09/22/2008 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

New Mexico Young Republicans Work To Change The Party

The voters of southern New Mexico -- I would like to say simply "New Mexicans," but that doesn't sound right in our immigration-fraught climate -- are hungry to meet the presidential candidates. "We matter, even if we are small-town America," Susana Martinez, the local district attorney, says as she introduces John McCain Wednesday. Her fellow citizens are frustrated that by the end of summer 2008 Senators McCain and Obama have held only small and tightly-controlled events in their state. May 26, Memorial Day, Obama hosted an invitation-only town hall meeting with carefully-picked Democratic veterans at a ranching museum in Las Cruces, and, according even to the non-partisan attendees at the McCain town hall meeting in Las Cruces August 20, that decision was a mistake. New Mexico is home to many veterans, and many of those many felt shut out of the Obama event. Las Cruces is still smarting three months later. (Obama held a town hall meeting two hundred miles north in Albuquerque on August 19.)

2008-06-03-otb_onthetrail_v2.jpgSimilarly, if not quite as angrily, the locals complained that they had notice of the McCain event only the day before in the Las Cruces Sun-News, and by then the 500 tickets were gone. Aaron Henry Diaz, at age 21 already a comer in Dona Ana County Republican circles, had 250 of those tickets to distribute. He gave them to a younger group, including many students at New Mexico State University, where the McCain town hall was held. "See," he tells me proudly, "the event at Las Cruces is diverse." Without having to say more, he knows that I know that he means in comparison to the town hall meeting in Albuquerque July 15, which like most of the McCain events I've attended skewed AARP. Diaz and I first met in Albuquerque, and he has invited me back to Dona Ana County to talk with some Young Republicans here.

Diaz points to the rows of young people sitting on the stage in the Pan Am Center at New Mexico State. "I bet most of them are registered Democrats," he says by way of launching into an explanation of the peculiarities of New Mexico politics. Being a Democrat is part of the cultural identity in this part of the Southwest, particularly for Hispanics. "But they won't vote Democrat," Diaz explains. Identifying Democratic but voting Republican is a way of life in southern New Mexico. Before McCain arrives, Diaz introduces me to his grandfather, a retired sheriff of the county, a self-described Blue Dog Democrat who several years ago told Aaron Henry, when he came of age, to join the Republican Party because there's the future for political activists interested in issues of fiscal restraint.

That future would seem to wait on the far horizon, as Aaron Henry and his Young Republican friends agree when we talk after the town hall meeting. Las Cruces has been a good day for McCain, who seems buoyed and focused, perhaps because of his success with Rick Warren at the Saddleback Church civil forum on faith and politics Saturday night. McCain works the Saddleback moment into his summer-long disappointment that Obama has not joined him in these town hall meetings. "I'm sorry that Senator Obama is not here with me today. I asked a long time ago for Senator Obama to come, to come to town hall meetings with me. A little bit of history: Barry Goldwater and Jack Kennedy had agreed to fly around the country to hold town hall meetings all over America. Unfortunately, the tragedy of Dallas intervened. But that's what it's supposed to be about. Not the sound bites, the various attack ads and all the stuff which seems to go on which I don't think inform the American people very well. Saturday night I had the opportunity at least to respond to the same questions that Senator Obama had, and I think the American people have made a judgment on that."

This is classic McCain 2008 -- the expression of genuine regret that Senator Obama refused the joint town hall meetings coupled with a sense of detachment from "all the stuff that goes on" back at headquarters in Virginia. Whatever his own performance, whoever the audience -- and in Las Cruces McCain gets two confrontational questions, one on choosing a vice president who is pro-life and one on care at the local VA hospital -- McCain always seems to be having a grand time on the campaign trail, as if he were enjoying a perpetual recess from the real, distasteful work on his behalf happening somewhere else.

When McCain has finished his hour in Las Cruces, Aaron Henry Diaz rounds up the Young Republicans as he hails and is hailed by everybody who is anybody in the county. Eventually Diaz, who attends Loyola in Chicago, and five other students at New Mexico State gather. Although all will vote for McCain in November, they say little specifically about him. Their focus is on the Republican Party -- why they've joined when so many of their peers are for Obama, and where they see the future of the party.

Diaz begins by talking about his own family. "We were a legacy Democrat family," he says. "We established the Democratic Party right after Territory days, right after the Civil War. That's my New Mexico lineage. They've been Democrats, elected Democrats, and of course as a youngster I was supporting Democrats." He mentions the grandfather I've met earlier. "He was a conservative Blue Dog southern Democrat, and that's how he has remained voting. All of us who have Democratic relatives" -- he points to the other students -- "they are conservative as well. Fiscally conservative. Security conservative. Socially conservative. But I flirted with it [liberalism]. What changed me, and I think also my peers here, was the conservative movement epitomized in the feeling after 9/11. I think that really had an impact on our generation. And I think also for liberals, as well. It either emboldened them or it converted them. And I think it did the same with us."

Justin, a senior in pre-med biology, agrees about the influence of 9/11 on their generation. One of the effects he sees is "a big shift from idealism to realism," in that especially now post-9/11 the Republican Party must acknowledge a few truths.

Dax, who works for the RNC Victory Fund, goes further. "We've lost our focus. Evangelicals have alienated a lot of people who would like to vote Republican but see us as extremists." Dax, a Catholic, grew up in politics, going out on campaign drives with his dad from an early age.

"Neo-conservatism is dead," Diaz says. "We're moving away from neo-conservatism. We're moving away from Evangelicalism. And I think it's necessary in order to be a successful party. We can't be talking about abortion and gay rights all the damn time. They're gonna alienate conservative voters who don't actually want to hear any of that. It's about fiscal responsibility, national security and I think the third most important thing is education. Those are the three things that the Republican Party is moving towards, that we are focusing on. Bringing private components to help with public school systems has been proven in Utah and Nevada to be overwhelmingly successful."

I ask where this new or renewed party is going to find its base. "I think you're looking at it right here," Diaz says. "Two Hispanics." He points to Dax and Justin. "The 9/11 Generation, where national security is a huge component to our politics."

Justin says that in fact he is French and Italian. "Latin! They're our cousins!" Dax says. Everybody laughs, including Jo Marie, who like many of the young New Mexico Republicans comes from a ranching family, and Julia, a freshman who works for Congressman Steve Pearce. The young women, who don't say much, are content to listen to Dax.

"The Republicans are having an identity crisis with Hispanics," Dax says. "It's kind of a cultural thing, because if you're a Hispanic, you're going to join the Democratic Party, even though they're pro-choice, even though they're supporting all these ideals not necessarily tied to them. Hispanics rightfully should be Republicans -- they just don't know it."

"We're a group that's going to be fought for in the next eight years," Diaz adds. "Hispanics have the opportunity to be the biggest minority component for the Republican Party. That's the biggest place it's going to start, in the familia, right there. It's the conversation within the family unit. Once there's young conservatives who are standing up, and are Hispanic, then it's okay to be Republican. We have to be a more inclusive party. I concede that. The Republican Party has not always been inclusive. This group here" -- again he points to his fellow students -- is going to break that down."

One way Dax and Diaz intend to do that is through the conservative blog they are starting. Aaron Henry is a fan of Politico, so he is calling the blog New Mexico Politico. Dax and he have ambitious plans. "I want Democrats blogging on our site, too," he says. "I'm going to tell them that if they want conservatives to listen to their arguments, they have to present them on a conservative site, as well. I want a real conversation going."

The students bemoan the fact that Democratic bloggers have a head start. "Democrats tend to be -- I hate to use the word -- more hip and in tune with the use of technology," Justin says. "Republicans are more traditional and don't get the information out there the same way to their constituents. I think that's a definite barrier that has to be crossed. As a general rule of thumb, the Democratic candidate here [in New Mexico] has a flashier web site, and the Republicans are lacking. Look at our blogs on the internet. But you're not going to see it [change] until we start it."

"When you have one of the founders of Facebook working for Obama's web site, he has a slight advantage in networking," Dax says.

"And organized outreach -- we don't have it -- we're not there yet," Diaz says. "Young leadership has recognized that. If the older leadership doesn't see it in this election, they'll see it in the next." He wants to reach out to the young business community. He wants the New Mexico Republican Party to be pro-business, not just Evangelical.

Dax agrees, adding, "with the ag college here -- that's how the university was founded, agriculture -- there should be more Young Republicans."

I ask about the down ballot races in New Mexico, where four of five congressional seats are open, where Steve Pearce is locked in a fierce battle for Pete Domenici's Senate seat with Democratic challenger Tom Udall. "I don't think down ballot races are going to do as well as the presidential race," Diaz says. "Why? Because people are realizing the old Republican game plan is not working anymore. I think there's going to be a disconnect in New Mexico. I'm not going to say who wins or who loses, but it's going to be very close. You're going to have the old Republicans running against a Democrat, in a year for change. I think McCain's race is distinctly separate from everything else." He has said earlier that in southern New Mexico people don't vote the straight party ticket. "People will vote party ticket in Roswell, but not here. Sometimes change has to happen." This seems to be his way of saying that Pearce, who is ten points down to Udall but gaining, could lose the Senate race.

Justin sees the same outcome. "It's going to be difficult on the down ticket. Republicans don't want to change or compromise their values."

Diaz says Republicans need to have more of an open mind. "The Republicans up north are killing us down here on immigration." Until the Republican Party changes its views on immigration, Diaz observes, elections are going to be lost. But on the day when the party wakes up to a few hard truths, when realism wins out over idealism, Aaron Henry Diaz and his fellow Young Republicans will be ready to move.