Democrats thrive in Lawrence, but where have all the Republicans gone?
If the liberal hotbed of Lawrence is an indication, writes Sarah Grindstaff, the Kansas GOP’s failure to meet the demand for youth political action could allow Democrats to become a force to be reckoned with in Kansas. (Sarah Grindstaff)
The Kansas Reflector welcomes opinion pieces from writers who share our goal of widening the conversation about how public policies affect the day-to-day lives of people throughout our state. Sarah Grindstaff studies political science and economics at the University of Kansas.
The college town environment of Lawrence welcomes liberalism, uniqueness of thought, and diversity. But one nighttime rendezvous at a local GOP meeting tells a different story.
On a late weekday evening, Republicans across Douglas County gather at a local church to discuss GOP goings-on and any upcoming elections. In an effort to learn more about the Douglas County GOP, I attended this meeting. One quick look around the room revealed the median age of the attendees was well above 55.
The University of Kansas’ College Republicans group boasts a membership roster of 319 members — a number that is comparable to the rosters of liberal student organizations, but pales in comparison to the roughly 28,000 students currently enrolled at the university.
Is there still a place for young Republicans in Kansas? Seemingly not.
In liberal Lawrence, it only takes a short walk around town to find several intricately decorated hideaways designed to appear minimalistic and effortless, all while selling expensive and sustainable tchotchke to people with the time and money to pretend to be hippies. In the middle of Lawrence is the University of Kansas, an institution where young people from across the state flock for higher education and professional development. The university has the opportunity to shape young people from all over the state. But in a historically liberal town flooded with the young upper-middle class, there seems to be a mystery emerging in generational political trends.
Where are all the Republicans?
As of May of 2019, 856,000 Kansas voters were registered Republicans, compared to 500,000 registered Democrats. However, only 15% of 18-29-year-olds in Kansas are Republican or Republican-leaning, according to Pew research data.
Lawrence is a hotbed for liberal promotion in the state. The University of Kansas is host to a bevy of liberal-leaning student organizations that prioritize core DEI (diversity, equity and inclusion) principles and special interest group values concerning marginalized communities and climate justice. While the university’s diverse student life also includes many conservative-leaning groups, actual student involvement is questionable. Groups like the KU College Republicans and Turning Point USA seem to be playing an underground game of Where’s Waldo when it comes to on-campus visibility, except Waldo is conservatism for the younger generation.
In the 2020-2021 academic year, the KU College Republicans only had one full-member meeting, which I enthusiastically attended. The organization’s opening meeting took place at a renowned steakhouse in Lawrence, and it featured a polished group of students, a complimentary buffet, table service for the meeting’s libations, and a visit from the executive director of the Kansas GOP. After one meeting of rampant campaign rhetoric, Trump-paraphernalia raffles, and general posturing, the organization faded back into obscurity — a deathbed for political action in college communities.
An increased focus on inclusive democratic activism by the Democratic Party, in combination with universities’ focus on youth representation, is strengthening the liberal stronghold in this lively town. If the Kansas GOP does not meet the demand for youth political action, the Democratic Party in Kansas could finally become a force to be reckoned with — a result that would devastate young Kansas Republicans.
Ongoing struggles in the country have brought out the best in politically active, change-oriented students in the Lawrence community. This inclusion, activism and focus on positive policy has allowed the Democratic Party in eastern Kansas to thrive, even to the point that young Republicans feel like outsiders. In a community with little GOP support, fear of ostracization draws students closer to the welcoming embrace of the Democratic bandwagon. Where there has been real political involvement and grassroots efforts, there has been an active Democratic body working on promoting party principles. But in the case of young Republicans, these areas of growth are hidden behind invisible barriers that keep many from becoming involved in state GOP politics. Hidden behind almost nonexistent organizations. Hidden behind fear and elite gatekeeping. Hidden behind leadership that doesn’t cater to young constituents.
The Kansas GOP has left in a time machine to a time not so long ago when it could hide behind these invisible barriers and maintain a strong foothold in the state. But there are cracks emerging in these barriers, and the GOP can no longer be successful by simply existing. Young Kansans are paving the way for a different status quo — one that requires political action and actual accountability from its leaders.
So where have all the Republicans gone? They’ve defected. But if you ask a GOP leader, he will probably say that they are all off in the suburbs somewhere.
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