Michael Davidson, Republican of Berkeley, is standing in the circular, two-story foyer of a Mediterranean dream home in a gated neighborhood in Laguna Niguel, sounding every bit like a headliner at a political fundraiser -- which he is.
Davidson, 25, is running for chairman of the College Republican National Committee, a powerful grass-roots organization with thousands of members and a multimillion-dollar budget. He’s in the race partly because of a fundraising controversy that has threatened to tarnish the group’s reputation. And he has taken on a young man from South Dakota who was, until Davidson declared in February, heir apparent to the chairmanship.
On Saturday, at its biannual convention in Virginia, College Republicans will elect a new leader after months of charges, countercharges, endorsement switches and a blogosphere gone wild.
On this night, however, at the home of GOP activists Wayne and Linda Lindholm, Davidson does not dwell on dirty laundry. He does not mention the infamous “lapel pin letter” that brought the fundraising controversy to the forefront last year. Instead, flanked by four American flags and hand-painted signs, Davidson confidently delivers -- seemingly off the cuff -- an anecdote-rich speech about his triumphs as a conservative on a liberal campus. In Orange County -- where George Bush captured nearly 60% of the vote in 2004 -- this theme resonates.
Add to that a dash of Sept. 11 patriotism and Davidson is mining rhetorical gold:
“On Berkeley’s campus after 9/11, they told us, ‘You can’t have red, white and blue ribbons. The American flag is divisive.’ So we flipped out to say the least.” Dueling press conferences ensued. And then, “The wrath of an angry nation descends upon the chancellor at Berkeley and he blinks.” The College Republicans ended up distributing about 5,000 ribbons on the campus.
“Just think what it would have been like if the College Republicans hadn’t been there!” says Davidson, who clearly relishes his Daniel-in-the-lion’s-den image. Davidson will raise at least $1,000 at this event, but it’s barely a dent in the $200,000 he estimates his campaign will cost.
So far, no one has made the leap from College Republican chairman to the Oval Office, but whoever controls the College Republicans -- and its 120,000 members on 1,148 campuses -- wields clout in real-world races, makes sterling connections and earns a black belt in the art of political combat. Former College Republican bigwigs include party luminaries and operatives such as Karl Rove, Lee Atwater, anti-tax activist Grover Norquist, Ralph Reed and lobbyist Jack Abramoff. (Generally, members are college students; the group’s officers can either be in school, on leave or recent graduates.)
Like any good politician, Davidson couches his ambition in terms of “what’s good for the party,” but one question demands to be asked: Does he ever fantasize about running for president?
As he picks over a plate of pasta at a Laguna Niguel restaurant, he seems almost taken aback by the verb. “Fantasize? I don’t want to set something in motion here and [have] everything dictated by that. My life has been an unexpected series of twists and turns and so I don’t want to presume anything.”
He doesn’t have to; others will. “One more thing on that,” interjects Jennie Poston, Davidson’s 21-year-old chief of staff, a University of North Carolina student. “We met with a delegate from Virginia, and he called a friend of ours and said that he saw presidential seals on Michael. A lot of people say that.”
Davidson grew up in Orange County and in Fort Worth, where he moved with his mother and two younger siblings when he was 16. (He is the fourth of six children, and his parents’ divorce is still a painful subject.) He attended a community college (and worked in George W. Bush’s first presidential campaign). He finished his last two years of college at Cal (graduating in 2003) after a friend said to him, “Oh you think you’re really cool? You’re a Republican in Texas.... How exciting is that? I dare you to go somewhere like Berkeley!”
He joined the Berkeley chapter of College Republicans before he even unpacked his bags, he says, and then began to get a taste of what it meant to be outside the political mainstream. (Berkeley is not the radical hotbed it once was, but it is decidedly liberal; there is one Republican state lawmaker in the entire Bay Area delegation.)
When Davidson would pass out copies of the conservative student journal, the California Patriot, students would not infrequently hurl it back at him saying things such as, “No thanks, I have toilet paper already.”
He made it a point to ferret out other conservatives in his classes -- “Psst. Are you a Republican? Me, too!” -- and eventually helped build a chapter of 650 members, one of the largest in the country. “I want to ask you for your support so we can replicate what we did in Berkeley,” he tells the guests in Laguna Niguel. “Berkeley has a history of exporting movements and they tend to be leftist. But this time ... it can be conservative.”
Davidson, whose headquarters is a Salinas house lent to him by a lettuce farmer, is running against 23-year-old Paul Gourley of Sioux Falls, S.D. Gourley is a well-connected veteran College Republican who is treasurer of the national group and has run its most important program, which trains and deploys field representatives. (Field reps build campus membership and stump for Republican candidates in tight races.)
The contest is neck and neck, with both sides trumpeting endorsements -- and endorsement switches -- on their websites. The campaign has been nasty, complete with allegations of dirty tricks and disenfranchisement attempts and the alluring whiff of financial scandal. In College Republican circles, it would appear, there is no “11th Commandment” prohibiting trashing of fellow party members.
“We don’t have minor disagreements,” says Mike Zagorsky, a 20-year-old student in Sarasota, Fla., who recently launched a website that posts information about group finances. “We have full-up nuclear war.”
In their public pronouncements, both candidates have been able to stay above the fray, allowing surrogates, especially in the blogosphere, to level accusations at each other. Blogs on both sides have sprouted -- with such names as CR Veterans for Truth and Truth Caucus.
On the Internet and in interviews with College Republicans around the country, the lapel pin letter frequently comes up as a stain on the group’s reputation.
The letter was a classic of the direct-mail genre, where missives tend to be dire. “All direct mail reads like the baby is about to drown if you don’t send $25,” Norquist says. “ ‘Don’t put down this letter or the guy gets shot!’ ”
It was written during the 2004 presidential campaign. Even though it was a College Republican effort, it was printed on “Republican Headquarters 2004" letterhead, and urged recipients -- for four pages in capital letters -- to say a prayer over an enclosed American flag lapel pin, then send the pin back so that President Bush could wear it during his speech at the Republican National Convention: “I could have sent you your own lapel pin, but I knew that it wouldn’t mean nearly as much to you as being able to give a special gift to President Bush during this challenging time.” The letter, which also suggested a contribution of $1,000, was signed by Paul Gourley.
“George Bush never got lapel pins,” says 25-year-old George Gunning, a former College Republican national officer who was outraged when he saw the letter. In addition, of the $9 million that was raised by the direct mail firm Response Dynamics Inc. last year, the College Republicans collected only $825,000. The rest was kept by the company for its expenses. Even Norquist, an arch conservative who is president of Americans for Tax Reform, says criticism that the letter was “over the top” was fair.
Gourley, in a telephone interview from Sioux Falls, says the high-pressure direct mail campaign “was not a problem that I started.” He blames Response Dynamics for the excesses and points out that the College Republican National Committee first signed its contract with the Virginia-based company when he was 10 years old, and, “It’s sort of silly to be pointing blame.” He adds that he proposed a resolution, unanimously adopted, that terminated the contract with Response Dynamics at the College Republicans’ national board meeting last year. The group is working with a new direct mail firm now.
(The College Republican National Committee is an independent organization, having severed its formal ties with the Republican National Committee in 2001. A spokeswoman for the RNC said she had no comment about the college group’s fundraising efforts.)
Many of Gourley’s colleagues feel his name on that letter cast a pall over his candidacy, including 21-year-old Tom Jardon, chairman of Florida’s College Republicans, who says he was never given satisfactory answers when he asked about the direct mail campaign’s questionable tactics. “It’s that kind of thing where if you ask a question, somehow you are labeled a Democrat, which in Republican circles is the ninth circle of hell,” says Jardon, who first endorsed Gourley, then had a change of heart and endorsed Davidson, who is running on a platform calling for greater transparency in the group’s fundraising operations. “I think we’ll get past it, though.”
Taking it to the enemy
The first politician to endorse Davidson was a Republican congressman from Fullerton, Rep. Ed Royce. This doesn’t mean much in the College Republican scheme of things, where it is generally believed that the adult politicians will always pull for the kid from their home state. But it did give Royce the opportunity to talk about the younger man’s media savvy and other talents as he introduced Davidson at the Lindholms’ fundraiser earlier this month.
“I turned on the TV one day, and said, ‘Wait a minute. I know that guy! He’s the kid up in Berkeley organizing the club.’ ” Davidson, he points out, has been a guest on the Fox News Channel, CNN and KABC Talk Radio. “Michael just has this ... ability,” says Royce, slightly enviously.
Indeed, when Davidson became California chairman of the College Republicans, he decided it would be nifty to hold the group’s convention in Berkeley. “We brought in three or four hundred College Republicans to the steps of where the Free Speech Movement began,” he is telling the crowd. “The Free Speech Movement! And the antiwar protests!” And that weekend, he led a merry (though neatly groomed) band of young conservatives on a march down Telegraph Avenue to People’s Park -- the heart of the radical homeland -- for a pro-America rally.
“The last time there were that many Republicans marching down Telegraph Avenue was when Gov. Reagan sent in tanks to squash a protest,” Davidson says. He doesn’t mention that one man was killed and another blinded during that famous 1969 battle over People’s Park. But that is not the point. The point is that Davidson is unafraid to take the battle to the enemy. “If you can do it in Berkeley,” he says, “you can do it anywhere.”
Davidson and Gourley will face off in person for the first time on Friday, when they will debate for an hour after the organization’s traditional Lee Atwater Dinner at the Crystal Gateway Marriott in Arlington, Va. And then, when the dust settles and the votes are counted, College Republicans will get back to business. Which is, as Davidson sees it, " ... saving the world, one liberal at a time.”