Miami County Republican Chairman Ethan Manning, 23, wants to return the GOP to the "big tent" concept. (Kokomo Tribune Photo by Tim Bath)
Miami County Republican Chairman Ethan Manning, 23, wants to return the GOP to the "big tent" concept. (Kokomo Tribune Photo by Tim Bath)
PERU, Ind. – Ethan Manning can trace his interest in politics to the day he checked out the book “Facts and Fun about Presidents” from this small town’s library and quickly became a fan of Teddy Roosevelt.
        
By age 9, he was following the presidential race and wishing he was old enough to vote for George W. Bush. At 18, he was traveling the state and stumping for GOP congressional candidates. At 21, he was staffing a district office for U.S. Sen. Richard Lugar, before moving onto to stump for Gov. Mike Pence. And, at 22, he was elected chairman of the local Republican Party in his home county. Last year, voters put him on the Miami County Council.
    
“I think I was born a Republican,” said Manning, now 23.
    
He plans to stay that way, as he juggles his paying job as an auctioneer and real estate broker -- plus work on the family cattle farm. He aspires to higher office in years to come. But he also worries that his party isn’t doing enough to keep people like him - millennials, ages 19 to 30, who are far less likely than older generations to identify as Republicans. “We need to be a lot more inclusive as a party,” said Manning. “I believe in the ‘big tent’ philosophy.”
    
It was a bit of pun. The county GOP chairman’s office is located in the Peru Circus City Festival complex, located under a big tent-like roof, which celebrates the city’s past as winter headquarters to seven of the world’s major circuses. Manning fears the Republican presidential primary has turned into a circus gone bad. Leading candidate Donald Trump may be entertaining, but Manning calls him “damaging for the Republican brand.”
    
Manning said Trump’s anti-immigration rhetoric - he’s called undocumented Mexican immigrants “criminals, drug dealers and rapists” - was particularly alarming. Manning said he’s read the so-called autopsy report, commissioned by Reince Priebus, chairman of the Republican National Committee, in the wake of President Obama’s 2012 reelection. The authors delivered scathing criticism of a party that has marginalized itself from an increasingly diverse voter base, making it increasingly difficult for Republicans to win a presidential election in the near future.
    
Especially important to Manning was the report’s finding that young voters see the GOP as “scary,” “narrow-minded” “out of touch” and, most painfully, a party of “stuffy old men.”
    
“On the national level, we’ve got a perception problem, there’s no denying that,” he said.
    
Manning describes himself as “a realistic conservative,” likening his views to this of two of his political heroes, Lugar and former Gov. Mitch Daniels. He appreciated Lugar’s willingness to work across the aisle, which got the senator in trouble with party ideologues in his failed 2012 re-election campaign.
    
He also appreciated Daniels’ 2010 call to fellow Republicans for a “truce” on divisive social issues so they could focus on fiscal ones. That call got Daniels in trouble with party ideologues, too. But that resonated for Manning, who comes from a part of the state hit hard by the 2008 recession and still in recovery.
    
He’d like to hear Republicans talk less about opposition to gay rights, for example, and more about their opposition to crushing student-loan debt. “Economic issues affect 100 percent of the people,” he said. “If anything, we need to be focusing more in economic issues.”
    
Personally, Manning said he’d like to focus on getting more young people engaged in the political process. It won’t be easy. Recent studies of millennial voters, including one this year by the Institute of Politics at Harvard, found that few believe voting is an effective means of changing society. “I think the opposite way,” Manning said. “Whether we like it or not, government touches almost every part of our lives. What we need is more good people serving in government.”

Hayden covers the Indiana Statehouse for CNHI newspapers and websites.