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GOP commits to reaching out to millennial voting bloc

| Thursday, Oct. 24, 2013, 11:24 p.m.
Elliot Echols, 23, of Rome, Ga., the Republican Party's first national youth director, recruited for the party while at Berry College in 2011.

The GOP wants to get its groove back with young people.

It took a step toward that on Thursday by naming Elliott Echols as the party's first national youth director, seven months after releasing a report that showed people perceive the Grand Old Party as, well, old and disconnected from pop culture.

“Today's announcement is groundbreaking,” said Republican National Committee Chairman Reince Priebus. “Bringing Elliot on board in an off-year will help us build relationships with young voters and mobilize students and young professionals to take our message to their peers.”

Yet Echols' work will resonate beyond the 2014 elections, Priebus said, noting that “young Americans are independent-minded people who are concerned about getting our nation's economy back on track.”

Echols, 23, of Rome, Ga., told the Tribune-Review he has goals for his new role.

“The biggest is to bring young, energized people to the GOP,” he said. “There are a lot of young people who are eager to make a change, but they can't change anything if they're not a part of the process.”

Echols began to identify himself as a conservative in college: “I majored in economics, and it shaped the way I thought about policies, people's choices and the size of government.”

More than 50 million voting-age “millennials,” those ages 18 to 29, live in the United States — about 17 percent of the electorate, according to Pew Research Center in Washington.

The Republican Party determined a need to reach them after releasing its “Growth and Opportunity Project” in late March that scrutinized data from the 2012 presidential election. The report proposed ways that conservatives could attract not just young voters but women and minorities — three important demographics in American politics.

Exit polling last year showed President Obama with a 28-point advantage over Republican nominee Mitt Romney, a gap that widened dramatically since the under-30 vote began breaking for Democrats in 1992 with Bill Clinton.

Echols wants to do more than recruit voters or volunteers. “I want to see young people running for office as well,” he said.

To be effective, he'll need to get out of Washington and make sure state GOP committees and elected officials try to engage young people, he said.

In recent weeks, the RNC hired Orlando Watson and Tara Wall to head communications for black media and rolled out an aggressive Hispanic outreach program in Pennsylvania, California, Florida, New Jersey, New Mexico, Texas and Virginia. The goal is to build a grassroots infrastructure to engage people at community events.

Michael Czin, spokesman for the Democratic National Committee, is skeptical that hiring a few people with new titles will help Republicans win votes.

“Their real problem is, their policies and message do not attract young people or minorities,” he said. “The Democrats' policies on issues like choice and college affordability, to name a few, are why we have been good at getting young people to support our candidates, not who we have on staff.”

Still, said Alex Castellanos, a Republican political analyst in Washington, “This is a move in the right direction, especially committing permanent positions in an off-year election. It shows they are not just doing it to close the margins but to actually build a long-lasting relationship.”

Salena Zito is a Trib Total Media staff writer. She can be reached at szito@tribweb.com.

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