By Lara Bockenstedt
In a third-floor classroom at UW-Eau Claire’s Schneider Hall, College Republicans convened on the brink of 2016 elections.
“Get to the office, make some calls, knock some doors, whatever you can,” Vice Chair, Sam Heiden said encouraging members to take advantage of volunteer opportunities. “Really do that last push to get Republican, conservative candidates elected.
Heiden led the group through the pledge of allegiance as they stood facing a screen projecting an image of an oversized U.S. flag. The 30 members filled the classroom and sat in groups of three or four while group leaders pushed volunteer work. A table near the front supported “Hill No” stickers and a stack of “Get out the Vote” sheets.
Eau Claire College Republicans will not back GOP nominee Donald Trump, joining many Republicans in an unprecedented movement to reject their own party’s candidate. Instead, they said they are fighting against Hillary Clinton and focusing on local elections.
“We’re more leaving that up to the members,” UW-Eau Claire chapter chairman Mitchel Orlovsky said. “If they wanna endorse trump, we will more provide them with opportunities to go out and campaign and for them to go out there and knock doors, but ultimately it’s up to them.”
The non-endorsement exemplifies a growing discomfort with Trump’s public, controversial statements, leaving some young voters to reflect upon what this election means for the Republican Party.
“I think there’s a lot of hostility toward our candidate this year,” Orlovsky said, “and there’s quite a few (students) who are scared.”
Earlier this year, Alex Walker, chair of Madison’s College Republicans and Gov. Scott Walker’s son, told the Eau Claire group that supporting Trump isn’t a Wisconsin College Republicans requirement.
Orlovsky said the shift followed growing fears of potential death threats in Madison. Alternatively, their main focus has been on helping re-elect Wisconsin Sen. Ron Johnson, he said.
College Republicans said they still face angry fellow students when they set up tables in Davies Center. Trump stickers or cards prompt students to accuse members of being bigots, homophobes and racists.
“I think a lot of people don’t understand,” Orlovsky said, “that just because you’re gonna be supporting a candidate, that doesn’t mean you agree with everything that they’re doing and what they’re saying.”
He told the group that because of his Christian values, he couldn’t support Donald Trump. Earlier this fall, he delivered a sermon on politics and religion at his church. The message of his sermon was for members not to become discouraged and to pray for the election winner, whoever they may be.
According to a 2016 Pew analysis, only 13 percent of 18-29 year olds consider themselves Republicans. A recent article from The Cortez Journal reported that Trump’s campaign is rooted in response to political correctness, and that College Republicans across the nation don’t align with this battle.
After eating chili soup and cupcakes, Bill Ingram, a candidate for Wisconsin assembly, and his wife took turns speaking to the group. While finishing his talk Ingram left the voters with one idea: “All I gotta say is keep going.”
Ingram proposed getting rid of all public schools “including this one,” and expressed dissatisfaction that guns aren’t allowed on campus. Several students nodded their heads in seeming agreement while others turned to give their friends an aggravated look.
“Is there anybody in here right now who’s trying to decide to vote for Trump or Hillary?” Ingram asked.
One hand shot up in the back.
The hand belonged to Katie George, a sophomore social work and pre-law student, who said she voted for a third-party candidate.
While she is conservative, she said this was her first College Republicans meeting. She had not voted for Trump because of his values and how he misrepresented the party.
“I’m a social work major and I obviously care a lot about human rights and obviously Trump is terrible at that,” George said. “He doesn’t really have a straightforward plan, and I think he’s very sexist.”
When she discusses the elections with others, George said she has to defend her republican values. The party did a poor job selecting their candidate, she said, and now that they’re reflected in a bad light, it will lead to problems for the party going forward.
While there are a fair share of Eau Claire College Republicans who support Trump, approaching conversation with others about the current election has required a delicate touch.
Heiden, who studies social studies education in addition to helping lead the local College Republicans, grew up conservative in a liberal household. That experience has been especially necessary this election for calmly debating topics, he said.
He said he is passionate about debate and easing tensions between polarized groups.
“Throughout the Republican primary, it became clear that Trump was going to win and that was going to cause some problems within the club,” Heiden said. “Not just ours, but across the state and across the country as well.”
College Republicans, he said, tend to have a negative connotation, but Trump’s candidacy made it worse.
“I don’t think he holds the mantle of the Republican party,” Heiden said. “But more than that, he’s just not a good person. He doesn’t have the best interests of the country at heart, he doesn’t have the best interests of the people at heart.”
While disappointed with the top of the ticket, Heiden and Orlovsky both said they were proud of Wisconsin Republican politicians such as Rep. Paul Ryan, Sen. Ron Johnson and Gov. Scott Walker.
A few miles away from UW-Eau Claire’s campus, young republicans at Memorial High School have been campaigning a similar idea to College Republicans: anything but Clinton. The club advisor is Dave Wiltgen, a Spanish teacher who has been with the club for 15-20 years.
He said events have been peaceful during election season, and several members are actively involved at Eau Claire’s republican field office. However, the club has 20 loyal members this year, a smaller number compared to past elections. During the Bush presidency, he said, there were around 200 individuals in the club.
“They see him not as a role model, but as a best alternative,” Wiltgen said.
Heiden said while he can see the parties fragmenting, the republican party is representative of freedom, economic liberty and the ability to make one’s own choices.
“My advice for the republicans is don’t be afraid to speak your mind. Don’t that just because Trump’s the nominee that you have to agree with him or that you have to defend him,” Heiden said. “You can vote for someone that’s not Donald Trump and still be republican.”