than relying on national figures to solve their problems.
“You’re going to have to care about politics prior to six months before an election,” he said. “Doesn’t mean you have to be a politics junkie or a partisan warrior for your tribe. But you need to know the name of your city councilman or state representative, and know if you’re satisfied with the job they’re doing.
Otherwise, he said, a small and vocal minority of the party’s base will steer the ship. “If you don’t want QAnon or the MAGA crowd to run things, then everybody else is going to have to be more involved.”
Gunasekara believes more people today feel like they can be involved in politics than ever before, which she credits to former President Trump. But making space in the party can also bring growing pains.
“(Conservatives) are stubbornly individualistic, which is great in terms of good ideas and figuring out solutions,” said Gunasekara, “but it can be difficult in terms of building the large coalition we need to be successful at the national level in order to control the levers of power.”