The Collapse of the College Republicans

It’s easy to dismiss happenings within the College Republicans organization as trivial college drama and beneath the notice of serious political observers. But the surprising amount of mainstream media coverage of the latest CR debacle is justified, as one of the top “conservative” student groups in the country reaches an existential crossroads.

Four Years of Uselessness

The departing chairman of the College Republicans National Committee (CRNC), Chandler Thornton, has been open about where his true loyalties (or lack of them) lie. He previously went out of his way to repeat left-wing talking points in an op-ed for Fox News in 2019, declaring—with no evidence—that “white supremacy” was the biggest problem facing the GOP. Rather than take on the Left, he boasted of his efforts to drive out chapter presidents in his own organization, while also taking time to condemn then-Representative Steve King (R-Iowa).

The CRNC under Thornton was conspicuously silent on the subject of President Trump; the previous national chair, Alexandra Smith, had been part of the calls for then-candidate Donald Trump to withdraw from the 2016 presidential race after the “Access Hollywood” fiasco. The CRNC did not release a congratulatory statement after Trump’s upset victory over Hillary Clinton. Thornton largely continued this silent anti-Trumpism for the entirety of Trump’s term, and the CRNC’s organizing efforts in the 2018 and 2020 election cycles were significantly reduced compared to previous years.

It should come as no surprise, then, that Thornton is so grossly out-of-touch with the base and ignores the issues that actually matter to them, such as immigration or the ongoing leftist cultural indoctrination of America’s future. Thornton has been based in the D.C. area his entire life, having attended school there and previously served as the chair of the D.C. Federation of College Republicans. 

Naturally, after putting up with such an elitist chairman for four years, many college grassroots conservative activists are ready for a change.

A Microcosm of the GOP Identity Crisis

Thornton attempted to select his own successor, Virginia’s Courtney Britt, to continue his legacy of spinelessness. Britt ran with a slate of candidates called “Amplify CRNC.” But a rival slate rose to challenge her with a more populist, nationalist, and pro-Trump platform; the slate, called “Ignite CRNC,” was led by Judah Waxelbaum of Arizona.

Isaac Schorr, who covered the saga at National Review notes that there were signs of serious ideological fracturing in the organization several months ahead of the July 17 election. In the aftermath of President Trump’s alleged “loss” in the 2020 election, the America First movement grew stronger on college campuses, with many chapters deciding to de-charter from CRNC out of protest of the organization’s insufficient support for the president and his agenda.

This split originated with the Arizona federation, where multiple chapters broke away from CRNC to join the decisively pro-Trump College Republicans United (CRU). Out of the broader anti-CRNC coalition, Waxelbaum, CRNC’s western regional vice chairman, emerged as the leader. His slate eventually earned the endorsements of 30 state federations, giving him what appeared to be a clear majority going into the election.

Cheatin’ Chandler

When it appeared that Waxelbaum’s slate might actually gain enough popular support to defeat Britt at the national convention, evidence suggests that Thornton himself hatched a scheme that, in nefariousness if not scale, mimics the Democrats’ theft of the 2020 election.

On July 11, just days before the election, 12 of the pro-Waxelbaum states were denied delegates to vote in the election, thus bringing him down to just 18 states. Meanwhile, every state that had endorsed Britt was granted their delegates, thus giving her the victory. Waxelbaum pointed out to National Review that this stunt resulted in 20 percent of the nation’s College Republicans being inexplicably denied a vote. Among the states that were denied representation was President Trump’s current home state of Florida, now widely seen as one of the strongest Republican bastions in the country.

Waxelbaum noted that Britt’s home state of Virginia saw its delegate total increase from four votes to seven, thus giving it “more votes than California, New York, and Florida combined.”

As Schorr reported, this stunning display of what might well be described as a purge of political opposition originated from a sneaky change to the CRNC’s procedural rules just a week prior to its convention. The CRNC claimed that the rejection of Waxelbaum’s states were due to their failures to submit letters from each individual chapter’s faculty advisor to confirm the existence and active presence of each chapter.

The catch is that this requirement was never publicly stated in the lead-up to the election, and only the pro-Britt schools were informed of this criteria. Every single state in support of Britt submitted the requested documentation via email at roughly the same time: 4:00 a.m. Eastern time on July 11. The vast majority of emails even had the exact same subject lines and body texts, suggesting they were copied and pasted from the same template and implying a coordinated effort. An email obtained by National Review confirmed that Thornton himself had sent emails out to various faculty at pro-Britt chapters requesting the letters of confirmation, all but proving that the incumbent chairman was involved directly. 

The extent of this scandal even drew condemnation from Thornton’s own board, with Treasurer Ty Seymour denouncing the election as full of “flagrant constitutional violations,” “intimidation,” and bribery from Thornton and Britt. In his speech to the convention, Seymour—previously one of Thornton’s strongest supporters—turned on his superior in front of the entire audience by declaring that “power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely. And I want to thank Chandler Thornton, our national chairman, and Courtney Britt, the candidate for national office, for affirming that belief.”

The Heavy Lifters Weigh In

Of course, it needs to be said that such drama in college organizations, and especially the College Republicans, is nothing new. There have been similar successful efforts to suppress outsiders attempting to challenge the incumbent leaders of the CRNC going as far back as 2005. Moreover, a similar drama unfolded within state federations as recently as 2017, with the pro-Trump slate in California actually scoring an upset victory against the incumbent slate, despite the incumbents’ best efforts to rig that election as well.

But this particular saga, itself much larger in scale and sheer corruption than previous dramas, comes at a crucial time for the American Right. In the aftermath of the stolen presidential election and the ongoing debate over whether or not it is a “post-Trump” movement, this latest CRNC ordeal is as much a reflection of the ideological divide on the Right as the battle over President Trump’s legacy.

A handful of prominent Republican officials have weighed in on the scandalous CRNC election. 

House Republican Conference Chair Elise Stefanik (R-N.Y.), who herself rose to power in a similar ideological clash within the party, voiced her support for the New York Federation’s endorsement of Waxelbaum and their efforts to call out Thornton for his electoral interference. George P. Bush of the Bush dynasty, currently running for Texas attorney general, similarly announced his support for the Texas Federation, another pro-Waxelbaum state, while Arizona GOP Chairwoman Kelli Ward declared “all states should have a voice” in the CRNC election.

Even the CRNC’s colleagues in the Young Republicans National Federation addressed the issue ahead of their own convention. Chairman Rick Loughery reminded his college counterparts that such behavior is the last thing the Right needs in its own ranks right now with election integrity such a prominent concern of voters.

A Messy College Breakup

But despite the overwhelming pressure both inside and outside the organization, the incumbent administration chooses to maintain its vice-like grip on power rather than listen to the will of its members.

As a result, multiple state federations have officially and completely de-chartered from the CRNC. Arizona, California, and Iowa have all joined the CRU, while Texas and New York have left the CRNC and are currently acting as their own independent organizations. This leaves the CRNC with zero representation in the three largest states in the country, and another two crucial swing states. 

Others that were denied a voice, including the Florida, Pennsylvania, New Jersey delegations, are considering similar breakaways from the national organization. The writing on the wall points to a total collapse of one of the oldest Republican organizations in the country, after 129 years of existence.

Ryan Hurley, chairman of the Iowa Federation, tells American Greatness that CRU is actively talking not only to state federations, but also individual chapters across the country. He claims that plenty of campus chapters within the states voted for Britt, but had no say in the direction of their states’ delegates at the convention.

According to Hurley, the coming split in the CRNC has been years in the making. In addition to the organization’s inactivity in the 2018 and 2020 election cycles, there were allegations of financial corruption at the national level that left the organization millions of dollars in debt. When the California College Republicans (CCR) first raised these concerns back in 2019, Thornton’s response was to expel the federation from the national organization. 

Hurley alleges that Ty Seymour, as the incumbent treasurer of the CRNC, was never allowed access to the committee’s financial records. Hurley also says the IRS has been contacted and is looking into the matter, although the recent transition of power at CRNC has made cooperation with the IRS difficult.

In the end, this plethora of problems led to the shrinking of many chapters across the country, with a number of chapters reduced to “just three or four members,” according to Hurley; many students fled the College Republicans in favor of Turning Point USA, Students for Trump, and other more openly pro-Trump groups. Even President Trump himself took notice of this shift, as Turning Point and Students for Trump consistently have been the only groups that will host him and other prominent pro-Trump figures at their various conferences, rallies, and other events.

“Turning Point is hosting events all the time,” Hurley says. “But what have the College Republicans done? The energy that the CRNC gives out is old, weak, and pointless. People don’t want to be in an organization like that.”

Why It Matters

Again, one might dismiss this entire story as just petty college drama, particularly since the organization is barely relevant on the national stage. But such dismissals would be wrong, for several reasons.

First, as mentioned before, this is a split that comes at a time of general fracturing within the Republican Party. Whereas previous spats in the Bush era were attributed less to ideology and more to personal grievances, this divide is reflective of the greater questions that the Right as a whole should be asking itself. 

Secondly, the College Republicans hold a unique position in the world of conservative student groups. Unlike other organizations such as the Reagan-obsessed Young Americans for Freedom (YAF) or the scandal-ridden libertarian group Young Americans for Liberty (YAL) which are suffering from declining numbers in any event, the CRNC is legally permitted to directly affiliate with the Republican Party, and thus engage in explicitly political activities such as campaigning.

The only other group that is engaged in this realm is Turning Point USA, courtesy of its 501(c)(4) organization Turning Point Action, as well as its previous acquisition of Students for Trump. But in this newfound era of Democratic dominance, with the Republic on its last legs amidst an unprecedented assault on our culture, our history, and our rule of law, the Right will need all the help it can get going into 2022 and 2024. If CRNC could be restored to its former strength under the leadership of a true nationalist and populist, the group could do wonders on the ground.

Last but not least, these deliberate efforts to shut out enthusiastic young activists are causing great damage to the movement by way of killing the next generation of national populism in its infancy. As cliché as it may sound, College Republicans are part of the future of the American Right. And if we don’t do something now to fix the youth wing of our movement, then we’ll only be driving out our best future leaders before they even have a chance to get started.

Rick Thomas of Arizona, one of the co-founders of CRU, speaking exclusively to American Greatness suggests that part of the reason for CRNC’s downfall is the allure of prestige that comes with a national organization led by a single person, which lent itself to being “used by grifters to climb their way into wealth and power.” At the same time, this quest for concentrated power led to the CRNC shifting its priorities away from the local grassroots work and organizing efforts that built up the organization in the first place; CRU seeks to return to these roots by “supporting regional chapters and asking for nothing in return.”

CRU also seeks to avoid the mistakes of CRNC by maintaining a different power structure, with the organization currently being run by a committee of various state leaders rather than a single chairperson. The hope is that by removing the possibility of a power competition from the equation, they can focus more on the overall mission of “shifting the Overton Window towards the Right and promoting America First values to the next generation of leaders.”

“We want to make sure,” Thomas noted, “that the leadership we’re speaking to understands the movement is more important than their ambitions.”

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About Eric Lendrum

Eric Lendrum graduated from the University of California, Santa Barbara, where he was the Secretary of the College Republicans and the founding chairman of the school’s Young Americans for Freedom chapter. He has interned for Young America’s Foundation, the Heritage Foundation, and the White House, and has worked for numerous campaigns including the 2018 re-election of Congressman Devin Nunes (CA-22). He is currently a co-host of The Right Take podcast.

Photo: Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images