In a closely divided election, a UC Irvine student who led an insurgency against establishment politics won a bitter battle Saturday for control of the California College Republicans, a triumph for provocative conservatism over a more moderate approach.
Ariana Rowlands, an ally of right-wing provocateur Milo Yiannopoulos, led a slate called Rebuild, which advocates aggressive actions in campus culture wars and taking on college administrators and liberals who try to suppress the conservative voice.
Her opponent, USC graduate Leesa Danzek, works for a centrist Republican state legislator, favors inclusion and encourages students to help GOP candidates with phone banking and electioneering. She headed the Thrive slate and had led the state organization, which supports about 70 campus chapters, over the last year.
Rowlands defeated Danzek, 88-64, in the first contested election in nearly a decade but the 14-member executive board ended up evenly split between the two sides. The divide between them reflects the national battle between GOP establishment insiders and insurgents inspired by Trump.
In remarks after the vote, Rowlands told students she would stand up to attacks from peers who “seem to hate you more than ever before.”
“We are the voice of the conservative movement on college campuses, we will continue to do so, and we will be louder and prouder than ever before,” said Rowlands, a UCI senior majoring in political science.
Danzek, for her part, thanked students for their enthusiasm and urged them to come together. “We’re in this for each other,” she said. “We’re in this for the party.”
Rowlands’ victory was hailed by students who said they feel besieged and suppressed on California’s liberal campuses. Many said they believed Thrive represented a status quo that had failed to increase the conservative student movement.
“I love Rebuild because it's about activism, getting the message out there, embracing an actual conservative approach rather than trying to appease liberals or work with administration,”' said Dylan Martin, a senior at UC San Diego. “It’s nice to have an approach that wants to fight back just as much as the other side is fighting us.”
But several Thrive members expressed concern about how to heal the wounds inflicted in the contentious battle.
Kavya Maddali, a senior at St. Mary's College of California in Moraga, said she was concerned that Rowlands' combative tactics and penchant for headline-grabbing actions would alienate those who prefer Thrive’s approach of inclusion and in-the-trenches work to elect Republicans.
Andrew Mendoza, president of the UC Davis College Republicans, said several Thrive members were thinking of leaving the state organization because they feared Rowlands’ leadership style — which they perceived as intimidating. “The fact that this is our leadership is abhorrent,” he said.
Tensions raged between the two sides even before voting began at the state GOP convention in Anaheim. The election was supposed to have taken place at the California College Republicans convention in April but was postponed to Saturday after arguments between the two sides over who was allowed to vote.
Those resentments resurfaced Saturday, when Rebuild members accused Danzek of using her influence over the state organization to withhold information about the election and improperly disqualify some students from voting — including one of their slate’s candidates, Christian Chacon.
Danzek said that Chacon was excluded because he was not listed on the membership list and that she was following clear procedural rules, but Rebuild leaders said they intended to challenge his exclusion.
As students checked in for their voting cards, Rowlands hovered nearby, objecting every time one of her supporters was denied one. Danzek, harried as she tried to handle the drama and dissension, repeatedly told the crowd to quiet down and urged them to follow the rules.
“Oh, now you want to follow the rules!” Rowlands yelled.
After the vote, Noah Ritter, a Rebuild member elected as Southern Region vice chair, said he was confident the two sides could work together on such actions as a protest against the state gas tax increase, scheduled to take effect next month. Nick Steinwender, a California Lutheran University student and Thrive member who was elected as Rowlands’ co-chair, said other top issues were free speech, getting more Republicans elected in 2018 — and healing the divide among students.
"We’ll hopefully be able to unite as one organization and move forward … and help lead the fight to bring the Republicans out of the super-minority in 2018," Steinwender said. “My focus moving forward is leaving behind Rebuild, leaving behind Thrive and just being the California College Republicans.”
In the end, Rowlands and Danzek made a show of coming together.
Sharing the podium, each woman addressed the students, shook hands and posed for a photo.
As students looked on, some called out: “Say cheese! Say it’s over! Democrats suck!”
Both young women smiled.