Chris Greil, 29, brings his hand down on the table, trying to drive home a point he's been arguing for the past 15 minutes. The political tirade he's launched into is going a long way toward keeping a nearly deserted Rowdy's Cabin alive on a recent Monday night, and the nods from his audience indicate he's preaching to the choir.
"I think we should draft a letter to the editor," Greil reiterates to the four other members of the Clark Fork Young Republicans seated around him. "This issue's in the national scope right now. If we take a stand in the next week, we'll get a lot of attention. It'll force the members in the upper echelons to finally give us some credence."
Greil is outraged over the GOP's renewal of a state platform plank calling for criminalizing homosexual behavior. To him, and to the other young conservatives at the meeting, the party line in no way reflects his beliefs. If anything, it's driven him to demand that the Clark Fork Young Republicans—YRs, as they're known in casual conversation—step forward and publicly declare their condemnation of the plank.
Club Secretary and Treasurer Sandra Sullivan, 27, agrees that issuing a public statement will ultimately benefit the core 15-member group that represents the interests of Republicans between 18 and 40 years old in Missoula, Ravalli and Mineral counties. But Allie Harrison, 23, the club's vice president, is hesitant to make such a rash move. Drafting a letter to local media could drive a stake between the YRs and the senior officials with the state GOP, she says, despite how unanimous the group's opinion on this particular issue might be. With President Steve Dogiakos out of town for the week and the reputation of the year-old club potentially on the line, Greil's argument is reduced to a notation in Sullivan's notebook.
"Personally, there's an awful lot of things within the GOP platform I don't like at all," Greil says an hour later, as the meeting winds to a close. "What we talked about tonight is a shining example. But with the Democratic platform, it's the same way...The parties, I think, exist almost solely to focus on social issues, the divisions in social issues, because they're the easiest to drum up emotion and pander to a base and create a division. It's as if politics were a football game, and how unfortunate. On any football team there are good players and bad players. At the end of the day, you can have players that went to prison, but everybody still roots for the team."
Those at Rowdy's agree that, while they may support core conservative issues like lower taxes and smaller government, their differences with some of the particulars of the GOP's state platform stem from a more liberal perspective on social matters. They view the positions of entrenched Republicans on homosexuality, medical marijuana and the death penalty as antiquated, and feel the party's future hinges on becoming more inclusive. Through their present and future involvement, the Young Republicans hope to change the GOP in Montana to reflect the values of a more modern and open-minded conservative base. But change comes slowly, and simply overcoming their reputation as election cycle workhorses, as Sullivan puts it, is an ongoing struggle that has the YRs growing weary.
"They really want us to come and work, they want us to come and help," Sullivan says. "But they don't really want to hear what we think. Will [Deschamps] is going to read that and literally kick my butt, but it's the absolute truth."
"We're like the kids that come to work with their parents," adds Sarah Borrelli, a self-proclaimed Libertarian. "We'll put out the signs, we'll do all the handouts, the pamphlets. We're just their lackeys. They don't respect us at all crabbing our own opinion."
In many ways, the frustrations of these young conservatives over their limited influence within the Republican Party mirrors that of the Tea Party movement nationwide. Disillusioned conservatives have flocked to the Tea Party over the past year, hosting anti-tax rallies, competing against mainstream Republican candidates in the primaries and trying to pull the GOP further to the right without actually crafting a cohesive political message. But unlike the decentralized, disorganized populist phenomenon that's been the focus of so much attention this election cycle, Greil and his fellow YRs have a very specific claim over the GOP that Republican Party Chairman Will Deschamps is quick to emphasize. Even Deschamps has admitted over the past year that the party needs to shake its ingrained business-as-usual approach to politics, and he says he's pushed older Republicans to embrace what the Young Republicans offer.
"People like me are going to be gone in a few years," Deschamps says. "We're not going to be as involved as we are right now, so we need somebody to step in. There's more and more enthusiasm at the college level and in that 18- to 40-year-old YR group, and it's driven by leadership. There has to be somebody who cracks the whip, says, 'Let's do this' and gets them organized. This isn't just a bunch of amoeba cells that came together and said we're going to do something great...These people are looked upon as leaders by their peers."
And by that logic, soon these young Republicans will have to be accepted as leaders by the very folks who currently offer them little credence. If they are to influence the future of the GOP and ensure the party's continued survival, the YRs believe now is the time those in charge embraced change.
Several days before the YRs' meeting, area conservatives gathered for a small informal picnic hosted by the Missoula County Republican Central Committee in Lincoln Park. The party's older members outnumbered the young by a good two-to-one ratio, but the event lacked any undertones of frustration between the two age brackets over the need for transformation. Deschamps auctioned off a few humorous items—a stuffed star-spangled elephant, a Hillary Clinton nutcracker—and several candidates running for state and county offices spent their time chatting with their constituents and chowing down on barbecue. If anything, the longtime party members seemed to celebrate the presence of young blood at the social function.
"I can see them taking over at both a local and a national level," says David "Doc" Moore, Republican candidate for HD 91. "I think we're on the cusp of seeing a lot of change in both parties. These are hard times, but they're also exciting times because young folks are getting more involved with where we're taking the country and the state."