The new voter: From an early age, a GOP activist is born
Tanya Renicker of Ohio University bucks the ‘youth vote’ trend to back McCain-Palin, even going door to door on the ticket’s behalf.
Melanie Stetson Freeman/Staff
From the time Tanya Renicker was in sixth grade, she knew she’d vote as soon as she could. Soon after she turned 18 last year, she drove the 16 miles from her family’s farm in Sherrodsville, Ohio, to the Tuscarawas County Courthouse and registered to vote.
On March 4, the day of the Republican primary in Ohio, she pulled the lever for the first time.
“My mom took a picture of me going in to vote,” she says. “It was such an emotional experience. I was so excited to have a say in our government. I just wish everybody was as excited about it as I am.”
Not so long ago, this young woman would have had little company. Many young people were tuned out from politics. Fewer than half of those ages 18 to 24 who were eligible to cast ballots in 2000 actually did so. But this could be called the Year of the Young. Fully 86 percent of young people say they will probably vote on Nov. 4, polls show.
Tanya, however, is not like a majority of her peers: She’s a committed Republican. Young people are voting for Democrat Barack Obama by more than 60 percent, according to a recent poll by the Democratic polling firm Greenberg Quinlan Rosner Research. A separate poll by nonpartisan Zogby International – this one of cellphone users, who tend to be young – found a similar result.
“A lot of people are voting early and doing voting absentee, but I’m going to the polls on Nov. 4 to cast my ballot. I want to get my ‘I voted today’ sticker,” says Tanya, a junior at Ohio University in Athens. “I’ve been waiting for this a long time.”
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Tanya has been smitten with politics ever since her first real lesson in American history, in sixth grade. She can’t explain why, but the story of how the United States was founded, how the Constitution was written, fascinated her. That evolved into a passion for politics, since “it all comes together there.”
“Back then,” she recalls, “all my friends’ families were liberals except one, my friend Kinsey, and me. We used to say, ‘We love George Bush’ when we really didn’t know that much about politics yet. My interest has just grown since then.”
Tanya and her younger sister were raised on a family farm, the same one where their mother grew up, in the rolling hills of eastern Ohio. The family grows Christmas trees on some of their 300 acres. Her father is a sheet metal worker, a union man. Her mother stayed home and raised the girls. Conversation at the dinner table occasionally touched on politics. Tanya would go to the polls with her mother when she voted, but most of her life revolved around dance, theater, cheerleading, and the everyday activities of school and church. “I definitely don’t fit the Republican stereotype – I was really artsy in high school,” she says.
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The events of 9/11 in 2001 galvanized Tanya, transforming an interest in politics into a genuine, daily concern.
“I was in my fourth-period reading literature class when I found out,” she says. “At that moment I didn’t really realize what had happened. We had a football game that night and they canceled it, and I thought, ‘I don’t understand why they did that.’ ”
At home later that day, the full implication of the attack hit her. “That made me that much more interested in politics and national defense and all of the other countries in the world that aren’t like America,” she says.
About that same time, things were changing in her family. Her father had worked his way up the union ladder to become a foreman. Her mother was turning the family farm into a nursery and garden center. Hard work was at the foundation of their lives. From girlhood, Tanya helped out with the Christmas tree business. As it grew into a nursery, she spent spring breaks and summer vacations helping her mother. When Tanya turned 16, old enough to work in an office, she got a summer job at the company where her father works. At the same time, she was taking college courses while still in high school.
Politics also became a more regular topic over dinner. Tanya soon came to understand that her father was more liberal than her mother. She started watching TV news with her mom – an activity that she says probably helped shape her core, conservative political ideas.
“I took the initiative and came to college ... because I want to get a good job. We weren’t guaranteed to have a good life,” she says. “I don’t want my tax dollars to go to people who didn’t take the initiative to work hard and get a better job. I know that sounds cynical.”
Since high school, Tanya has been honing that notion that individuals are responsible for themselves. Her former boyfriend, a firefighter and emergency medical technician, is a union member like her father. “We would get into fights about unions all the time. I thought there was a time and place for them, but that time’s past,” she says.
Her mother is pleased that Tanya has retained her conservative convictions, despite heading off to the more liberal environment of college.
“I’m glad she’s stayed conservative. I know a lot of times they change when they leave home and get on their own,” says Holly Renicker, reached by phone at the family nursery.
Mrs. Renicker credits that in part to Tanya’s regular attendance at the United Methodist Church. “She would compare the political views with her biblical and religious beliefs and form her opinion that way.”
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Being on her own and becoming more politically active have changed Tanya somewhat: She’s toughened up and learned to compromise.
When she came to Ohio University, she joined the College Republicans. Compared with the hundreds of College Democrats, the Republican club is small, 40 to 50 people.
Being a small-town girl – “population: 300,” Tanya says of Sherrodsville – she says her first experiences as an active Republican on a campus and in a town that lean Democratic were something of a shock.
“Last year, the first time I started going door to door [campaigning for a Republican presidential hopeful] and getting doors slammed in my face I thought, ‘This is so awful. How can anyone be so mean?’ Where I come from, everybody knows each other and nobody would do that,” she says. “But I’ve developed a thicker skin now that I’m campaigning more.”
A more positive experience for her was a trip to the nation’s capital with the College Republicans for the annual meeting of C-PAC, the Conservative Political Action Committee.
“It was almost like a political camping trip,” says Dennis Normile, who calls himself an “elder statesman” of OU’s College Republicans and who has become a mentor of sorts to Tanya. “That was a good experience because she met a lot of notable conservatives and Republicans, so-called icons of the movement. Plus, you really get to know the people around you.”
When she isn’t studying, Tanya now spends most of her free time knocking on doors for John McCain and Sarah Palin, and for other Republicans running in statewide races. She plans one day to run for office herself.
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Tanya is discouraged that more young people don’t share her political views, but she’s also pleased they are showing so much interest in the election this year. “No matter who you vote for, I think you should vote, rather than not,” she says.
Tanya has also learned that politics requires compromise. When the presidential race began two years ago, she backed former New York Mayor Rudolph Guiliani. By the time she voted in the presidential primary, he’d dropped out of the race, so she went for former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee. Now she’s working for a McCain-Palin victory because, she says, she is a Republican. But her political heart remains with Mr. Guiliani.
“He dealt so well with 9/11 and cut crime in New York. He could have done a lot of good things for this country,” she says. “But I hope John McCain will, too.”