Congressman Dennis Ross and Tampa area representative Jamie Grant spoke to the group in the afternoon. House Speaker Will Weatherford was scheduled to speak in the morning, but canceled due to an illness in his family.
Brian Griffiths is the chairman of the Maryland Young Republicans. He made the trek to Tampa, noting that he was about 45 degrees warmer than he would have been in his home state this weekend. Saying he feared losing an entire generation of young voters, Griffiths alluded to the changing demographics as a wake-up call to the party.
"It’s incumbent on all of us to go into our communities, into our churches, into our workplaces, and talk to folks about how awesome it is to be in the Republican Party and why being a Republican is the direction our country needs to go."
Speaking to CL afterwards, Griffiths said that Republicans are failing to use data to communicate clearly, especially with younger voters.
He said that on the bread-and-butter issues like the size of government and tax and spending issues, the American public is with the GOP, but frets that wasn't the focus of the 2012 election. Controversial comments by candidates on rape and abortion not only cost them seats in the Senate, but allowed Democrats to declare that Republicans had a "war on women."
"I believe we can refocus our message as a national party towards checkbook issues," Griffiths says, adding that one place to look to bring in young voters would be to examine the success of Ron Paul in his two presidential races, particularly when it came to his uncompromising stance on reducing federal spending (left unmentioned were Paul's anti-war positions, which drew in disaffected voters from both parties, but also was met with some disdain by the more establishment party of the GOP).
Rickey Nelson is president of the Southwest Florida Young Republicans. He says politicians who distinguish themselves from the herd have a better chance of appealing to young voters. "They're used to the same norm, the same type of model. A lot of people are looking for a Marco Rubio type, somebody who stands up for the younger generation, someone who has a vision for what the future is going to be."
Referring to the Romney campaign, Nelson said he liked and admired the Republican presidential contender, but said that a lot of his contemporaries felt shut out of the process.
And when it comes to Governor Rick Scott's chances in 2014, Nelson is all in, saying that the reason the governor has struggled to break 40 percent in public opinion surveys "has a lot to do with the media."
"I think a lot of it has to do with what people say, and then they can spin it any way they want to you. They can paint a picture that way," he said, adding that he thinks Scott has done an "amazing job" taking on special interests, public employee unions and eliminating regulations.
Marion County Young Republican Paul Skinner believes the Republican Party of Florida has their work cut out for them in 2014. "They'll be stronger," he said of the state Democratic party, which in addition to getting Obama and Nelson elected picked up seats in the Legislature in 2012. But like Rickey Nelson, he also likes Rick Scott's chances next year, particularly against Charlie Crist, the former Republican governor widely expected to run for the Democratic nomination next year.
Camille Gomez is a Hyde Park resident who just recently signed up with the Young Republicans in Hillsborough County. She said that President Obama was able to change the narrative about a still faltering economy in 2012 by hyping up social issues like same-sex marriage. "Those aren't the issues," she said. "Our main issues he wasn't concentrating on, like the economy."
As the above comments reflect, most of those in attendance at this weekend's Young Republican conference aren't in denial about what happened last year, but they're optimistic about the future.
"We're not the Party of No," FFYR chair Peret Press stressed on Saturday morning. "We're not people who don't care about other people. We really do, and we just have to figure out a way to package that message," adding that while the 18-29 demographic "lost it for us" in 2012, it's not too late to turn back. Not yet.
Thirty years ago Ronald Reagan became a transformative figure, turning around a whole generation of young voters who ended up voting Republican for decades. Some fear that Barack Obama could be that figure for the beginning of the 21st century.
"It's going to be harder to get them back," Press admitted about the youth vote. "But I don't think it's impossible."