On Friday afternoon, Russ Fulcher, the GOP nominee for U.S. Rep. Raul Labrador’s congressional seat, addressed conservatives gathered from around the state at the Idaho Republican Party State Convention.
Among his two sets of grandparents, one side was Republican and one side was Democratic. Still, they agreed on most issues, Fulcher told the crowd.
That wouldn’t be the case today, he continued. Arguments about the economy and what he called open borders would make his grandparents “turn in their graves.”
Idaho Republicans spent time at their convention celebrating their unchanging values, but regardless of what the party believes, society has changed, leaving Republicans to figure out how their core beliefs should interface with public policy. Meanwhile, some young conservatives are wondering whether they have a place in the GOP’s present, and when they’ll be involved in its future.
A hesitant welcome mat
A few hours before Fulcher’s speech, Dom Gelsomino sat in Holt Arena’s stadium seating, quietly discussing his plans to challenge a platform proposal opposing same-sex marriage during Saturday morning’s session.
“I will be arguing that government has no place in marriage whatsoever,” said Gelsomino, a 25-year-old former legislative candidate from Boise. He pointed to then-candidate Donald Trump’s speech at the 2016 Republican National Convention, in which Trump said people should be more open-minded toward the LGBT community.
Plus, Gelsomino said, marriage equality is a conservative issue. “We need to end this constant expansion of government in the affairs of marriage,” he said.
Sen. Jim Rice, R-Caldwell, sat behind him and listened. “So how should we deal with divorce issues related to property and custody?” asked Rice, a divorce attorney.
“That’s an interesting matter,” replied Gelsomino, noting that civil issues such as those are different from ordaining a marriage.
Ultimately, state party platforms and planks matter little, other than to inform the public on where the parties stand. But to Gelsomino, words matter, and he believes that more LGBT Americans and millennials would identify as Republican if the party were more welcoming.
Gelsomino, who is openly gay, said the majority of young Republicans favor gay marriage – a statement backed up by the Pew Research Center, which reports that 58 percent of Republicans born after 1980 are in support. A similar majority favors marijuana legalization.
But for the most part, attendees at the Republican convention were born well before 1980. That’s not a problem for the Idaho Republican Party right now. The state party has a reserve of active organizers and candidates, as well as donors with deep pockets.
But Gelsomino says the party is losing out by not listening to younger voices.
“There are issues that I don’t feel are being addressed, or are addressed but end up being defeated,” Gelsomino said.
Rice argued that it’s not that the party doesn’t make room for young people. Rather, he said, “our tendency is to desire articulate, thoughtful leaders, and people become more articulate and more thoughtful as they age.”
Old and young
The average age of the GOP-dominated Idaho Legislature was 63 in 2016.
But there is an influx of relatively young faces in the House and Senate GOP caucuses, said House Assistant Majority Leader Brent Crane: Lori Den Hartog, Priscilla Giddings, Dustin Manwaring, Bryan Zollinger, James Holtzclaw, Paul Amador and Greg Chaney, and newly elected representative Britt Raybould, are all in their 30s or 40s.
There are also young Republicans working behind the scenes: A number of state party staffers, campaign workers and volunteers are in their 20s. But most Republican elected officials are older, as are many of the statewide candidates for this year’s election.
Crane, a Nampa Republican, was elected to leadership when he was in his 30s. Now 44, he acknowledges that nationwide, Democrats have done a better job of engaging young people.
“I think the Democrats are looking to the future,” Crane said. Idaho Republicans, however, “have some work to do.”
The challenge, said Idaho State Tax Commissioner Janet Moyle, is how to tie in traditional values to societal and generational changes.
“Because the truth of the matter is the youth is our future, and if you exclude them, your party doesn’t go anywhere,” Moyle said.
The question for Gelsomino is the timeline. He recalled a conversation with a older Republican lawmaker – he declined to say which one – who said he would do well in office “when you’re my age.”
“I can’t wait 40, 50 years,” Gelsomino said.
Saturday morning, as the party considered plank proposals during the convention’s floor session, Gelsomino walked up to the microphone and made his argument.
With a clear voice, he argued that conservatives should embrace limited government in people’s personal lives, that Christianity encourages love and acceptance, and that President Trump is on the same page.
The longer people continued, the more the crowd began to grumble, with some people yelling their dissent. “I don’t care if someone’s gay,” one delegate muttered to Rice.
“Dom needs to say this,” he countered.
Ultimately, the Republicans voted against Gelsomino and adopted a plank proposal asserting the right of states to reject federal definitions of marriage.
“What Dom had to say will percolate in people’s minds,” Rice said. “Minds don’t all change at the same rate.”
Delegates discussed the issue Saturday while finalizing amendments to the Idaho Republican Party platform. Changes include noting that the United States was founded on Judeo-Christian principles and emphasizing families and the private sector are the best avenues to provide early childhood education.
It was the first time party delegates changed the platform since 2012.
In other action, Republicans spiked a last-ditch effort calling for harsher punishments for employers who hire workers living in the country illegally.