College Republicans and Reagan’s “Big Tent”

Unlike many conservative college students, the first political college club I joined was not my school’s College Republicans chapter. Instead, at the beginning of my sophomore year, I was recruited to head up a Students for Rand chapter on my campus, and thus my involvement with politics began.

Compared to candidates like Jeb Bush and Marco Rubio, Rand was definitely an outsider, but when I joined my school’s CR chapter at the start of the year, I did not feel like an outsider at all. In fact, contrary to preconceived notions I had about CRs, I was pleasantly surprised: everyone in my CR chapter had positive things to say about the Kentucky senator, and in our chapter’s straw poll held that September, he placed second.

Washington State University is just one college where College Republicans and Young Americans for Liberty have worked together.
Washington State University is just one college where College Republicans and Young Americans for Liberty have worked together.

As I met with more CRs across my state and across the country, it became clear to me that despite our minor differences in ideology and differences in choices of candidates, we were all more or less on the same page: we are the club that the conservative minority on campuses flocks to.

CRs and SFR worked closely together throughout the primary process, and in December of 2015 I ran for the presidency of my CR chapter and won. In the semester that followed, we continued reaching out to conservative students of all types – we even assisted in the establishment of a Young Americans for Liberty chapter on our campus.

However, the broad spectrum of people and ideas represented by CRs and the College Republican National Committee was not fully apparent to me until I became the chairman of my state’s CR federation and attended training in Washington, D.C. this August with leaders from all across the country.

There are some CR leaders who are former Jeb Bush supporters. Some of them got aboard the Trump train relatively early, such as myself. Some are ardently backing Gary Johnson.

From the top down, the CRNC – whether intentionally or not – has done an impeccable job of taking Reagan’s “big tent” ideal and adopting it for an unprecedented election cycle. In the process, they have created a nationwide network of CR chapters that act as a central point on campus for conservatives, neocons, libertarians, nationalists, and independents brought together by what they have in common, not held apart by where they disagree.

College Republicans leadership and state chairs in Washington, D.C.
College Republicans leadership and state chairs in Washington, D.C.

This “big tent” philosophy is why CR organizations are consistently the largest and most active right-leaning organizations on college campuses, and it is also why each campus is a little bit different. At the University of Washington, for example, some of the executive board supports Gary Johnson, yet they still participate in events like building a 10’x8’ Trump Wall on campus.

There has been some attention paid recently to fighting between some conservative college groups and individual CR chapters. I would agree that CR leaders have a responsibility, at the very least, not to actively work against any of the party’s candidates. But this does not mean that the diversity of ideology within the CRNC needs to be erased. CR chapters who choose not to work on a federal race can do great work on very important local races.

CR leaders almost certainly have more in common with each other than with their Young Democrat counterparts, and while they all may not always vote the same way, they are well served to remember those core principles that they agree on.

The most successful CR chapters in the country are those that welcome students from all along the right and center. And as long as conservatives remain the minority on college campuses, this strategy will continue to serve CRs well.

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