The Maine Republican Party, which as of Saturday is represented at the national level by the two youngest people to ever sit on the Republican National Committee, is banking its future in Maine on building a conservative youth “army,” according to Maine GOP Chairman Rick Bennett.
Rep. Alex Willette, R-Mapleton, is seen as many within the state’s Republican establishment as a rising star. In only his second term in the Legislature, the now 24-year-old was elected assistant House minority leader earlier this year. He later made a brief but vigorous run at Maine’s 2nd Congressional District seat before dropping out for personal reasons.
Now Willette, a Realtor who is finishing up law school, has a new high-profile post: Republican National Committeeman. The Presque Isle native was elected to the position on Saturday by a unanimous vote of the state GOP committee. He joins another young Maine Republican, 22-year-old Ashley Ryan of Portland, to make up what the Maine GOP says is by a span of several years the youngest duo ever elected to the RNC.
Willette, son of former Presque Isle lawmaker Michael Willette, began building his political career as a high school student volunteering for then-gubernatorial candidate Chandler Woodcock. He later studied political science at the University of Maine at Farmington.
“He’s certainly one of the most memorable Republican students I’ve ever had,” said Jim Melcher, one of Willette’s political science professors at UMF. “His rise says a lot of good things about Maine, that you don’t have to be someone who has put in 30 years on things to go far.”
Willette takes the place of former RNC Committeeman Mark Willis, who was one of several conservative Republicans who publicly quit the party in August, citing dissatisfaction with Gov. Paul LePage and legislative Republicans.
Political parties, by definition, seek votes from wherever they can find them, but Maine GOP Chairman Rick Bennett said Willette and Ryan represent the beginnings of an initiative to attract young people to the GOP. He said in a written statement Tuesday that plans are in the works for a new initiative called #GEN207.
“Many young people are dismayed by the appalling irresponsibility of Democratic leaders in Augusta and Washington in expanding government programs and pushing unsustainable costs onto the backs of the next generation,” said Bennett in a written statement on Tuesday. “As a result, an army of young Republicans is rising in Maine.”
Willette and Ryan said their greatest value to the Republican Party is that they voice a conservative ideology in terms that make sense to their peers.
“A lot of young people are looking for alternatives and saying ‘Obamacare isn’t working the way it’s supposed to. It isn’t going to help me,’” said Ryan, who is studying mathematics at Southern New Hampshire University. “I don’t think the Republican Party is going to get back the youth overnight but we can do it slowly, surely as people realize the national debt we’re facing and are graduating college with sometimes hundreds of thousands of dollars of debt.”
Willette said he hopes Maine can lead the country in bringing young people into the Grand Old Party.
“It’s no secret that President Obama and the Democrats have been more successful than Republicans in attracting young people,” he said. “Whenever I talk to a young person I talk about the free market and how Republican principles help create jobs and get people working again. … Hearing that message from young people like Ashley and I will help get that message across to our generation.”
Mary-Erin Casale, executive director of the Maine Democratic Party, said the problem between the GOP and young people is about policy, not the number of candles on their birthday cakes.
“I wouldn’t say the Democrats target young people,” she said. “Democrats have policies that would benefit younger peoples’ lives as well as older peoples’ lives. I just don’t think the Republican party attracts those voters.”
Casale added that Maine Democrats have their own young stars, such as 36-year-old Party Chairman Ben Grant, 38-year-old Senate President Justin Alfond and 36-year-old House Speaker Mark Eves.
“I think that’s pretty telling,” said Casale, who is 30 years old herself.