First, Harvard, MIT Republicans seek state committee seats. Then they face their city.
Young Republicans have it bad enough: Nationwide polls put President Barack Obama’s approval rating five points higher among 18- to 34-year-olds compared with the overall population, and give him 51 percent of their vote compared with 37 percent for Mitt Romney.
Young Republicans in Cambridge have it worse: That demographic accounts for well over 45 percent of the population of the city, where only about 5 percent of voters are registered Republican anyway (compared with 11 percent statewide). It’s the so-called eighth-most liberal big city in the country.
Yet Cambridge is fielding its fair share of young candidates for the Tuesday elections to the Republican State Committee, including Michael Cowett, a junior at Harvard majoring in classics and minoring in government, and Caroline Shinkle, a first-year student of economics and finance at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. (The city has fielded eight total candidates for the committee.)
Cowett is unopposed. Shinkle is running against Joyce Kelly, a Massachusetts Community College professor.
“It’s great to have two young college students willing to run for that type of an office out of Cambridge — in the kind of environment where being a Republican is not the norm, and not a norm on those two campuses,” said Charles Marquardt, a recent candidate for city councillor and one of Cambridge’s most prominent Republicans. “It’s a good thing. I think it shows there is still balance out there, there’s people willing to make their voices heard and willing to work at it.”
The students are different sorts of candidates, and slightly at odds with the images of their schools. Cowett is a wonkish sort whose minimalist website includes no pictures but breaks down his campaign goals into an outline that includes identifying which neighboring committee members to work with to win which seats in which year. Shinkle’s site implicitly highlights her energy and extroverted nature and brings a fair amount of glamour — it’s more elaborate, with two full pages of photos of her on the campaign trail and meeting with constituents, and an extensive biography that notes she is founder and director of the nonprofit Camp USA, a program for boosting political awareness among middle-schoolers, and was a youth reporter for CBS at the 2008 national political conventions. Cowett is a classics scholar who speaks Latin and ancient Greek; Shinkle is a member of the Screen Actors Guild.
Shinkle is also a dozen other things, including state champion orator and intern for Massachusetts’ Republican U.S. senator, Scott Brown, and it makes sense that she recounted the moment she realized she was a Republican as coming “when I was in middle school, and I saw that my fellow students would not work as hard on those assignments on which we all received the same grade.” She also found role models at the time in Jeanne Kirkpatrick, U.S. ambassador to the United Nations during the 1980s, and the same era’s British prime minister, Margaret Thatcher.
Cowett can’t remember a time he didn’t identify as a Republican, although he grew up living in Providence, R.I., Cleveland and Cambridge, all cities “that lean pretty far to the left,” in a fairly moderate family. But he also grew up talking politics a lot with his father and was an avid reader of newspapers, and he remembers admiring John McCain all the way back to his 2000 campaign for president. “I was not quite old enough to vote, but I happily would’ve voted for him,” Cowett said. “There are definitely some areas I differ from Sen. McCain, but I remember early on thinking highly of him and his service to the country. On foreign policy issues I tend to be more hawkish. I’m Jewish, so matters related to Israel and the Middle East have been important to me. Foreign policy is probably my major interest, and I tend to agree with how Sen. McCain views America’s role in the world and American use of power.”
The offices they’re running for do nuts-and-bolts politics — recruit candidates for city and ward committees, support and train members, raise money, help set policy and see if they can pump up membership in the party. Cowett in particular plays down the red-meat politics aspects of the role, since his focus is on stopping what he sees as needless losses in races for, say, state auditor. “I’m running for more administrative reasons. Things like changing the focus of the state party to be less concerned with the governor’s race every four years and more concerned about the size of the state House and Senate caucuses, electing school board members and city councillors and sheriffs and also just building Republican infrastructure in the area,” he said.
“This is a party office. So I’ve tried pretty hard to keep political issues out of my campaign. They’ve come up occasionally, but only very occasionally,” he said. “This isn’t the time or place for violent ideological wars.”
Romney, whose candidacy for president makes him the nation’s most prominent Massachusetts Republican, spends much of his time in denial of his record as governor here, and the lesson Cowett draws from that is that the national party will tolerate “deviance from the so-called orthodoxy” so long as candidates don’t go out of their way to emphasize their differences. The New England version is that locally, Republicans, “even when they tend to be pro-life or pro traditional marriage, are not going to focus on that” over economic solutions.
Cowett describes himself as being pro-life and “ambivalent about questions of same-sex marriage” and therefore “I don’t think they’re issues I’d focus on even if I didn’t live here.”
Shinkle also looks more to finance and technology than social issues — market-driven, technology-based solutions for the environment, for instance, citing ethanol production and the replacing of traditional incandescent light bulbs as examples of how liberal politics has led to bad solutions — and senses Republican inroads are possible because people want more conservative fiscal solutions in the state. “Many of the unenrolled voters here sympathize with the ideal of a smaller, more efficient government,” she said. “The need for Republican critical thought is truly needed here. At the local level, there is no real choice offered on the ballot, resulting in minimal checks and balances and less innovation in government, not to mention the propensity to increase taxes as a first resort.”
She also sees an opportunity in issues that speak loudest to Cantabrigians: high-tech innovation and job creation. “I see Republicans on the right side of science and technology, encouraging private investment and supporting efficient markets that drive down the cost of capital,” she said.
The nature of the races put the candidates into contact with Republicans, who can vote for them, not a general electorate. Cowett hasn’t even had to campaign much. Eventually, though, they will face converting some of the other 95 percent of voting Cantabrigians, including the 54 percent identifying themselves as Democrats and others may be even farther to the left. For Shinkle, the welcome her role model Kirkpatrick “likely received at the UN fighting the Cold War during the Reagan years would serve as a good parallel of what it is like to be a Republican in Cambridge today.”
It has mattered less to Cowett, who sees such conversion as a third priority after getting into office himself, then building a Republican infrastructure that includes candidates for other public offices. Even when it comes to the inevitable conversion, he foresees a system in which small groups of people talk with other small groups in which “a lot of it is about saying things to people for the first time that they haven’t heard and that nobody in this area has been taking the time to tell them.”
He’s optimistic about the approach in part because “In general, I’ve been pretty well received” as a Republican here.
“Generally, most people have been cordial and supportive toward me,” Shinkle agreed, “although I sense it’s far easier to be a Democrat in Cambridge.”