Audra Shay of Louisiana has been touring the country for seven months, drumming up support for her campaign to become chairwoman of the Young Republican National Federation, an organization that consists of 10,000 members nationwide.
“The country wasn’t going where I think it should be going,” she said, so she entered the race to try and get YRNF, which limits its membership to Republicans aged 18-40, “back to its original platform.”
For her, that means a renewed adherence to the principles of national defense, school choice, limited government, lower taxes and conservative social values.
Shay differs little in principle with her only competitor in the YRNF Chairman race, Rachel Hoff, who resides in Washington, D.C. But these principles aren't what Hoff emphasizes.
"The YRNF is a grassroots political organization, and our strength is our members and member states," said Hoff.
In other words, Hoff is concentrating on the politics rather than the policy. It's a fine line in a race filled with predictable political rhetoric like "taking the YRNF to the next level" and "working to revitalize the GOP from the ground up"— and one that probably won't attract too much attention, given YRNF's small size and relative influence.
But perhaps it should. The race involves a key growth constituency for the GOP — young people — and the two candidates have come to represent a microcosm of the divisions being worked out in the Republican Party as a whole.
Hoff, 26, is focused on “engaging more of our generation” and “organizing the grassroots to help Republicans win elections again." That focus seems to be on target with the official mission of the YRNF, which calls itself the "premier Republican grassroots organization in the nation" focused on "recruiting, training and mobilizing people" towards the cause.
"I am a Republican, to the core, because I believe in the conservative principles that built this Party and have stood the test of time," she said. But Hoff understands that "it is going to take a broad coalition of diverse Americans who believe in our principles to take this Party where it needs to go."
Hoff wants to increase the GOP's "influence, engagement and relevance" to young people, by focusing on the GOP's weak spots. That includes pitching a larger tent and focusing on technology. She's "weaponized" Facebook, Twitter, and web videos along with sites such as YRNetwork.com and ThisIsMyParty.org to increase young Republicans’ online presence and to catch those who aren't yet politically active.
"New technologies have transformed how we engage voters, how we campaign, and how we identify and inspire activists," said Hoff.
Shay is relatively less experienced with the online world — her hometown YRNF chapter doesn't even have a website — but what she lacks in technological aggression, she makes up for in hard-line rhetoric.
"We must get BACK TO BASICS," reads her online mission. "Those being the basics of Membership, Media and Money."
Shay, 38, is a mother of two and has served 8 years in the military. She's quick to criticize those leaders who are "70% Republican or 80% Republican.”
"Then they demand that we change our platform instead of them adapting," she said.
Shay's criticism of Hoff is manifold.
"She is a moderate," Shay said. "She is pro same-sex civil unions...believes she has the pulse of the youth, and feels as though our party needs to go in a different direction."
"I do believe we need to go in a different direction," said Hoff. "A direction where our leaders live up their stated principles, a direction where young voters can believe that the GOP's message of opportunity is authentic, a direction that pushes our Party into tomorrow with the same conservative principles that have solved the problems of yesterday."
Shay has held more elected positions than Hoff in YRNF, and has done other political work ranging from work on Bobby Jindal's campaign to assisting with the Bush-Cheney race in '04. She is currently the third ranking office in YRNF.
"I bring a vast array of experience that Rachel, being much younger than I, does not. She’s never held a national position, a state chair or a club chair, and doesn't have the experience of being in the military, being married, raising children or paying a mortgage," said Shay. "Just my experience, period, is something that Rachel does not have."
Hoff doesn't see that as a disadvantage.
"I’d rather focus less on titles and more on accomplishments," said Hoff. "She doesn’t have accomplishments to point to as her position as third ranking officer, so I’m curious as to why we should elevate her to first chair."
As YRNF Director of Media Relations Hoff built a media program that put YRNF leaders on most major television networks, winning them 2 million dollars in earned media thus far. Hoff also helped deploy hundreds of YRNF members into swing states in 2006 and 2007 and coordinated a $20 million media program for the National Republican Congressional Committee's media outreach programs.
"When we talk about experience, we shouldn’t be looking for titles, we should be looking for results. And while she has a few more titles, she hasn’t done anything with them," said Hoff.
Hoff grew up on military bases outside the U.S., and was educated at Tufts University in Boston. Shay was born in Arkansas, quit college after her freshman year and joined the Army, where she served for eight years. On her website, Hoff emphasizes her endorsements from Sarah Huckabee and George P. Bush. Shay's website emphasizes her Baptist upbringing and the raising of her two children, 9 and 17.
The Hoff-Shay showdown comes on the heels of a rather unfortunate episode in YRNF history. The last chairmanship election resulted in a victory for Glenn Murphy Jr., who was ousted less than halfway through his term after an embarrassing sex scandal involving the assault of another man—while he was sleeping.
Shay was part of the team that took over after Murphy left. Despite her deep involvement in YRNF leadership, she still thinks there's still a lot of room for improvement within the organization.
"We believe that there needs to be a new culture and new way to deal with the whole of the organization. We believe it has been kind of a cool kids’ clique, if you will, and we want to be able to bring everybody to the table," said Shay.
Hoff questions whether or not this insider institutional experience life is really what the organization needs most.
"The status quo in this organization is absolutely unacceptable," said Hoff. Barack Obama, 47, took young voters away from John McCain, 72, at a rate of 2-1 in the 2008 presidential election. Hoff thinks that she's the answer to that predicament.
"We’re a forward looking campaign—we’re about vision," she said. "We’re about plans that look for a vision."
Shay currently leads Hoff in endorsements, but Hoff says that she's still very much in the running for the election that will take place at YRNF's National Convention in Indanapolis this week.
"There are a lot delegates in states that have endorsed her that are flying to Indianapolis to vote for me," said