BOZEMAN – As a 19-year-old who thinks capitalism and free markets have a natural appeal to young people, Charlie Kirk has launched his own organizing group to bring them into the conservative fold.
But Kirk says the Republican Party and free-market candidates are blowing it with youthful voters, by failing to reach out to them and ceding the organizational battleground to the forces of Obama and the left.
“We need to do an honest autopsy of what happened to the Republicans in 2012,” he told Montana Republicans Saturday at the party’s annual state convention in Bozeman. “The other side had behavioral modeling, what I like to call the 22nd Century campaign. It was unbelievable what they were able to do.”
Members of the GOP audience in Bozeman audibly gasped as Kirk told the tale of two acquaintances who he thought were “potential young Republicans,” but were swayed by the other side’s superior organization.
One was a female fan of pop singer Katy Perry. The woman obtained tickets to a Perry concert after agreeing to march in a gay pride parade last year. The marchers-concert goers also had to give their contact information to an Obama campaign group.
“She went from being uninvolved in March and being a Katy Perry fan to being one of the top community organizers in Chicago for Barack Obama,” Kirk said.
The other was a Latino high school classmate from Colombia, who had talked about his support of a less intrusive government and free markets.
But when the classmate returned to school after summer last year, he was wearing a T-shirt from MoveOn.org, a prominent liberal advocacy group.
Kirk said MoveOn.Org had had a booth outside the ceremony where the classmate and his family became American citizens, spoken to them in Spanish, and invited them to community events. The friend had become an organizer for the group.
“Now, why didn’t any of the organizations on the right have a booth at that swearing-in ceremony?” Kirk said. “There was nothing from our side of the aisle. Those were two young people who were potential young Republicans, who were both scooped up by the machine that the left built.”
Kirk, who graduated from high school in the Chicago area last year, said these and other such instances helped push him to found Turning Point USA, a nonprofit group trying to educate young people about the benefits of free markets, capitalism and entrepreneurship.
In an interview Saturday, Kirk said he founded Turning Point USA in part after becoming frustrated with the Young Republicans, whom he labeled as “too bureaucratic” and unwilling to try new approaches.
Turning Point USA’s website offers a mix of student columns, videos, events and the “student debt clock,” which shows students’ share of the national debt. While Kirk is the founder of the youth-centered site, the group has several adult advisers.
Kirk also has launched himself into the world of political punditry, appearing as a guest on national news shows, commenting about the youth vote, and speaking to conservative-leaning groups around the country.
Kirk came to Montana at the invitation of several Republicans who’ve been feuding with party hard-liners, arguing the state GOP needs to appeal to more than just doctrinaire conservatives.
Kirk said he talks to groups about how they can “better brand” capitalism and free markets for young people: “Young people want to be free. They want to be able to make their own decisions. They like to enjoy liberty.”
As for local Republican parties and groups, Kirk suggested they not turn their backs on libertarians or other subsets of the right, and that libertarians – social and economic — should be talking to conservatives about where they can seek common ground.