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'We are the future': Meet first-time voters supporting Republicans this cycle

ATLANTA, GEORGIA - NOVEMBER 04: People wait in line for early voting for the midterm elections at Ponce De Leon Library on November 04, 2022 in Atlanta, Georgia. Long lines were seen at several polling locations in Atlanta as early voting is underway ahead of Tuesday's midterm elections, where Georgians will be voting for the state's next governor and senator. (Photo by Michael M. Santiago/Getty Images)
ATLANTA, GEORGIA - NOVEMBER 04: People wait in line for early voting for the midterm elections at Ponce De Leon Library on November 04, 2022 in Atlanta, Georgia. Long lines were seen at several polling locations in Atlanta as early voting is underway ahead of Tuesday's midterm elections, where Georgians will be voting for the state's next governor and senator. (Photo by Michael M. Santiago/Getty Images)

Follow live updates and results from Election Day 2022 here .

Katelyn Diaz thinks it's time for the GOP to take notice of its young members.

"There's people who don't want to pass on the microphone or the torch," said Diaz, a sophomore at University of California Irvine. "But I see young people in the Republican Party rising up more and more."

In 2018 and 2020, young people turned out to vote in historically high numbers, helping Democrats cement a power trifecta in Washington. Diaz hopes her cohort turns out to vote this cycle in numbers that will enable Republicans to retake control of Congress.

Still, Diaz has found people often assume she supports Democrats.

"When people find out I'm pro-life, they're very shocked," she said. "I've had people dumbfounded, because I'm a woman of color, disabled — they expect me to have certain political views and I don't have those political views."

Abby Kiesa, Deputy Director at CIRCLE, a Tufts University research group focused on youth political engagement, says that misconception is common.

"It's important to bust a myth that all young people under 30 are liberal," she explained, noting that in the 2016 and 2020 presidential elections, more than a third of young people voted for Donald Trump.

"One of the things that is important when we think about electoral participation is that young people who are Republicans are less likely to be contacted by a campaign or by their party than young people who are Democrats," Kiesa said.

She said outreach not only conveys important information but can help young voters feel a part of something bigger — and that ignoring the power of young voters imperils political parties.

"You're leaving millions of votes on the table if you're not paying attention to young people," she said. "There is a strong majority of young people who identify as Republicans."

NPR spoke with some of those voters across the country who are planning to vote for the first time in the midterm elections.

Connor Gibson, 18, Hattiesburg, Miss.

Gibson says he's been interested in politics from a "really young age," admiring political figures like Mitt Romney and Paul Ryan.

He's already seen the power of people coming together to affect change, pointing to Mississippi lawmakers voting to remove the Confederate battle emblem from the state flag.

"Having that old state flag with the Confederate battle emblem on it did not serve the purpose of having a unifying banner for all Mississippians," Gibson, who is passionate about the issue, told NPR.

"Having something that young people can proudly display in their college dorm rooms and on their flag poles was very important to me," Gibson added. "It was just very important for me as a young person knowing that one day I'm going to have children and grandchildren in the state, wanting them to have something they can be proud of."

Gibson is currently finishing up his term as chairman of the Mississippi Teenage Republicans. The group garnered some national attention last year, after state chapters denounced QAnon and conspiracy theories.

"Conspiracy theories, like QAnon, harm the Republican Party's ability to reach out to new voters and isolate our base," the statement read.

Republican Reps. Adam Kinzinger, R-Ill., and Jaime Herrera Beutler praised the stance; former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush shared it as well.

It came shortly after another statement from the group on Jan. 6, 2021, condemning the violent attack on the U.S. Capitol.

"I was floored," Gibson remembered. "How could you not be floored when you see thousands of people converging on the Capitol in what was a violent raid?"

"One thing that stuck out to me on that day was I was helping a neighbor put her Christmas tree up in her attic and she was laughing," he recalled, shaking his head. "She was laughing about - justifying what was happening and I don't think that there is any doubt in my mind that what happened on Jan. 6 was nothing short of disgraceful and disgusting, regardless of how you feel about the election."

Gibson, who would like to see former Vice President Mike Pence or South Carolina Sen. Tim Scott run for president in 2024, is concerned "the extremes have taken over." The views he expressed to NPR are his own and not that of his organization.

"Not in the sense of in numbers but in rhetoric, and it really overshadows a lot of policy discussions that we need to be having," he said. "For me, [being a Republican] is about lower taxes, less government, not about these crazy culture wars that a lot of people like to chase down rabbit holes."

Reece Smith, 18, Powhatan, Va.

Smith, a first year college student at the University of Virginia, cites crime and inflation as her top issues this cycle, mirroring the messaging strategy of many national Republican candidates.

"A lot of things have gotten really expensive - gas has gone way up," she said. "And then below that is crime. Being a young woman, sometimes walking around by myself at night is scary, and I don't think I should have to be put in that situation."

Smith says abortion is a "hard subject to talk about" and recognizes she's at odds with some factions within the GOP when it comes to what she'd like to see legislatively in a post-Dobbs world.

"I don't think we should ban abortion. I think it's necessary for certain cases — in cases of rape, incest, or the mother's life is in danger then it's something that is necessary and it's health care," she said, noting she would be comfortable with limits in the second and third trimester. "Also, if you ban abortion, it's like banning drugs, people aren't going to stop doing it. So I'd prefer for it to be in a safe environment."

Like Gibson, she's concerned about divisions within the party - and points to Georgia GOP Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene as a "distraction."

"She has said things that are terrible. The thing about the Jewish space lasers is ridiculous. And she spoke at a rally with Nick Fuentes, who I think is a racist, sexist person, a homophobe, so I don't appreciate that," she said. "And I don't like it when Republicans go after other Republicans in the party, because at the end of the day, we're just trying to get an agenda passed that's going to help people."

Matthew Landau, 18, Camillus, N.Y.

Landau, who is attending Arizona State University, remains hopeful that Republicans can retake control of Congress, but says the real test will come in 2024.

"Things still will not change that much with Democrats controlling the [White House,] - we'll be able to block some of the bills, but we won't be able to really change anything," he predicted.

He lists energy independence and crime as top issues.

"We have to be a nation of safety, integrity, and the whole nine - we got to make sure that if somebody does something illegal, we cannot just be bailing them out, they have to have some sort of consequence."

When it comes to the 2024 campaign, Landau's in a bit of a tough spot.

"As far as who I want to see run, I mean - who got me into politics was Trump - I gotta stick with my guy, he got me into this whole thing," he said.

But he worries Trump is too polarizing to win in a general election and thinks candidates like Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis and Nikki Haley would have a better chance.

"A lot of conservatives don't want to say it right now and I think you have to say it," Landau said. "You can't just blindly say Trump's our guy, let's have him run and then he loses like he did in 2020."

Landau sees too much polarization and toxicity on both sides of the aisle.

"Democrats are not all socialists who want to ruin the country. There's very good Democrats. They're all good people," he said. "Bernie Sanders - I don't agree with Bernie Sanders on one thing - but he's a great person. I mean, the guy's been doing politics forever."

"We can't be divided on every issue, and every person isn't a bad person. It can't happen in America, we got to unite."

Katelyn Diaz, 19, Perris, Calif.

Diaz, the student at University of California Irvine, says "societal issues like abortion and the morality of our country" matter the most to her.

"I'm pro-life. My views are that there should be laws that severely limit it," she said. "The mother's life does take priority in the sense that like, if we can only save one, I want to save the mother, but I don't think abortion should be allowed besides for health reasons."

She added she would like to see a Republican-controlled Congress send less money overseas to aid Ukraine in the wake of Russia's invasion.

"If they spent that money from Ukraine to forgive student loans, I'd be glad about that," she said, noting concerns about the U.S. economy. "I think that's a better cause than going to Ukraine – we just don't have money to spare."

Diaz thinks it's a special time to be a first-time voter.

"The future is us," she said with a smile. "Young people who actually are living in the society and experiencing what it's like to be a new adult. I think a lot of older people kind of forget what it's like to be starting out your life."

Diaz is a strong supporter of Trump and wants to see him run again.

"Sometimes people have a negative connotation with the word nationalism. But to me, that's a positive word. I think [Trump] puts America first in almost everything he does," she said.

"We all need to unite behind Trump because ever since he became president, I admit the GOP has taken a shift further to the right and I think that's a good thing."

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.