If CPAC were a music festival, Jeb Bush or Paul Ryan might be the headliner, but Rand Paul would be the obscure indie band-turned-newly-hip main attraction. The senator from Kentucky’s now-infamous filibuster last week seems to have done for Paul what “coming out” did for Frank Ocean. Leaders of many of the young Republican groups considered a staple at the conservative conference said they observed an increase in young attendees, many of them undoubtedly here to stand with Rand.
“The GOP of old has grown stale and moss covered,” declared Rand Paul to resounding cheers from an enthusiastic—and youthful—audience who not only agreed with his message, but illustrated it.
Edward King, the director of programs for Young Americans for Liberty, a nonprofit organization founded in the wake of Ron Paul’s 2008 presidential campaign, has been at CPAC for the last six or seven years. While he said he has seen more and more young people are showing up to CPAC every year (the number representatives of his own organization having grown, he said, from 20 or 30 to hundreds in the last couple of years) he credits Ron’s son with attracting a new demographic of young people with the principles of libertarianism.
“There were about 20 to 30 people who emailed me looking for tickets to CPAC recently, people who may or may not have been fans of CPAC or the party before, but now they’re taking a fresh look,” said King, standing in front of YAL’s booth where members handed out red “Stand with Rand” T-shirts and stickers. “There is no question that younger people are attracted to his message,” said King. “I think the future of the party is with Rand Paul.”
Jacob Champion considers himself one of the older members of CPAC’s young crowd. The 28-year-old is a long-time conservative—though he leans more libertarian—and was able to make it to CPAC for his first time this year, despite attempts to attend in the past. He, like many others in the sea of youthful faces that flooded the Gaylord National Harbor Convention Center’s front entry way, was most looking forward to Rand’s speech. That, and running into old conservative friends. “It’s like a big high school reunion,” he said.
Champion, who was the deputy director of volunteers for John McCain’s presidential campaign, feels that, more than ever, young people are adopting libertarian values and “the Republican party really seems to be the home for that.”
Matt Kneece, director of the youth leadership school at the Leadership Institute, a conservative non-profit organization that focuses on campaign, public speaking and fundraising training, said he thinks that many young people, particularly recent college grads, are finding themselves in a sort of “political purgatory,” abandoned without jobs in a bad economy. He describes young people’s dilemma this way: they don’t really feel like they have a home in either party, but know that they want “a return to what the United States was about when it was founded: personal responsibility, fiscal responsibility, self-ownership,” he said. And if that’s what they’re looking for, then who better to lead them out of purgatory than Rand Paul?
“I think [Paul’s speech] is the one reason a lot of young people came here,” he said. “The young people seem, to me at least, to be overwhelmingly on the side of the new, upcoming Rand Paul-style fiscal conservative wing of the Republican Party.”
Even uniformed representatives of the Citadel’s Republican Society, between the ages of 20 and 22—who point to their military aspirations as the source of their conservatism—looked forward to hearing Paul speak.
About 15 minutes before Paul’s opening act, Florida Sen. Marco Rubio, was about to take the stage, so many Rand fans—some young enough to be sporting braces—flooded the entryway of the convention center’s main auditorium that security guards warned of a fire hazard. Men and women donning blue polo shirts with the word “Freedom” embroidered across the back red walked up and down the aisle handing out posters, like beer guys at a baseball game. Among them was Jacob Champion. “I don’t know where these posters came from,” he admitted. “I just like Rand Paul and want to help out.”