Many young Democrats are furious at Democrats. But they’re pushing through.
"College liberals who helped elect President Biden face their own rage with a party they’re urging peers to support.
Updated July 16, 2022 at 7:39 p.m. EDT|Published July 16, 2022 at 6:39 p.m. EDT
AROUND THE TRIANGLE, N.C. — Jillian Brookshire wanted to hurl her phone. Instead, she summoned just enough of her waning patience to delete the email from Nancy Pelosi.
The House Speaker’s fundraising plea landed in her inbox after the Supreme Court struck down the constitutional right to abortion last month, a right the 20-year-old thought her political party in control of the White House and Congress should have done more to protect.
“It made me so mad, like, I can’t even deal with this,” said Brookshire, vice president of the College Democrats of North Carolina. “You have to focus on your own economic gain in this moment when millions of people have lost their right to bodily autonomy?”
The senior at Campbell University, a private Christian college, was venting on a recent July evening to student leaders from other schools in the academic heart of this battleground state. Between bites of nachos at a Raleigh brewpub, the young liberals bemoaned a tough reality: Practically no one on their campuses seemed to like the Democrats. Even College Democrats struggled to like the Democrats.
That’s a problem for the party across the country, including in North Carolina, where several congressional and state midterm races are expected to be competitive. In order for Democrats to defy dire electoral forecasts in November, strategists say, their base must vote with the fervor they showed in 2020 — including the youngest Americans, who turned out in record numbers overwhelmingly for President Biden.
At stake here in North Carolina is access to abortion. The state has become a destination for patients seeking the procedure from its southeastern neighbors under tighter restrictions, according to Planned Parenthood. Republicans need to gain five General Assembly seats to reach the majorities required to override Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper’s veto of antiabortion measures.
But Biden’s popularity with the under-30 crowd has declined since he took office, unnerving campaigns who see presidential approval ratings as a gauge of how elections will shake out. A New York Times/Siena College survey found that a mere 1 percent of 18-to-29-year-olds “strongly approve” of the president’s job performance.
Midterms draw fewer voters than presidential races and frequently come down to which side can persuade their core voters to show up. That’s an especially heavy lift for the party of a first-term president, history shows, made heavier now by the weight of rising inflation and crime that Republicans expect will motivate droves to turn out for the GOP.
Some fierce contests are unfolding near North Carolina’s Research Triangle, where roughly 176,000 students attend a cluster of higher learning institutions. Young Democrats are trying to steer attention away from the national standard bearers lambasted on social media to local needs and consequences.
“It’s a challenge because all around us are angry people who are tired of politics.”— Jillian Brookshire, vice president of the College Democrats of North Carolinanone
They’re angry the Democrat-led Congress has failed to do more on reproductive rights, gun violence and student loans, among other issues. They’re tired of fundraising emails from politicians they feel have let them down.
“In the next four months, if there isn’t something substantive done on the issues they care about, there is a real danger that young voters will not vote or volunteer on campaigns to the same degree as they did in 2020,” said David McLennan, a political science professor and poll director at Meredith College in Raleigh. “They are very unhappy with the ability of Democrats to get stuff done.”
Democrats have found some success in races for state government in North Carolina but have floundered more in federal contests. They haven’t won a Senate or presidential race in this state since 2008, when Barack Obama was the clear preference of young voters across the country, inspiring many to cast ballots with a zeal the party has since been unable to replicate.
Some political analysts predicted the fall of Roe v. Wade would unleash a burst of civic enthusiasm among the country’s youth, who, according to a recentMonmouth poll, disagreed with the decision more than any other age group.
In interviews with The Washington Post, however, ten college Democrats in North Carolina described a mixed impact: yes, more of their peers are ready to fight back — but more are furious with the Democrats.
“The disillusionment starts at the top. If people keep being out of touch on a national level, it is going to hurt us in local elections.”— Megan Wagner, 21, president of the Young Democrats at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hillnone
The Pelosi email arrived while Brookshire was buckled into the back seat of her grandparents’ van. Had she been home, the Raleigh native imagined she would have flung her phone onto the ground.
“It made me so mad,” she said, recalling her reaction over nachos. “For years, Democrats have campaigned on codifying Roe. Then it’s overturned. And now they’re saying they’re going to do it when they’ve had all this time to try and do it.”
Her friends nodded along.
There was Charlie Hatch, 21, a senior at Meredith College and the College Democrats’ membership director. She’d gotten the same appeal for cash and shared a tweet slamming it on Instagram: “Do not spend a single dollar trying to buy back your bodily autonomy from people who sold it out from under you.”
There was Albaro Reyes-Martinez, 21, a senior at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro and president of the College Democrats of North Carolina, who chimed in: “Keep your money.”
The trio knew that lawmakers fundraise during emotionally charged moments. They knew Washington gridlock was a great staller of dreams. They were just sick of it. They’d rather see Pelosi guiding donors to an abortion fund, for example, or even marching in the street.
And if they felt this way, what were the less committed voters going through?
The group planned to channel their distress into backing state Assembly and congressional candidates: phone-banking, door-knocking, nudging their classmates to register to vote, reminding them that the midterm elections could bring big changes to their backyards.
They would volunteer for food banks and other nonprofits to show their peers that, at least locally, Democrats were doing more than courting support.
A tougher crowd awaits this fall. A 2021 Washington Post-University of Maryland poll found that 54 percent of 18-to-29-year-olds said they were not proud of the way democracy works in America, the only age group with a majority expressing that sentiment.
In about half of states where reliable data is available, meanwhile, researchers at Tufts University flagged that the number of 18-to-24-year-olds who wereregistered to vote in June is lagging behind the 2018 pace, especially for freshly eligible ballot casters.
“It gets harder when we keep winning elections and nothing is happening. Not everyone’s going to be like: ‘Okay, yeah, let’s go vote for them again.’ ”— Albaro Reyes-Martinez, 21, a senior at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro and the College Democrats’ presidentnone
She read the leaked draft opinion in May. She braced herself for a right she’d known all her life to vanish. She called for her university to cut ties with vendors supporting antiabortion measures. She started brainstorming safe locations for heartbroken students to gather.
“I felt like I was planning for this more than the federal government was,” said Rayna Young, a 20-year-old senior at UNC-Chapel Hill.
Young, an activist focused on lifting minority voices, began organizing a rally for those grieving the Supreme Court decision minutes after word broke. She swapped texts with her classmate, 21-year-old Jailyn Neville, a student government adviser who already had a name in mind: Redirect the rage.
Now the event was eleven days away, and the young women were hoping to nail down a speaking appearance with a congressional contender. They sought to give classmates a reason to not give up: Their November votes could mean the difference between students being able to get an abortion or not.
“What they are doing in Washington is not working. People are heartbroken.”— Jailyn Neville, 21, a student government adviser at UNC Chapel Hillnone
So Young and Neville poured their energy into sketching up a march route through campus. Chatting at a Chapel Hill coffee shop, both criticized Biden for taking two weeks to release an executive order in response to five decades of precedent evaporating.
“But really, the executive order was eight weeks late,” Young said, starting her clock with the leaked opinion. “You knew this was coming. No wonder people are politically disillusioned.”
Neither wanted Biden to run again in 2024, even if they weren’t sure who might have a better shot at the White House. Neither knew what to do about the growing divide between young Democrats and Washington.
“There’s this feeling of mass helplessness,” Neville said. “Mass uselessness.”
Emily Guskin contributed to this report."