“Come join the NEW YRNF Administration at Rock Bottom!!” So went the irony-free Tweet from Audra Shay’s “Team Renewal,” inviting supporters to celebrate her election as the new chairman of the Young Republicans National Federation at a local bar on Saturday night in Indianapolis.
“There are a lot of Young Republicans who want to take our party back, but the name has been damaged so much now, I’m not sure we want it back.”
The Young Republicans who had fought the 38-year-old Shay’s election in the aftermath of the pattern of racial and hateful comments exposed by The Daily Beast, including an apparent agreement to the idea that the president’s administration is run by “mad coons” and musings about how liberals would feel about seeing an image of Obama with a noose around his neck, were wondering if their organization could sink any lower. Some wondered if they should leave the Young Republicans altogether. Twitter threads reviewed by The Daily Beast attest to their discouraged and disgusted mind-set:
• Already hearing from people ready to break away from the #yrnf over today’s election and “coongate”
• Honestly, what is this woman going to do for the party?! Make us look like morons. What a joke.
• Looks lk coons & nooses R ok 4 a leader in the Republican Party 2 advocate. Amazing.
• Dress like a hick in honor of our new #yrnf Chairwoman.
• Ugh. “Young” Republican old enough to be the mother of three of my siblings is the new #YRNF Chairman. Oh, and she thinks BO is a coon.
• AudraShay Wins Young Republican Race Despite Facebook Racism Controversy—still another sign of hypocrisy and racism prevalent in GOP.
Shay had her defenders preaching party unity on Twitter as well, sending a message to her opponents: You LOST!! Anything bad you say about Audra now is stabbing your fellow YR’s in the back!
But as one Young Republican told me soon after: “I’m (like many) still trying to decide whether to quit, or fight, or try to help repair our organization’s reputation, or if we even deserve repair…There are a lot of YRs who want to take our party back, but the name has been damaged so much now, I’m not sure we want it back. There truly are so many good people involved, but I feel the damage has been done by these few extreme bad apples.”
Three days later, with the dust still settling amid murmurs of a formal schism, Shay’s opponent, Rachel Hoff, gave her first post-election interview to The Daily Beast. She had been silent throughout the election process, even through an anonymous smear campaign that made insinuations about her support for same-sex civil unions. “My focus is on moving the party forward,” she told me. “What happened in this campaign does raise and confirm many of the worst stereotypes of Republicans. There is a lot of work to be done to realign our party with our principles and our heritage. As a start, we need to realize that the fight for civil rights and equal opportunity is not over.”
Hoff reflected on the campaign where Shay repeatedly labeled herself “the only true conservative in the race.” “Some people assumed that because I am young—12 years younger than Audra—and from an urban area that I must not be a true conservative,” said Hoff, who is from Washington, D.C. “But I consider myself a conservative even before I consider myself a Republican. My conservative beliefs in limited government, individual freedom, and equality—the principles our party was founded on—lead me to support civil unions, which was not a popular stance in this campaign.”
During Saturday’s vote, half of the California delegation walked out in protest, and at least one member of Hoff’s slate withdrew rather than lose to—or serve with—Shay’s team. But Hoff has decided not to back breakaway efforts, in the belief that this would be ultimately ineffective and counterproductive, citing two states—New York and California—where splits between center-right and conservative groups have led to local confusion.
It’s a conclusion shared by the country’s only African-American Young Republican Chapter head, Sean L. Conner of D.C.—who was one of the people “de-friended” by Shay after condemning the initial “coon” comment email. “We need to do two things now. First, agree with Audra when she is right, and second, challenge her when she is wrong. Voices who support inclusion and diversity have to be louder than those who do not… we’ve just have to double down our efforts and work a little harder now.”
It’s revealing that one of Shay’s first actions as chair was to support a nondiscrimination statement at a meeting on Sunday morning. What was equally revealing was that the statement did not originally include protections for gays and lesbians. When this omission was raised, it resulted in an hourlong debate, with opponents arguing against its inclusion because of current gay-marriage debates and the still-controversial status of gay civil rights among some conservatives. Ultimately, the opaque additions passed (no actual mention of gays and lesbians, just legalistic implications)—with Shay’s support—by a two-thirds margin.
This symbolically positive step aside, the election of Audra Shay makes it more difficult for young black conservatives to support the Young Republicans without both internal doubts and external ridicule. Lenny McCallister, the co-founder of HipHopRepublicans.com, who was one of the most vocal opponents of Audra after the controversies came out, found himself on the receiving end of an ugly, allegedly liberal thread titled: “ Ask a Black Republican Anything.”
The “questions” posted included: “Ask him to kill himself or convert”; “ask him if he prefers working in the house instead of the field because he gets stinky if he sweats or because he believes massa won’t whup him as much around the mrs”; “On a scale of 1 to 10, how much does he hate himself?”—or, in a full circle back to the “lol” formulation: “lol i bet we can make this uncle tom chimp out.”
It’s a reminder that the politics of hate knows no partisan bounds.
Lenny’s response was philosophical: "How can I get upset with what is posted on a message board? The way I look at it, Dr. King, Malcolm X, Fred Hampton, Medger Evers, and countless others took bullets for me. Many black men were castrated, hung, and tortured. I think about that every day, so how can I walk away from the good fight or get personally hurt with attacks from a message board?"
And Lenny McCallister’s not leaving the Republican Party anytime soon: “Why would conservatives already involved in the party structure nationally leave and expect to affect change subsequently within the Republican Party from the outside? This party was started for the purpose of inclusion, and although I know that was done some 160 years ago, I fully expect to see the party reclaim that principle sooner than later and it will take those of us working on the inside to make it so."
Audra Shay’s election sure hasn’t made that process any easier for what was once the Party of Lincoln—but as any reformed alcoholic knows, sometimes it takes a public disgrace to hit rock bottom and then bounce back. It’s called a moment of clarity.
John P. Avlon is the author of Independent Nation: How Centrists Can Change American Politics. He writes a weekly column for The Daily Beast. Previously, he served as chief speechwriter for New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani and was a columnist and associate editor for The New York Sun.