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Discord in the Big Tent

Four years ago, the Harvard Republican Club denounced Donald Trump. As he runs for re-election, what happens next?

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For years, the Harvard Republican Club has sought to welcome “everyone to the right of Marx,” according to former member M. Tyler Jenkins ’19.

In a sense, the club can’t afford to be too picky. At a university that President Richard M. Nixon once called the “Kremlin on the Charles,” politically conservative students have long been a small minority, and their beliefs have ranged widely across the right half of the political spectrum.

But Donald Trump’s presidency has thrown a new wrench into the club’s commitment to “big-tent” conservatism and has divided college-aged Republicans between those who support the president and those who do not.

In August 2016, the Harvard Republican Club made waves on national media when it split from its party for the first time in its 128-year history, refusing to support Trump’s bid for president.

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In the aftermath of Trump’s election, however, a new faction of conservative undergraduates emerged on campus. These students were dissatisfied with the club’s stated opposition to the Trump administration and attempted to stage a takeover of the club’s leadership.

This year, the Harvard Republicans are gearing up for a critical choice: whether or not to support the president who has won broad support from Republicans nationwide, yet has continued to employ the type of divisive rhetoric that worried club leadership so deeply four years ago.

‘The Disavowal of Trump’

Few students on Harvard’s campus initially took Trump’s campaign in the 2016 Republican primary very seriously: Students who gathered at debate watch parties were often entertained by Trump’s unapologetic demeanor, but hardly any saw him as a viable candidate, even in conservative circles.

A straw poll conducted at the beginning of the 2016 primaries found that Harvard Republican Club members were almost equally divided between Senator Marco A. Rubio (R-Fla.) and former Florida Governor Jeb Bush, with no support at all for Trump. Official club campaign activities focused on those two candidates, and club members took several trips up to New Hampshire to knock doors.

In February 2016, both Aaron I. Henricks ’16, former club president, and Cameron K. Khansarinia ’18, a former vice president, said they knew most self-professed conservatives on campus, but did not know of any Harvard students who supported Trump.

“I think I’ve heard rumors of one existing, maybe in the far reaches of the Quad, but I don’t think they’re serious,” Henricks joked at the time.

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But as the primaries progressed and Trump’s candidacy became more serious, the club’s leadership became increasingly concerned with his potential nomination.

Many conservatives already felt it was difficult enough to speak their views on Harvard’s overwhelmingly liberal campus. But now their party was moving toward nominating a candidate that drew virulent opposition from their classmates.

After Bush and Rubio dropped out of the race, the Harvard Republicans’ campaigning efforts slowed to a standstill. The club’s president at the time, Gwen R. Thomas ’17, said the group would not endorse a Trump nomination.

Later that spring, Thomas decided to take the fall semester off and passed on leadership of the club to Declan P. Garvey ’17. The club headed into the summer planning to focus its fall activities on down-ballot races.

“While I’m sure some of you, myself included, are not incredibly thrilled with the top of our ticket, there will be plenty of opportunities to get involved in the campaign: helping Kelly Ayotte in New Hampshire, state-level races here in Massachusetts, and general conservative activism,” Garvey wrote in a club-wide email.

That same summer, however, some club members began to float the idea of putting out a statement more forceful than Thomas’s non-endorsement. A board member sent a message to the board’s group chat proposing the idea of a “complete rejection of Trump” written by the executive board.

This statement, the board member argued, could help position the club as the “vanguard” of the “Never Trump” movement for college Republicans across the country.

Shortly after, Garvey sent club members a poll to gauge whether or not they believed the club should take a stronger stance opposing Trump. After a few days, Garvey shared the results: 80 percent of respondents indicated they were not planning to support Trump in November, while 10 percent would support him and 10 percent remained undecided.

That night, the club put out its official statement, refusing to support the Republican nominee for the first time in its history.

“Donald Trump is a threat to the survival of the Republic,” the statement read. “He is looking to pit neighbor against neighbor, friend against friend, American against American. We will not stand for this vitriolic rhetoric that is poisoning our country and our children.”

The statement went viral and attracted attention from national news media. Club members went on CNN and MSNBC to explain the decision and field questions from political commentators.

“Especially in the mainstream press, there was an appetite for highlighting conservative voices criticizing the president,” Garvey said in an May 21 interview with The Crimson.

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Not everyone approved of the board’s statement. Alex J. Cullen ’18, a board member who supported Trump, said he wished he had pushed back on the decision.

“I wish that I would have been the voice — even if nobody else was on my side — to question and to prod and say, ‘why are we making this decision?’” Cullen said in an interview. “There was never dialogue about it. It was sort of an understood thing.”

The club’s statement also placed a heavy strain on its relationship with the Republican National Committee. W. Kent Haeffner ’18, a board member who co-authored the statement, said that he had been interning at the RNC that summer and got an angry call from Sean M. Spicer, then the RNC’s communications director, after Haeffner appeared on CNN discussing the club’s decision.

Later that year, the RNC barred the Harvard Republicans from using the party’s official elephant logo on club t-shirts due to the club’s “failure to support the Republican Party’s presidential nominee.”

An RNC spokesperson did not respond to a request for comment.

Nevertheless, Garvey said years later that he never had any regrets about publishing the statement.

“It became a lot easier to be a vocal member and a proud member of the club after the disavowal of Trump,” Garvey said. “People could make that distinction between being a conservative and being a Trump conservative.”

‘Out of the Woodwork’

With the media furor around the club, interest in joining the Harvard Republicans spiked at the beginning of the following school year. Incoming freshmen reached out to the club to get involved before the year even began, and more than 130 people attended the club’s introductory meeting in 2016, compared to about 30 students at a similar meeting the previous year.

While the club’s stance on Trump remained the same, opinions varied as to which presidential candidate the club should throw its support behind instead. Based on the poll Garvey had sent out earlier that summer, almost half of the respondents who disavowed Trump planned to support Libertarian Party nominee Gary E. Johnson, while a quarter planned to back Democratic nominee Hillary R. Clinton.

Other members of the club felt that none of the candidates were good options. A poster advertising the club’s first meeting prominently stated, “Crooked Hillary? Demagogue Donald? How About Neither?”

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Instead of campaigning for Trump, the club focused its canvassing efforts on then-Senator Kelly A. Ayotte’s (R-N.H.) re-election.

But Trump’s election in November 2016 was a shock to the club’s internal politics. All of a sudden, the club was forced to reckon with its position under the administration of a president it had denounced just months prior.

Trump supporters became more visible following the election, both in the club and on campus at large, according to Jenkins, who was elected to the board as secretary that fall.

“There was a Trump contingency on campus, and a lot of people didn’t know that they were Trump supporters,” Jenkins said.

“Those people really came out of the woodwork,” he added. “That came out much more when Trump was entering office.”

Over the months after Trump’s inauguration, a couple of small but growing factions within the club began to grow displeased with the group’s continued distancing from its own party’s president.

Jacob N. Russell ’19, a self-described member of one of those factions who said he previously worked on the Trump campaign and transition team, wrote to The Crimson that he thought the club needed to live up to its moniker as an organization for Republicans, not just conservatives.

“By bearing that name we represent the Republican Party on campus,” he wrote in a text message. “It isn’t good when a club bearing the name of a party doesn’t endorse and publicly criticizes the head of that party.”

Tensions came to a head in November 2017, when the Harvard Republican Club held its annual board elections. Believing the club’s leadership needed an overhaul, a new group of disillusioned members organized opposition to the slate of “establishment” candidates for board positions.

That group was led by Russell and Reed R. McMurchy ’19, who had previously served as vice president of social events but had since resigned. McMurchy ran for club president, and Russell ran for vice president of campaigns and activism.

“We had planned this for a while because we weren’t too happy with the club or its direction,” Russell said of the decision to run.

McMurchy did not respond to multiple requests for comment.

According to the club constitution, members gain voting rights if they pay dues and attend at least two meetings per semester. But the club’s secretary had not kept attendance records to verify who had attended meetings.

The “anti-establishment” group was able to capitalize on the oversight by recruiting conservatives who were disillusioned with the club to pay dues and show up to vote on election night, even if some may have not attended the requisite number of meetings. When initial voting concluded, the new group of candidates had won every single board position.

The attendance issue generated controversy, and the group’s election commission — made up of members of the outgoing board — called for a new round of elections. Meanwhile, Russell sent an email announcement to the club declaring his slate of candidates the victors and laying out the constitutional backing behind the validity of the election.

The election commission eventually selected a new list of “eligible voters” for a second election, using indicators such as the club’s email list and GroupMe to evaluate whether or not voters had plausibly attended meetings.

Those who had won the election the first time around felt like they were being robbed, while members currently on the board believed the anti-establishment had unfairly rigged the election.

“In terms of the people I recruited, it was individuals who had conservative dispositions and were fed up with the club itself and definitely would have been more active if the club was under new leadership,” Russell said. “Most of those people weren’t allowed to vote the second time.”

By the second election, McMurchy had dropped out of the running for president, leaving Kiera E. O’Brien ’20 in an uncontested race. The board that was ultimately elected the second time around comprised a mix of factions — making for some uncomfortable tension, according to several members.

Some members who were directly involved traded personal insults over the club’s email list, while other club members sent long messages questioning potential constitutional issues with the election commission’s handling of the situation.

“The past few years exposed tensions within the party and the club, and these tensions have continued to damage the unity of the club, as demonstrated by the lack of transparency of the electoral process and the insults hurled at members,” one email read.

“I too would like my $5 back,” another email read, requesting refunded club dues. “It has become clear to me that membership in this club is not worth the price of [a] six pack of beer.”

‘Better Odds Than Not’

Attendance dropped dramatically in the months following the election.

“Many of the people who had put energy into going to the meetings, showing up, voting — people who left that night thinking that they had successfully turned a zombie club into a real club — had to come back a second time half thinking they wouldn’t be let in the door,” Finn C. Brown ’19, who served as board treasurer at the time, said.

In the aftermath of the election, O’Brien sent out an announcement calling for club unity, along with a detailed survey to gauge the beliefs of club members.

“I thought that was important to be a guiding principle of my leadership,” she said.

A “large majority” of active club membership filled out the survey, and a majority of respondents still “felt good” about the Trump non-endorsement decision in 2016, according to O’Brien.

O’Brien said she focused the club’s efforts that year on repairing the relationship with the RNC, promoting transparency, and campaigning for other elections, such as Massachusetts Governor Charlie D. Baker ’79’s gubernatorial campaign.

When the 2018 club elections rolled around, they proceeded without controversy. Victoria M. Marquez ’20, who was elected president, ran on a platform of improving the club’s reputation.

“We’ve been down but we’re not out,” Marquez wrote in her candidate statement. “Lackluster member turnout, low campaign participation, and insufficient initiative may have shrunken our ranks to a fraction their former glory, but all is not yet lost.”

“Here comes the comeback. Let’s get to work,” she added.

Wesley L. Donhauser ’21, who was elected a vice president of the club, concluded his candidate statement by writing, “Let’s Make HRC Great Again.”

In addition to increasing engagement and repairing relationships within the organization, this year’s club leadership must again decide whether or not it will support Trump’s re-election campaign.

Donhauser, now serving as the club’s president, said the club will not make a decision on its 2020 stance on Trump until they can have an “open mic discussion” within club membership, hopefully on campus.

While the final endorsement decision lies with the club’s executive board, Donhauser said he hoped the club’s membership could come to a consensus through “open and honest discussion.”

“I do think the 2016 decision to not endorse Trump was part of the fact that he had never held political office before,” Donhauser said. “Now, after three or four years of his presidency, we have a lot more meat to go off of.”

Donhauser declined to comment further on the club’s stance on Trump for 2020, but said that the club’s decision in 2016 would not “matter too much” in its decision making process going forward.

“I think Donald Trump has done some good things for the United States. I think he’s also made some mistakes. All I can say for certain is that we have more to go off of now than in 2016,” he said.

Though Donhauser declined to speculate on the upcoming endorsement, board members from years past offered mixed predictions of what this year’s board will decide.

Marquez, the club’s previous president, noted that many new members join the Harvard Republicans each fall, making it difficult to anticipate their political leanings. But Brown, a former treasurer on the board, said he thought the club was more likely to endorse Trump this year.

“I’d say there’s better odds than not that they do,” he said.

—Staff writer Joshua C. Fang can be reached at joshua.fang@thecrimson.com. Follow him on Twitter @jshuaf.

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