Republican students go against political grain on campus

Brooke Forrest

After coming to college at Kent State, Sophia Witt became interested in politics. She was on her own for the first time and discovered she didn’t actually have the same beliefs that she had grown up with. She didn’t share her mother’s liberal views; Witt was Republican.

At first, the senior communication studies major didn’t want to identify as a Republican because of some of the negative stereotypes. But after getting involved in various conservative political groups including the National Rifle Association and the pro-life movement, she believed that some of her initial feelings may have been wrong.

“Within this party that I’ve aligned myself with, I’ve met so many diverse people — more than I’ve probably met within any (other) cause,” Witt said. “It’s not what I thought it was.”

Even though her perception of the party changed, Witt found that others were not so welcoming to her Republican affiliation.

“My mom took it very poorly. (She) actually stopped talking to me for a while. We stopped talking for … a year,” Witt said. “On holidays — my birthday — I didn’t hear from her. We stopped completely talking because she’s very liberal and she hated my politics and where I was standing on the (political) spectrum.”

Witt said she was raised extremely liberal and didn’t care much for politics.

“I didn’t really understand it and I didn’t really want to get involved because it felt like another way to separate people,” she said.

Republicans of Kent State

Many Republicans on-campus view the university as a very stereotypically liberal college. With the recent election being one of the more divisive ones to date, some conservative students have chosen to keep a low profile.

“I would say you have a lot of closet Republicans on this campus. Unfortunately, we’ve created a culture — especially in this recent election — where it’s been deemed uncool or wrong or isolated to call yourself a Republican,” said Jennifer Hutchinson, a senior political science major and president of College Republicans.

“I think people are scared honestly to say that they are with this party. They might agree with us on economics, foreign policy or tax reforms, but they are afraid to say they support this party because their fellow peers, teachers, family or whoever are going to put them into this little box of someone who isn’t tolerant of any and all other people,” Hutchinson said. “That’s very unfortunate because — in college — it’s supposed to be an atmosphere of open dialogue (and) open discussion.”

Isabella Diorio, sophomore fashion design major, has experienced some of the fear of being openly Republican at Kent State.

“A lot of people just don’t want to say anything because they are afraid they’ll get targeted and questioned on their beliefs,” Diorio said.

Diorio voted for Republican President-elect Donald Trump. She has avoided discussing politics or being open about her support of Trump, especially because most of her friends in Kent are Democrats.

“We kind of stray away from anything politically-oriented in our conversations because we know we’ll fight … it’s already happened a couple of times,” Diorio said. “Sometimes it gets really heated and we fight a lot about it. But it just kind of encourages me to continue to stand up for what I believe in.”

For a number of young Republicans on campus, they feel a divide between some of the “accepted beliefs” on campus and the assumption of what republicans believe.

“There has been this stigma and this misconception that has been created about the Republican Party where, if you say you are a member, you are now labeled a racist, a bigot, homophobic — you name it, especially this presidential year. Not that those people don’t exist. But that isn’t the Republican Party,” Hutchinson said. “I think the bigger challenge is trying to break down some of those barriers.”

Hutchinson said the College Republicans are trying to show people that “there’s a new wave, a new generation, a new way of thinking within the Republican Party.”

Despite feeling like a minority on campus, the Kent State College Republicans was named the No. 1 College Republican chapter in Ohio by Sen. Rob Portman, according to Hutchinson.

The College Republicans have also made strides in creating a more inclusive environment and facilitating more open dialogue, in part by partnering groups like PRIDE! Kent and the College Democrats for events, Hutchinson said.

“I think a lot of young Republicans think very similarly with our fellow students of any party on a lot of the social issues, including gay marriage and, for some, pro-life,” Hutchinson said. “(The) Republican (Party isn’t) the black and white party that it used to be.”

A red and blue divide

Despite some work for bipartisanship, some student Republicans on campus still feel that they will not be accepted by their Democratic peers.

“I think this is the most polarizing election we’ve ever had,” Witt said. “You can’t say ‘I’m a Republican’ or ‘I voted for Donald Trump.’ You can’t say those things because you will get attacked and you do receive a lot of backlash for it. It’s very sad.”

Witt voted for Trump, and is both frustrated and fearful about the response she has seen from her peers.

“I think that it is very unfair that I voted for someone in this country that most people voted for, and I can’t express that because I could lose people I call my friends,” Witt said. And I don’t want to have things come between us with this election.”

Who a person voted for shouldn’t determine whether or not someone likes you, Witt said.

“I know people who were in relationships and they broke up because their significant other voted for the person they don’t like,” she said.

Politics post-election

Even though Republicans won not only the presidency, but numerous other seats this year, many young Republicans on campus are still feeling unsure about their future in politics, especially on a college campus.

Hutchinson is optimistic that different political groups can work together and strive for inclusivity, but said “that inclusivity has to go both ways.”

“We saw that in this election. We saw people who felt isolated and not included in a certain atmosphere or bubble that was created — not just on campuses, but everywhere,” she said. “But that is so dangerous, especially for future generations that conversation (have) to be there.”

Hutchinson said she encourages people to keep the conversation open. Any perception, stigma or preconceived notions a person thinks they have or think they now about, she said, “Somebody (should) tear it down.”

For some Kent State student Republicans, the fear of judgement is still a major concern — especially as many people from both sides are feeling fear and anger.

“It’s scary to me because I’ve seen what it’s like to lose your mom over politics,” Witt said. “I have seen the effect of politics.”

While she and her mother are mending their relationship, Witt still worries that politics has become too much of a driving factor in relationships.

“You are not your politics. That’s not all you are, and I think it’s important that we get that across,” Witt said. “I think that people can be people. What’s so great about democracy is that we don’t have to agree on things and … still (be able to) live amongst each other.”

Brooke Forrest is the politics reporter, contact her at [email protected].