The GOP finds its millennial star
House Republican leaders are turning to the youngest woman ever elected to Congress, Rep. Elise Stefanik, to help them try to appeal to millennials in the 2016 elections.
It’s obvious why they are showcasing Stefanik; the 30-year old New York Republican was often mistaken for a congressional aide during her trips around the Capitol at the start of her term. And she has been stopped multiple times by Capitol Police who didn’t realize someone so young could be a member of Congress.
“It was challenging to get on the House floor,” Stefanik recalled with a laugh during an interview with The Hill.
The congresswoman is providing a fresh face for the Republican Party at a time when millennials are on the rise in the electorate. A Pew Research poll last month found that millennials — Americans born after 1980 — now make up the largest segment of the workforce.
Research has shown that millennials are more likely than previous generations to identify as independents. But, ominously for the GOP, millennials that do identify with a major party are more likely to call themselves Democrats.
“If we want to be a competitive party in the next several decades, we’re going to have to be a party that can attract millennials,” House Republican Policy Committee Chairman Luke Messer (Ind.) said.
The GOP’s outreach to younger adults will begin in earnest on Tuesday with a House hearing about “Millennials and the GOP” organized by the Republican Policy Committee, an arm of leadership.
Stefanik will chair the hearing, which will feature testimony from demographic experts at the Pew Research Center and Harvard Institute of Politics, as well as representatives from the right-leaning Manhattan Institute and Echelon Insights. Their testimony will “set the stage of who millennials are,” Stefanik said.
While millennials tend to resist party labels, polling indicates they support Democratic positions by wide margins on social issues like gay marriage, marijuana legalization and immigration reform.
About 60 percent of voters ages 18 to 29 supported President Obama in the last two presidential elections, according to exit polls. John Kerry, now secretary of State, also won more than half of young voters in the 2004 presidential election.
But Stefanik and Messer think they can start bringing millennials into the GOP fold by homing in on policy issues such as college affordability and workplace flexibility, as well as capitalizing on millennials’ distrust of government institutions.
An April survey conducted by the Harvard Institute of Politics found that 74 percent of millennials “sometimes” or “never” trust the federal government “to do the right thing.” Congress specifically ranked even worse, with 82 percent expressing pessimism, while 63 percent held the presidency in low regard.
“Millennials are up for grabs as we go into the next election cycle,” Stefanik said. “As a millennial in Congress, I believe it’s very important that we’re educating our colleagues.”
Stefanik and Messer expect to hold at least two more hearings about millennials. After listening to testimony on Tuesday about the population in statistical terms, they plan to make potential policy proposals their focus.
“If you want to be a governing party,” Messer said, “you also have to have a governing agenda.”
Stefanik is one of only a handful of millennials in Congress. The others include Reps. Carlos Curbelo (R-Fla.), 35; Jason Smith (R-Mo.), 35; Justin Amash (R-Mich.), 35; Tulsi Gabbard (D-Hawaii), 34; Joseph Kennedy (D-Mass.), 34; Eric Swalwell (D-Calif.), 34; and Patrick
Murphy (D-Fla.), 32.
While Stefanik won her seat in Congress with fanfare, she could face a difficult reelection race in 2016, when Democrats are expected to make her one of their top targets. Democrat Bill Owens represented the district before announcing his retirement last year.
Reflecting pressure back home, Stefanik has broken with her party on multiple immigration-related votes, including whether to inch toward letting illegal immigrants who came to the U.S. as children serve in the military and preventing the Obama administration from pursuing its legal defense of the president’s executive actions.
Stefanik’s willingness to buck the party line has made her stand out even more in a House where the average member’s age is 57, according to the Congressional Research Service. In crowds of graying hair and balding heads, it’s easy to spot her while lawmakers congregate on the House floor during votes.
Stefanik remembered one instance while running to votes with fellow New York Republican Pete King, one of the most senior members of the state delegation. The Capitol Police let King through, but stopped Stefanik. When they ran into each other again later, King teased Stefanik about the incident, exclaiming, “So it’s true!”
Nowadays, she said, the Capitol security officers are better at recognizing her.
“The Capitol Police have a very tough job,” she said tactfully.