By Joe Kaiser -
It’s no secret Illinois Republicans are hoping for a better year in 2014 than they had in 2012. President Barack Obama, of course, did not have much of a problem grabbing Illinois; making it the sixth consecutive time Illinois went blue in a presidential election. Democrats also yanked four House seats from Republican hands, including the long-standing Republican hold in the 10th Congressional District.
But the state Republican Party isn’t the only faction trying to build an improved foundation for 2014 and thereafter – the Illinois College Republican Federation is trying to do the same thing on campuses statewide.
The ICRF used the off year in 2013 to make College Republican chapters more of a force across the state. After an expansion effort that started in June, thirteen additional College Republican chapters formed on Illinois college campuses, adding to the 17 that already existed.
“For 2013, what we worked on is expanding our base, keeping us active and keeping people interested,” said Jesse Green, chairman of the ICRF. “We hit that pretty hard. It’s going to be ramping up toward the primary.”
According to the Center for Information & Research on Civic Learning and Engagement, participation in the Illinois Republican Primary among voters aged 18-29 fell from 87,337 in 2008 to 73,369 in 2012. Green said primary awareness is going to be a large focus for College Republicans between now and the March primary.
How to keep students engaged in that time is up to each chapter individually, but the message is similar throughout.
"(The message is) not so much ‘Democrats bad, Republicans good,’ but more so policies that will be good down the road for you when you graduate college,” said Despina Batson, ICRF Development Director, adding that Obamacare, the national debt and deficit are big issues affecting college students. Batson said a fundamental goal is to provide students with “an alternative to the liberal agenda.”
“We are in a blue state,” Batson said. “But if you go talk to people in Illinois they don’t necessarily align with the color of our state. I see it increasing significantly as we continue on with this. They want the right change, not the hope and change Obama has promised us and failed.”
A large part of presenting that alternative and influencing students of course means mantaining a significant presence. In November, the Northwestern College Republicans held a "Freedom Week" commemorating the fall of the Berlin Wall –- a week which culminated with guest speaker and former Rep. Allen West appearing on campus. While Northwestern’s chapter is better established than some newer ones, the newer chapters are still trying to follow suit with similar methods to promote conservative activism.
Curt Morris, chairman of the College Republican chapter at Southern Illinois University-Carbondale, has been trying to increase his chapter’s presence on campus since taking the helm, and he is excited to see students’ interest.
“We had a recruiting booth sometime in October,” Morris said. “We were really excited because a lot of college students were coming up to us and asking us questions like ‘what is republicanism, what is conservatism?’ They see the failing (liberal) policies, and they want to know the political alternatives.”
Likewise, Derek Murphy just started the group at Benedictine University a week before final exams last semester, but he, too, is excited about what is to come. The group is already in talks with AM 560 WIND about hosting a Republican gubernatorial primary debate in March, and is looking to have a hand in local races, including the 11th Congressional. Murphy, who is also trying to bring guest speakers to campus, said he had 17 people sign up toward the end of last semester, and he is hoping to continue to add more to stabilize the group.
"At a private, liberal Catholic school there are a lot of restrictions that we have," Murphy said. “It’s been difficult, but right now we’re just trying to build that foundation. We’re trying to get people more active.”
With now 30 chapters and counting, the ICRF is hopeful its efforts will result in increased conservative activism among college students, and better results in 2014. Republicans lost the under-30 demographic in the 2012 presidential election by 37 points, but Green said he believes a more active conservative student base can tap into some of those voters who may be rethinking their 2012 votes.
“I’m pretty optimistic,” Green said. “There are people middle of the ground who voted Democrat in the last election, and they’ve become pretty disenchanted ... we’re going to work hard."