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Politics

Earnest UC Irvine student seeks to shake up the Republican Party

Campaign flyers
Peter Van Voorhis, left, posts campaign flyers on UCI campus with help from friends George Novshadyan.
(Steve Lopez / Los Angeles Times)

The party hats and confetti have turned to dust in the California GOP’s pantry.

The last Republican elected to the U.S. Senate was Pete Wilson, in 1988. No Republican has held statewide office since former muscle man Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger sneaked out of Sacramento in 2011 with the ratings of a weakling.

The percentage of Republican voters is shrinking, and by many measures, the GOP’s IV bag is almost empty.

But UC Irvine student Peter Van Voorhis refuses to believe it.

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“I’m a 20-year-old Republican currently on the ballot for public office,” he said in a recent email, in which he promised to shake up his party.

“I’m running because I want to get more young people voting and engaged in politics.”

That’s a confident young lad, I thought. And he wasn’t asking whether I wanted to sit down with him, but when.

“My beliefs are important enough to meet face to face,” he wrote. “What time is best for you to meet today?”

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I called to ask what he’s running for.

“Orange County Central Committee,” Van Voorhis said.

That’s when I knew I had to meet him.

I’d guess that more people can tell you the name of Richard Nixon’s dog than can tell you what a county central committee is, or does. 

You see the names of candidates on your ballot, along with something like “pick no more than six,” and let’s be honest about it:  You toss a coin, or close your eyes, or vote based on a first name that’s the same as your cousin’s.

But here’s a kid who wants to be a part of  the undercarriage of the party machine, aspiring to an unpaid job in which he’d join other loyalists to register voters, man the phones, knock on doors and get out the vote for candidates and ballot measures.

So I motored down to Irvine to meet him. It was Monday morning, and he was about to decorate the UC Irvine campus with 200 fliers — printed at a copy shop — asking for the vote of fellow students on June 7.

“Social and fiscal conservatism are what I stand for,” said Van Voorhis, who greeted me in the student center lobby with two buddies and fellow members of the college Republican Club.

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Van Voorhis was plainly dressed, hair chopped to the wood on the sides. On his flier photo, he stands before a California flag like the Chamber of Commerce man of the year, perfectly folded pocket square poking out of a smart blue blazer.

The Carlsbad native said his parents are Republicans, but not as aggressively as he is. He told me he started an instructional video company — how to ride scooters — at 14, and he’s working on two start-ups now with a roommate.

Ronald Reagan is one of his heroes. Ted Cruz was his man in the GOP presidential primary.

“Social conservatism just means believing that we’re one nation under God, and believing in American exceptionalism and traditional American values,” Van Voorhis said when I asked for a definition.

He’s pro-life, neutral on gay marriage.

I asked about a recent flap on campus involving an upcoming event, “Social Justice is Cancer,” featuring a speaker sponsored by campus conservatives.  Van Voorhis said he believes “diversity of thought” is important on a college campus and free speech is imperative.

As for fiscal conservatism: “It means believing in free markets and believing government should be limited.”

Those aren’t exactly fresh ideas, but they’re among his core beliefs. And he thinks the splintered Republican Party, with its libertarian, tea party, old guard and Donald Trump factions can solidify around its traditional principles -- as well as around opposition to a Democratic Party that is itself currently splintered between centrist and leftist wings.

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“I  think he’s spot-on,” said Sean Walsh, who worked under Govs. Schwarzenegger and Pete Wilson. “Preserve the core and move on.”

None of that will be easy given the Democrats’ grip on minority support and the growing Latino electorate in California.  But Fred Whitaker, chair of the Orange County Republican Party, sees some positive signs, including participation by Van Voorhis and other upstarts.

There’s hope, Whitaker said, “if you’re willing to be like Peter and look at the long haul, and build from the ground up.”

Van Voorhis is no cinch to grab one of six open seats in a 16-candidate scrum in the 74th Assembly District, Whitaker said. Older candidates who’ve been engaged for a while are better known to party faithful.

“But he’s doing all the right stuff,” said Whitaker, who has been impressed by Van Voorhis’ volunteer work for the central committee and for the Lincoln Club. “Whether he wins or loses we’re going to keep him plugged in.  The next time seats are open, the ones who are known are the ones who can get elected.”

And that’s exactly what Van Voorhis is thinking. He wants to climb the ladder in politics and this is just the start. 

The candidate forgot scissors on his campus leafleting trek, so he had to bite off pieces of tape to slap his mug on walls.

His helpers were George Novshadyan and Gino Yu, both of whom are Trump-ets.

Van Voorhis deflected questions about Trump as a seasoned politician might, saying he wanted to concentrate on his own campaign.

When courting young voters, Van Voorhis told me, it’s not enough to say you believe in free markets and limited government,  as “the older generation” might. 

It’s better to ask if they’re buried under student loan debt and say:  “Having a healthy economy that works for everyone will mean having jobs so you can pay off your loans.”

Van Voorhis said he couldn’t bring himself to date a Democrat who’s extreme enough to be a Bernie Sanders supporter, though he wouldn’t rule out a Hillary Clinton supporter.

“But I’d definitely want to marry a Republican,” he said as he pasted about 20 fliers onto the wall of a bridge.

He explained to Novshadyan that a single flier is easy for a passerby to miss, but “if you do volume,” you’ve got a fighting chance.

“I wonder how many votes per poster we’ll get,” Van Voorhis said. “If we get one vote per poster, that’d be pretty solid. We’d just need  to put  10,000 of them up, and we win.”

steve.lopez@latimes.com

Twitter: @LATstevelopez

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