At a recent meeting, the Tampa Bay Young Republicans recited the Pledge of Allegiance, prayed and then tackled the night's topic: marijuana.
Their guest? Personal injury lawyer John Morgan, a huge Democratic Party donor campaigning to legalize medical marijuana in Florida. Months earlier, the same group supported a Supreme Court opinion that was a victory for gay marriage advocates even as Republican leaders insisted marriage should be between only a man and a woman.
The group illustrates a growing generational divide in the GOP as younger Republicans increasingly break rank from the establishment on social issues. In Alabama, a college Republican group leader was nearly kicked out of the party for supporting gay marriage. The successful push to legalize gay marriage in Minnesota was backed by several prominent younger Republicans. And in Colorado, the spokesman for a group that pushed to legalize marijuana was a Republican activist. Perhaps only in opposing abortion are most young Republicans nationally as conservative socially as older members.
"We've grown up in a time where everything's much more open. We want to talk about more things," Tampa Bay Young Republicans president Anibal Cabrera said. "We're willing to listen to the other point of view. We're willing to have an opposite opinion."
Whether the split on social issues forces the GOP to change its platform or risk alienating younger voters probably won't be answered until after the 2016 presidential election, said Matthew Corrigan, a University of North Florida political science professor. He said one thing to watch is support for Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul, the son of former Texas Rep. Ron Paul, who is mixing a libertarian message with a more moderate outreach to Republicans.
"It's unsettled," Corrigan said. "If the nominee of the Republican Party signals less of an emphasis on social issues than in years past, that leaves an opening for these young Republicans who may have more libertarian leanings, but there's a lot of seniors within the party that I don't think are ready to give up on those positions."
While Republicans nationally have struggled to recruit younger voters, women and minorities, the Tampa group says welcoming socially liberal as well as conservative members has helped swell its ranks from seven to 200 members in less than a year. Executive director Lacey Wickline said the party establishment could learn from the approach, but instead has largely ignored the group.
"We're doing something right. We've got the energy, we're trying to do what's right by our party, and where's the support?" Wickline said. "If you're really trying to target the under 40 demographic, there's only one place to turn — that's us."
Part of the shift among younger Republicans is growing up in an era where gay rights, pot smoking and other issues are more acceptable, even among conservatives.
"We grew up on 'Will and Grace' and our parents grew up on 'All in the Family,'" said Stephanie Petelos, the chairman of the College Republican Federation of Alabama who was almost banished from her party for supporting gay marriage.
Alabama Republican Party Chairman Bill Armistead said there may be some differing opinions among younger Republicans, but he still feels most support the party platform. Those interviewed noted even young Republicans tend to be anti-abortion. And Armistead pointed out that the man elected to replace Petelos after she graduated firmly supports traditional marriage.
"It was very disruptive for the previous college chairman to advocate a position that's contradictory to our state position and our national platform," Armistead said. "It did not represent the majority of college Republicans, yet she used her position to advocate her personal opinions, which is unfortunate."
Beyond being a generational issue, young Republicans say their positions stem from the party's belief that government shouldn't intrude on people's lives. Ron Paul's 2012 presidential campaign got most of its following from younger Republicans attracted by his libertarian message that allowed for gay marriage and the legalization of marijuana.
"When it comes to issues like gay marriage or marijuana legalization, younger Republicans often find themselves asking, 'Why is government involved in this at all?'" said Alex Holzbach, a Tallahassee-based Republican political consultant who served as president of the Florida State University College Republicans before graduating this year. "It's really just a realization that the party's current status quo against some of these issues is in direct conflict with our belief in smaller, less intrusive government. "
He and Petelos said they are Republicans because they believe the party is stronger on economic issues, and both said the GOP's position on social issues made it harder to recruit college students.
"It's just a little bit harder to get into what the Fed did last week than it is for equality for one of your best friends from high school," Petelos said.
The economy is especially relevant when recruiting students staring down college loan debt and a tough job market, said Young Republican National Federation Chairman Jason Weingartner.
"It's often the Democrats that are trying to shake the narrative so that we go back to discussing predominantly social issues so it will distract from the current economic climate," he said.
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