Gun rights, the economy, and agriculture: Iowa College Republicans weigh in before the caucuses
Days before the caucuses, I sat down with a group of conservative young men from Drake University and Iowa State University. Here's some of what they had to say.
A note to readers
From now ❄ through the fall 🍂, I’ll be conducting focus groups with young Americans and writing about them as part of The Up and Up’s 2024 programming. The conversations are part of a broader initiative to gauge how young people are feeling ahead of the 2024 election. Are they planning to vote? If so, why? And for who? If not, what’s holding them back?
I’m aiming to cast a wide net of participants, from those who are politically active (the next generation of politicians, perhaps), to everyday young people focused on passing class or putting food on the table for their family. Broadly, we’ll touch on the issues top of mind at any given time, party identification, trust (or a lack thereof), and civc engagement — but we’ll also look into something that may be far more telling: culture. Where are young people are getting their news and entertainment and whose voices are resonating in the crowded information ecosystem?
As I plan my trips, I need your help! Please reach out if you’re interested in setting up a conversation or have a suggestion of where to visit. I’d be grateful for your input.
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Iowa College Republicans weigh in before the caucuses
Last week in Iowa, I sat down with a group of conservative young men from Drake University and Iowa State University. Campaign signs (mostly for Republican candidates) lined the wall as I walked into Drake University’s Olmstead Center in Des Moines — a visible reminder of the campus’ proximity to the heat of the action in the Hawkeye state (notably, there wasn’t a Biden campaign sign… I was told they requested one but had yet to receive it).
‘It’s a really special thing’
The group of College Republicans was excited about the upcoming caucuses, and given the unique nature of Iowa politics, some have had first-hand interactions with the candidates. But while they’re super plugged in, they said many of their friends are not.
Dylan Engelbrecht, 21 and a student at Drake, said he’s met the candidates multiple times. He’s even had one on one conversations with them.
“We’re kind of used to it every four years, seeing the TV ads, seeing the signs on people’s yards, but it’s really a special thing,” he said. Engelbrecht is against initiatives to to change the lineup of first-in-the-nation states. “We’re small enough where you can be a small candidate and make big waves. We have a very inexpensive media market. You have to campaign in the entire state of Iowa — not just the big suburbs or the inner cities. We're a sprouting population and you have to get all those coalitions in Iowa.”
Trey Wellman, 20 and a student at Iowa State, was one of the Iowans who asked Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis a question “about rural populations” during a CNN town hall. Wellman grew up on a family farm.
“We've all had ample opportunity to really get to know them,” Welman said of the leading GOP candidates.
While the caucuses are top of mind for students in his poli-sci classes, he said, beyond that, Wellman thinks his friends will wait until the general election to vote.
“I have friends who aren't really political and don't necessarily care about the caucuses, but they do plan on voting in November,” he said.
Kendal Zylstra, 23 and a student at Drake University Law School, finds it “discouraging” that many young people feel disillusioned from politics.
“I think there is some apathy out there. I think that there’s a lot of young voters who are like, ‘My one vote really isn't going to count.’ Not just in Iowa, but we see that across the country,” Zylstra said.
Gun rights, the economy, and agriculture
Our conversation took place one day after the tragic school shooting in Perry, Iowa, which is just 40 minutes away from Drake University. So when Levi Sneller, 19 and a student at Drake, listed “gun rights” as one of the issues he cares most about, I was eager to hear more.
I asked the students what they were hearing from their communities regarding the tragedy. Do they think it will impact the caucuses? What type of solutions do they think are important? Overall, they said it was too early to jump to conclusions about why the shooting had happened, but they agreed that addressing gun violence requires addressing mental health.
“A lot of people are starting to blame Republicans because they don't believe in gun control. And I don't think that right now is that time,” said Wellman. “I think right now is the time to grieve the loss and to grieve with the community. Whether or not you are on the right or the left, I think that right now is not the time to play politics. And I've seen a lot of people on social media do that. And I think we just need to be wary of what the community is going through.” He added: “As for solutions when you get down the road for it, I think that we need to look at mental health.”
Sneller weighed in: “I think mental health is without a doubt the primary issue here. I think when we start talking about the gun control route, that's a little bit more of a difficult path to follow. Because in America, gun control really comes down to this debate of safety and freedom. And we oftentimes like to have both, but it's impossible. So when you want to have more freedom, you're gonna give up a little bit of safety, and you want to have more safety, you're going to give up a little bit of freedom.”
Beyond gun violence, asked what issues were top of mind, the group listed: agriculture, the economy, abortion, immigration, and law enforcement.
When it comes to the economy, the young men were focused mostly on taxes and the cost of living. Zylstra said he’s worried about the impending expiration date on former president Donald Trump’s tax cuts — set for 2025 — coupled with inflation. Engelbrecht mentioned the issue of student loans and said he doesn’t agree with President Joe Biden’s efforts to forgive them.
“You're gonna have people who are getting less for their dollar, and then more of those dollars are going to get taxed. I see that as a real fear for someone who’s going to graduate and have a job, but I’m not going to be a millionaire, and I’m also not going to be on a government subsidy… but when you're stuck in the middle like that, it's a really tough place to be,” Zylstra said. “You feel almost penalized for wanting to make more money.”
“Past students or our parents paid off student loans themselves by working jobs, or like us, working jobs during college. And we have a president that wants to just get rid of student loans for everyone. And I think there’s a lot of Republicans that I talk to on campus or just Republicans in general that just look to that and are like well, ‘I chose to go to community college,’” Engelbrecht said. “We have a great community college program here in Iowa, where you do two years at a community college for little to no money and then two years at a state school or school like Drake, so there's ways to make education cheaper and a lot of us have taken that way… [and] there’s people who have opted to go to higher cost schools, schools like on the East Coast, that they felt was best for their educational journey.”
As for agriculture, I was curious what the young Iowans thought about the relationship between agriculture and climate change — or, if they felt there was one. I referenced this summer’s first GOP primary debate, when a young Republican asked a question about climate change, (demonstrating that it’s a top priority for some young conservative voters). Is climate change something they’re focused on?
Wellman, who’s raised cattle and has row crops such as corn and soy bean, said he doesn’t “necessarily believe climate change is real.” He said farmers are the “best environmentalists.”
“I don't necessarily believe climate change is real. I’m more of a climate change skeptic. But at the same time, I understand that there is evidence out there that can support that theory,” Wellman said. “A lot of people don't understand that our farmers and our ranchers are truly our best environmentalists because they know that when their land, or their soil, their air, their water, is contaminated, then they lose profit. And whether they’re doing it for profit or to truly feed the world, they know that to grow their yield, to expand their yields, they need to have a good environment.”
His response was quickly rebuked by Sneller, who said, “Obviously we do have evidence climate change is real. I think the issue is how we [are] pragmatic about solutions.”
“We just throw out random solutions, have politicians throwing out stuff that cost tens of trillions of dollars, and then expect it to actually get put into action. When that happens, you're just going to have division on both sides and no one's ever going to come to an actual conclusion and an actual deal. So I think we need just realistic solutions that aren't going to cost the taxpayer billions, if not trillions of dollars,” he said.
‘I don't want my friends to know that I'm a Republican’
After an initial discussion of the issues that matter to them most, I asked the young Republicans about the relationship between young people and the GOP. Is the party messaging effectively to young people and prioritizing the issues that matter most to them? How do students on their campuses view the Republican Party?
Zylstra said the party needs to recruit better candidates, adding that a failure to do so will further alienate young voters (who already lean more toward Democratic candidates).
“I think we as the Republican Party do a decent job of trying to engage young people, but I really need to work on recruiting better candidates overall. I think that's one area that our party has really, really struggled with in the last two, three election cycles. We've just recruited candidates across the country who just are not what fit the normal electorate,” he said. “Not just Republicans, but overall in general. I think we need to encourage more normal, down to earth people to run for office, and I think that that would be a way that the Republican Party can better connect to the average young voter.”
Engelbrecht emphasized that college campuses are the “epicenter” of debate over social issues, listing conversations about the war between Israel and Hamas, antisemitism on college campuses, and affirmative action. That’s complicated, he said, by the fact that young conservatives are often afraid to share their perspective in campus environments. More so, he pointed to an unwillingness for young people to publicly identify as Republicans, even if they are conservative.
“College Republicans, we have a lot of people sign up to come to meetings and to be a part of the email list. And they’ll come to one or two events, and they're like, ‘Oh, I don't want to be in any pictures because I don't want my friends to know that I'm a Republican,’” he said.
“How does that make you guys feel?,” I asked.
“Not good,” Engelbrecht said over a laugh. “We've learned a lot of things here at our respective universities, but I don't know if our opinion is always respected back,” he said. “I definitely learned more about myself and the world around me and have gotten respect for that while still maintaining my viewpoint here on campus, but I know there's a lot of my peers that can say the same,” he added.
Wellman, for his part, said that while students try to bring up the topic of the war between Israel and Hamas, he’s noticed that “a lot of people don’t want to talk about it because it can be such a polarizing issue.”
‘I am still somewhat undecided’
When it came to which candidates the young Iowans were planning to support, their responses varied. Some hesitated to weigh in.
“I am for any candidate other than a Democrat at this point,” Wellman said. “My top three are definitely Donald Trump, [former South Carolina Gov. and UN Ambassador] Nikki Haley, and Ron DeSantis.”
He added that Haley, DeSantis, and tech entrepreneur Vivek Ramaswamy, “have made a lot of efforts to reach out to young people.”
In a text exchange after our in-person conversation, Sneller warned that he’s “still somewhat undecided” on who he plans to caucus for.
“I am leaning towards Nikki Haley,” he said. “Ron DeSantis would be my second choice after Haley.”