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Meet the conservative student activist who wants to ‘make campus great again’

Photo: Loren Elliott/CNN

ORLANDO, Fla. — It was standing room only as Lauren Cooley stepped in front of a classroom of college Republicans on a recent Saturday afternoon at the University of Central Florida’s main campus.

The 24-year-old campus organizer and University of Miami graduate student was kicking off her “Make Campus Great Again” speaking tour, an effort to motivate conservative students to embrace political activism.

“I know you guys worked really, really hard to make America great again, and we won! That’s awesome!” she told the crowd of students in navy blazers and brogues, sheath dresses and patent leather pumps, and a few red “Make American Great Again” hats.

“Now Trump’s in his first 100 days, what can we do to help the new administration move forward?”

During the 2016 election, Cooley traveled around Florida training activists and knocking on dorm room doors to register student voters. She had founded a political action committee that year called Campus Red, and appeared as a guest representing millennial conservatives on outlets such as Fusion TV and One America News Network.

She continues to write for right-leaning media and to speak on conservative television and radio, usually as the youngest panelist and the only woman. In a recent appearance on The Glenn Beck Program, Cooley described herself as a conservative first and a Republican second. She said she believes there are others like her on college campuses, students who fall between the left and alt-right, who are looking for their people.

With millennial and Generation X adults poised to outnumber baby boomers in 2020, Cooley sees a niche market waiting to be tapped on college campuses. From 2012 to 2016, the 18-29 vote held steady in Florida. And while the Democratic advantage declined in the state by 12 points from President Obama to Hillary Clinton, Trump performed better than Mitt Romney, according to exit poll data.

“There’s this big narrative that all young people are liberal and they’re always going to vote Democrat or left,” Cooley said. “But what I’ve realized just from being on campuses all across Florida is there’s definitely a significant portion of young people who think conservatively and who are willing to give Republican candidates a shot — but only if they’re actually engaged.”

Conservatives fight back

While American student activism has long been considered a leftist affair, Cooley is part of a push to amplify conservative voices on campuses amid what they call liberal attempts to silence their viewpoints.

“People get motivated when they get outraged,” said Morton Blackwell, founder of conservative incubator the Leadership Institute, which Cooley credits with making her the activist she is today. “There’s more conservative student activism going on because leftist activism is so outrageous.”

Though still the minority presence in campus activism, some conservative youth groups say they have experienced a surge in interest since the presidential election. Such growth is typical, especially for the winning party, said Ted Dooley, co-chair of the College Republican National Committee.

This time around, though, college Republican groups are seeing more new members who are expressing political interest for the first time. Most who joined in the past already had a background in political activism, Dooley said.

While conservative activists have long existed on college campuses, what’s new is the intense sense of persecution for their political views and how they are rallying around that, said Angus Johnston, CUNY history professor and author of “History of American Student Activism.”

These days, student activists on both the left and the right see themselves as embattled and outnumbered — a sense conservatives appear to be holding onto despite Trump’s election and Republican control of the House and Senate. “They both see themselves as underdogs, but their understanding of what it means to be an underdog are playing out in very, very different ways,” Johnston said.

In the short term, conservative activists want to bring more like-minded speakers to colleges, fight against safe spaces and make campuses more hospitable to their ideas. To win those battles, they’re taking up the language of diversity for their own ends, and embracing tactics of “direct action” that were typically the province of the left.

“We’re recalibrating. We have to because for eight years we were the resistance, and that’s a fun label to play and now the left is embracing that,” said Charlie Kirk, co-founder of Turning Point USA. The conservative student group, launched in 2012, is known for its controversial tactics. It created a “Professor Watchlist” naming professors on campuses across the country who they claim are advancing “a radical agenda.” Cooley worked for Turning Point from 2014-2015 as its first Florida field director, learning from its playbook as she set up campus chapters there.

Since this time last year, Turning Point USA grew from 250 to 350 chapters, 50 of which have launched since January, Kirk said. About 80% of the new chapters were started by students who approached Turning Point instead of the other way around.

The long game, Cooley says, is to coax young closet conservatives out of their shells and draw moderates to the right for the 2018 midterms.

“Fighting for conservative values to be represented on campus is fighting for conservative values to be more mainstream,” she said. “The further left campuses go, the more moderate conservative thought will be.”

Pushing a free speech agenda

It remains to be seen whether conservatives will capitalize on their recent momentum in a way that swings young voters toward the right for 2018. Cooley believes it’s possible — that’s why she’s taking her message of grassroots organizing on the road. So far, she’s making appearances at schools in Florida and Texas, and says there are more to come.

The tour will supplement her income from writing and other speaking engagements while she transitions Campus Red into a nonprofit intended to pair college conservatives with members of the establishment.

She thinks the Republican Party could make more headway on college campuses by emphasizing what it stands for, like the benefits of free enterprise. But the current climate calls for a mix of offensive and defensive tactics as challenges from the left mount,Cooley said.

Speaking to the crowd at UCF, Cooley encouraged students to “push a free speech agenda” by protesting outside the designated areas schools set aside for political advocacy. If and when administrators attempt to shut them down, students should document the encounter, leave peacefully and use the documentation to lobby for policy change, she said.

“We’ve got to find what we can do that will actually make an impact on campus as a whole,” she said. “If you can make policy changes on campus you’ll actually be able to see the shift in the culture on your campus.”

Cooley stressed the importance of advocating for “diversity of thought” in reading material and among teaching staff. She suggested looking up professors’ voter registration records and using that information to lobby for more conservative educators.

“This is not to say we’re going to create a list (saying) every single Democratic professor is bad. Some of the best professors I ever had were extreme liberals, but they didn’t put their values in the class,” she said.

“Aren’t you concerned that something like that may lead to some form of political affirmative action?” UCF student and political blogger Sean Hartman asked Cooley.

“I don’t think there’s anything wrong with using the left’s tactics against themselves,” she replied. “If we’re going to have affirmative action and that’s something that’s widely accepted, there’s no reason we shouldn’t be able to use that.”

Where she stands

Many of the college Republicans at UCF said they knew Cooley from social media. On Twitter, where Cooley has more than 43,000 followers, she defends the Trump administration and highlights instances of what she considers leftist attacks against conservatives.

In December, she shared a picture of herself with former Breitbart editor Milo Yiannopoulos and later denounced CPAC’s decision to cancel his appearance as an abrogation of free speech. She has called feminism a cancer, declared the Women’s March “gross,” and called equal pay day “the day when misinformed feminists spread a fake statistic making it seem like women are less successful than we are.”

Despite being anti-abortion, she declared herself #TeamTomi after conservative pundit Tomi Lahren lost her gig as a contributor to The Blaze after coming out in favor of abortion rights.

“Really tired of people tearing each other down over jealousy or petty disagreement,” she wrote on Twitter. “Why can’t we celebrate the success of others?”

She elaborated on her views over a sirloin steak dinner at Duffy’s Sports Grill in a mega mall in Plantation, Florida, the night before her UCF speech.

“My issue with feminism more than anything else is the activism tactics and the issues they’re pushing,” she said. “When your activism is growing your armpit hair out and painting it pink and then hating men, that, to me, does nothing for your cause, it does nothing to empower women.”

She rejects the idea that women are “second-class citizens,” she said, especially when some can afford to take the day off and “call it their day without a woman.”

“If modern-day feminists were focused on oppression of women in the Middle East and issues where there’s genuine differences in equality, I’m on board with that.”

Cooley said she believes that white privilege, racism and racial bias in policing exist, but she does not think they are as pervasive as they’re made out to be.

“I definitely believe people deal with racism,” she said. “What I disagree with is this newfound notion of how white privilege is the new thing we have to atone for.”

Cooley said that the privilege discourse goes too far when it’s used to attack those who are perceived to be privileged. “I think just the way that it’s been sensationalized is the reason that so many conservatives are pushing back against it,” she said.

“I want everyone to be privileged,” she added. “I don’t want to tear people down to make them equal to others. I think we can build everybody up.”

‘It’s more about notoriety’

While most of the students at UCF were there for the Florida Federation of College Republicans’ annual convention, Hartman, the political blogger, said he came expressly to see Cooley.

“I desperately wanted to see her because of her activism and influence on social media,” he said. “I agree with most of (the) points of view but what I really respect is how she defends them.”

At least one vocal conservative critic disagrees. Tom Lauder, who runs the political blog Red Broward, wrote several posts critical of Cooley during her runs in 2015 and 2016 for Broward Republican Party positions, and said he is still skeptical of her motives.

“She’s copying the Kardashian type syndrome where people get famous and stay famous just for being famous,” he said in a phone interview. “It’s more about notoriety and getting on talk shows and being called a face of young conservatives and her actions don’t back it up.”

She’s heard it before and brushes off the criticism. Cooley’s supporters say her intentions are pure, and that she’s working to build a coalition of campus conservatives, from libertarians and states’ rights advocates to social conservatives.

“She’s willing to do something that a lot of adult activists don’t want to do, which is go back to college campuses,” said her friend Kristin Matheny, vice chair of the Broward Young Republicans.

“People like Lauren are so necessary because she’s in an in-between position. She’s young enough where she blends in but she’s old enough so she has experience and perspective.”

Sticking to her guns

A day before the speaking tour was set to kick off, Cooley headed out to the studio of longtime conservative talk show host Joyce Kaufman to discuss her speaking tour.

Cooley’s desire to work on the grassroots level keeps her based in Florida working on campus issues — for now, at least, she said. That, and the fact that she’s a dyed-in-the-wool Floridian.

“If it’s below 70 degrees, I’m cold,” she said as she drove to West Palm Beach for the radio hit.

Cooley had just purchased her first new car since high school, a showroom Jaguar she paid for outright. She defended the purchase as proof of her fiscal conservatism. “I’ll have this for the next 10, 12 years,” she said. “It’s an investment.”

Her parents, an insurance agent and a retired registered nurse, instilled a passion for politics in her from a young age. In local elections, they brought Cooley and her brother to polling stations and gave them signs to hold.

During the 2000 presidential race between George W. Bush and Al Gore, Cooley’s father helped count votes in Broward County. When he returned home that night after Cooley was asleep, her father posted notes on her door with updates as votes were counted throughout the night.

Driving through town, she pointed out the Baptist church in Pompano she has attended since she was a child, and where she still plays guitar during Sunday worship each week. Cooley said that when she first enrolled as a freshman at Furman, South Carolina’s oldest private school founded by Southern Baptists, she had hoped to find like-minded conservatives. But by the time she arrived, it had been more than 20 years since the school had ended its affiliation with the South Carolina Baptist Convention, and she found herself in the minority.

She joined student government and the campus conservative group. She said she stood up to “the liberal administration,” urging them to bring in speakers like Ann Coulter and a British creationist. She only succeeded in bringing in Coulter, though her efforts in both cases made local headlines. She found the spotlight again when she protested the Rev. Jesse Jackson’s appearance at the school and accused administrators of taking her protest fliers, a charge the school denied.

The experience inspired her to continue her political activism after graduation. She returned to her hometown of Fort Lauderdale and ran for chair in 2015 and vice-chair of the Broward Republican Party in 2016, losing by 10 votes and then three.

Her efforts caught the eye of the party leadership, Palm Beach County GOP Chairman Michael Barnett said.

“It wasn’t her time, but she’s a rising star,” he said.

She formed Campus Red with Cade Marsh, then-president of the Florida Federation of College Republicans. Campus Red aimed to boost conservative student participation in the 2016 election through a statewide campaign of knocking on doors in dorms, a technique pioneered by Blackwell, founder of the conservative activist training program that Cooley and Marsh both participated in.

At the studio, Kaufman greeted Cooley with a hug, affectionately calling her “mini-me.” Kaufman gave Cooley her first shot on syndicated radio four years ago when she was still an undergraduate.

“She’s not afraid. She’s really convicted,” Kaufman said. “Most of these kids, they come and they go, and she kept coming back. I’ve had these kids who are like, I want to be in radio, I’m a conservative, and then a year later they’re liberals on a campus somewhere. She was tenacious.”

Ann Coulter — “Annie” to Kaufman — was on the show before Cooley, discussing whether Trump was turning out to be a New York liberal in disguise. Coulter had also mentioned that she hoped to speak at the University of California, Berkeley. Kaufman and Cooley deemed it a longshot.

“I think it’s going to be, unfortunately, more violence just like we saw with the Milo protest,” Cooley said.

“I’ll tell you what I’d love to see happen,” she said. “She gets to speak, people listen to her, they disagree with her, they have a debate and she goes home. But that’s just not the environment we’re in.”