DENVER — Liberty, moral truth, limited government, free enterprise — and young conservatives. Yes, right-thinking youth, Republicans who know about Instagram. #noway! #whoknew?
The Centennial Institute at Colorado Christian University hosted its fourth-annual Western Conservative Summit this weekend and a top theme was the need to woo and train young leaders to boldly carry the conservative message forward and give it new life.
The Summit — “hashtag WCS13″ — held at the Hyatt Regency and packed with roughly 2,000 guests reached out to the “under 30s” at every turn. Young attendees, many of them CCU students or prospective students, were celebrated by speaker after speaker. Centennial Institute Director John Andrews invited young people up on the main stage and lauded their achievements, their spirit, their promise. The summit featured a slam poet, a performance artist, a mock-red carpet entryway for some of the students, “youth wave after hours” parties and a not-entirely-stale soundtrack: No Ted Nugent. No “God Bless the U.S.A.”
“I really like how many young people are here,” Colorado Representative Amy Stephens said at the end of Friday night’s festivities. “They’re very inspiring. I love the way that they’re bold. They want to make a difference.”
Even the official theme of this year’s summit underlined the priority placed on next-generation conservatives. Andrews and co-chair of the event Bill Armstrong explained that the theme, “Freedom’s New Day,” was meant to evoke a drive to “map the way forward and… seek a rebirth of liberty in the American heart, from which cultural and political renewal can ensue.”
Implicit in the theme was acknowledgement, in the wake of the election losses Republicans suffered last year, that the movement had its work cut out for it, that its message had grown leaden and its support fractured. The summit came off as a sort of relaunch party, a clarion call to start again, refresh the message, reenter the public sphere strong and unified.
Saturday afternoon’s “Conservative Voices of a New Generation” panel drew a sparse audience of salt-and-pepper-haired enthusiasts. Young conservatives were down at the lobby bar.
Kyle Forti, director of operations for state Senator Owen Hill’s campaign for the U.S. Senate, was hobnobbing in a pair of flip-flops.
“I’m going to put my suit back on and head back up there for the dinner later,” he said. He tapped away at his laptop, threw his arm around passing acquaintances, talked about cocktails and cigar bars and made plans for later that night.
Meanwhile at the panel, Francesca Chambers discussed the differences between liberals and conservatives, criticizing the liberal press for its faulty coverage of conservative figures and “cookie-cutter” misrepresentations. She pinned hope for change on millenials and the growth and success of new right-wing organizations like Campus Reform, the Leadership Institute and publications like her own Red Alert Politics, written by and for young conservatives.
Young conference attendees said in interviews that the contemporary era was simply more receptive and encouraging for young Democrats than for young Republicans.
“In a sexed-up culture that’s all about right now, it’s much easier and more popular to say and do whatever you want,” incoming CCU freshman Jared Cummings said. “The young Democrats are able to be more vocal because they do what feels right, while conservatives do what is ethically right.”
Forti, a 2012 Hillsdale College graduate, objected to the binary vision promoted at the conference.
“A lot of people see liberals and conservatives as polar opposites,” he said. “I personally disagree with that. We are both going for the same goals – good government, good citizenship. It’s how we get there that’s different.”
Forti does recognize and agree that it has been easier recently to be openly liberal, and he acknowledges that the Obama administration did a good job catering to young people. CCU junior Matthew Osborn agreed.
“Obama was entertaining, he was a pop-culture icon,” he said.
Many young people added that they thought Republicans had “slacked off” when it came to developing effective media strategies.
“The Democrats just use social media more efficiently,” CCU sophomore Stephen Scheffel said.
On Friday night, Andrews proudly announced from the stage that the conference was officially trending on Twitter.
“Conservatives are catching up, certainly at the summit,” Forti said. “We’ve been trending on Twitter. We have apps, Instagram… It’s good.”
The social media presence was not wholly organic. The conference contracted with Discover Marketing, a Denver-based social media company, to steer the conference’s digital media strategy and post about the event throughout the weekend.
“Those of us who believe in liberty have got our work cut out for us,” Andrews said near the end of the weekend. “[We have to] pass this along to our youth.”
According to young people at the summit, though, the kind of work that most needs doing is a variety of work the Republican Party has struggled to succeed at in recent years: The young people said they’re looking to the party to raise up charismatic and popular leaders to energize them and drum up support.
“The easiest way to rally youth is through a presidential candidate,” Scheffel said.
“The biggest problem is that there isn’t someone to lead,” Osborn agreed. “But a lot of young Republicans are coming in – Marco Rubio, Rand Paul – who are speaking better to the youth. We need to be entertained.”