Dan Crenshaw wants to save the Republican Party from alienating itself with young voters. He first has to win over the old guard that dominates Texas Republican politics — and remains skeptical of new blood.
National conservative leaders are already holding up the 34-year-old former Navy SEAL as a rising star in their movement, following his unlikely advancement from the primary to replace longtime GOP Rep. Ted Poe.
Crenshaw picked up an endorsement from Sen. Tom Cotton, R-Ark., the Senate's youngest Republican, for the May 22 runoff against Kevin Roberts.
Roberts, 52, took 33 percent in the nine-way March primary. Crenshaw took 27 percent— leapfrogging candidates with longer resumes and more money.
Right-leaning media outlets have swarmed to the telegenic millennial who wears an eye patch from an injury he suffered serving in Afghanistan. He's been featured as a guest on Fox Business and Laura Ingraham’s Ingraham Angle, as well as in the Washington Free Beacon, Daily Caller and Washington Examiner.
Crenshaw has also excited some younger voters, winning a straw poll of Houston Young Republicans handily last month.
"The main reason I’m running is for that next generation," Crenshaw told the Star-Telegram in an interview in Houston this month. “[Republicans] have to give the next generation something to believe in or else there won’t be a Republican Party in 50 years."
A January Pew Research Center survey found 62 percent of registered voters who will be between 22 and 37 on Election Day prefer a Democratic candidate for Congress in their district this fall. In Texas, voters between 18 and 29 supported Democrat Hillary Clinton over Republican Donald Trump by a 19 percentage point margin in 2016, according to exit polls.
Democrats aren't likely to flip Crenshaw’s district in November. But it does include parts of Harris County, where Texas Democrats have posted significant gains across the last three election cycles. National Democrats consider neighboring Rep. John Culberson, who also represents Harris County, among their top targets in 2018.
“Harris County already is in the hole,” Artemio Muniz, a Houston Republican who serves on the board of the Young Republican National Federation, said of the county’s growing Democratic voter base. “[It] includes a lot of younger people… and the Republican Party has done a horrible job of winning that demographic over.”
Next week's race will largely be decided by older voters, who turn out more reliably in a GOP primary runoff.
Some of Houston’s powerful conservative voices, including radio host Terry Lowry and Conservative Republicans of Texas leader Steve Hotze have lined up against Crenshaw for the runoff.
“I don’t think there’s enough young people now in Harris County Republican Party in the runoff space to swing the vote. [Crenshaw] is going to have to win over some older guys,” said Muniz.
At a meet-and-greet in Houston this month, a crowd of largely gray-haired Republicans seemed receptive to Crenshaw's message.
They peppered him with questions about whether he would cut safety-net programs for seniors — something Crenshaw’s opponents have featured in attack ads — but later fawned over stories about his military service.
Crenshaw supports gradually raising the age for Social Security benefits for younger people, without making drastic changes to benefits for seniors.
"I shouldn’t retire at 67," said Crenshaw. "We should be the generation that actually reforms entitlement programs in a responsible way, and you have to make some hard decisions."
“I know that we can do it while taking care of our seniors, reform entitlement programs and keep benefits there, just twist the knobs to make sure that our seniors get what they need but my generation still has a future," he added.
A recently-formed Republican super PAC has spent more than $270,000 on ads labeling Crenshaw insufficiently conservative. His opponents have highlighted Facebook posts he wrote in 2015 defending gay marriage and opposing Trump.
Crenshaw insists he’s within the Republican mainstream on both topics, but says the party needs to abandon rigid ideological standards if it wants to survive.
“Those are the divisive issues with Republicans and young people, it’s gay marriage, it’s being pro-life,” said Crenshaw, who does not support abortion rights, but believes the government should not be in charge of regulating marriage.
“It’s important not to alienate certain groups of people because you disagree with them," said Crenshaw. “When I can make those moral arguments and try to phrase them in a way that at least won’t repel young people, that’s the goal here."
On Trump, Crenshaw pledged support for the president, despite favoring other candidates in the presidential primary. That comment drew a "didn't we all" from one attendee. He said he wouldn't take down old social media posts, as a matter of transparency with voters.
To replace House Speaker Paul Ryan, Crenshaw pitched conservatives: Reps. Jim Jordan, R-Ohio, or Steve Scalise, R-La.
He hasn't decided whether he would join the conservative House Freedom Caucus: "I don’t promise my vote to congressmen I don’t know ahead of time."
The Pew survey showed Trump’s job approval at 27 percent of millennials. They’re also the most supportive age group of same-sex marriage.
“Young voters don’t love the right, but the feeling is mutual,” said Kristen Soltis Anderson, a Republican pollster who studies the party's outreach to young people. “When I talk to Republican voters, they talk about being exasperated by their own children’s political views.”
Crenshaw has gotten some cover from conservative media, which has jumped to defend him from attacks. A pro-veteran PAC, With Honor Fund, is also sending mailers on his behalf. He raised nearly $250,000 in the month after the primary.
Anderson said that conservative support could help Crenshaw with older Republicans, who view young moderate candidates "with a great deal of suspicion."
Alternatively, said Anderson, "If you are young and quite conservative, you are proof to older Republicans who are skeptical of young people that look, we got a good one."
Anne Clutterbuck, host of the meet-and-greet, called Crenshaw a "gentleman," and said he won her support with his performance in a crowded primary debate. Introducing him to attendees, Clutterbuck, a former Houston City Council member, vowed that if Republicans sent Crenshaw to Congress this year, it'd be the launch of much bigger political future.