Before he could legally drink or smoke, and before he was old enough to even hold an elected seat, Joel Castro was running for office. In 2017, the then-seventeen-year-old campaigned for a spot on the city council of Alvin, a town of around 27,000 just south of Houston. Riding his “Alvin First” agenda, inspired by Donald Trump, he promised voters lower taxes, a larger police force, and infrastructure improvements. He beat a retired Air Force veteran for the spot.
After turning eighteen and being sworn in in April 2018, most of Castro’s service was sleepy. He filled his days voting for improvements to the wastewater treatment plan, a new fire station, and other small-town projects. But this year, months before the Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade, the landmark 1973 case that established a constitutional right to abortion, he submitted an ordinance to make Alvin “a sanctuary city for the unborn,” banning the procedure within city limits—no matter that the nearest abortion clinic to the town was forty minutes away. None of Castro’s fellow councilmen supported the measure, and it failed. The mayor even called it illegal. But for Castro’s fortunes, that didn’t much matter. Overnight, he became a right-wing culture-war hero.
So at 8 a.m. on a recent Saturday, Castro found himself leading an “If I Can Do It, You Can Do It” workshop at the Texas Young Republicans State Convention in McAllen, in the Rio Grande Valley. Around thirty teenagers and young adults listened as Castro, a relatively elder statesman now at 23, dispensed advice on how to effectively communicate conservative messages to the mostly Latino, historically Democratic communities of South Texas. “I was twenty when I was running for reelection,” said Castro, sleeves rolled up and sporting a large belt buckle. “And I was knocking on this guy’s door, and the guy said, ‘You’re twenty; you can’t even drink!’ And I said, ‘But I just lowered your taxes!’ And he said, ‘Well, shoot! I guess you got my vote!’ ” Many “Zoomers” in the audience chuckled.
Composed of those born after 1996, who are no more than 26 years old, Gen Z represents more than a fifth of the Texas population. While most Zoomers aren’t yet of voting age, Gen Z polls as more liberal than older generations, but with slightly less attachment to the Democratic party. According to a national Gallup poll published in August, 17 percent of Gen Zers support the Republican party, compared to 31 percent who back Democrats and 52 percent who don’t affiliate strongly with either. (The older the generation, the higher the percentage of Republican party affiliates, while Democratic party affiliation remains relatively steady and peaks at 35 percent among those in the Silent Generation.) Even among Republican Gen Zers, the more-liberal attitudes of the age cohort bleed through on some issues. According to a 2019 Pew survey, Gen Z Republicans are more likely than older Republicans to adopt liberal attitudes toward climate change and racial issues.
Those at the workshop in which Castro spoke, however, were making a bet that they could reverse those generational trends by getting dedicated conservatives elected to offices at early ages. The event was hosted by Run GenZ, an organization based in Dallas that helps young conservatives run for office through mentorship. Born out of a 2019 conference of Turning Point USA, a right-wing nonprofit that organizes college students, the organization has grown quickly and has filled its board with former Republican governors, including Rick Perry; Chris Christie, of New Jersey; and John Sununu Sr., of New Hampshire.
Run GenZ organizes workshops such as the one in McAllen to identify ambitious leaders involved in their communities. Aspiring officeholders fill out job applications, and Run GenZ then helps them conduct research on their potential voters and find winnable offices they can run for—often local ones for which their party affiliation will not be specified on the ballot. Run GenZ then pairs candidates with office-holding mentors within the organization. In 2021, Run GenZ worked with 15 young conservatives nationwide and helped 12 get elected to down-ballot offices. This year, it’s been working with 39 first-time candidates across the nation to fill offices such as state representative, justice of the peace, city council member, and county judge.
Run GenZ brings candidates together at a Summer Summit that focuses on leadership development and networking with conservative policy groups. It also works with 60 to 75 top recruits, those who might one day run for office, at its annual Candidate Training Workshop in Dallas, described as “a two-day, pretty intensive conservative-campaign school” that touches on fund-raising and mentorship. Mason Morgan, 26, a Dallas native who serves as executive director of Run GenZ, told me, “I like to say we’ve kind of cornered the market on getting young conservatives in their twenties elected to office.”
The Run GenZ event at which Joel Castro spoke was part of an effort by the organization to target South Texas specifically, which Morgan thinks is “very quickly emerging as the most critical battleground in the country.” He sees great opportunity for young conservatives in the region. Not only did Donald Trump cut Democrats’ margin of victory in the 28 counties of South Texas in half in 2020, but the population in the region is also younger than in the rest of the state. In 2019, the median age in South Texas was about 31, three years younger than the statewide median age.
Twenty-five-year-old Nathan Rodriguez is one candidate Run GenZ has helped find success in South Texas. He doesn’t look like your typical Republican—he sports a “Coexist” tattoo on his left arm—but in 2020 Rodriguez won a seat on the city council of Dilley, a town of about three thousand an hour south of San Antonio. He told me that changing generational attitudes were key to Republicans’ success in South Texas. The prevailing logic among older generations of voters was “You vote Democrat, or you just don’t vote at all,” Rodriguez said. “People are slowly coming to their senses and saying, ‘They’re not giving us what we want.’ ”
If Run GenZ can help enough right-wing youths like Rodriguez build sandcastles in the region, leaders hope, the GOP will be able to withstand long-promised blue waves.
Run GenZ has entered a crowded field of organizers of young conservatives. In Texas especially, conferences for young Republicans have become a growth industry. U.S. representative Dan Crenshaw has held an annual youth summit in his hometown of Houston for three years, promising to bring about a new Reagan Revolution. The month before this year’s summit, in nearby the Woodlands, high-powered right-wing celebrities—including Florida congressman Matt Gaetz and far-right representative Marjorie Taylor Greene, of Georgia, as well as Senator Ted Cruz and Texas attorney general Ken Paxton—spoke at the Texas Youth Summit, a conservative political conference whose stated goal is “empowering youth to be catalysts to win the Culture War.”
Many attendees of those conferences were searching for the next culture battles to wage after achieving success in Texas. They believed Gen Zers served as the fullbacks who smashed abortion bans over the goal line after decades of failure. Johnny Uribe, the chairman of the Young Conservatives of Texas chapter at Sam Houston State University, told me: “Our generation, we got Roe overturned. We are proud of what our past generations did, [but] they didn’t fight as hard as we did.” Like many others, he was now wondering what to do next. One panel at the Youth Summit focused on new directions for the anti-abortion movement in Texas. Speakers talked of organizing against district attorneys in some Texas counties who say they won’t enforce the ban, and of building a “pro-life culture” among youth in the state.
Other attendees shared grand visions of bringing about a “religious revival” in Texas. Noah Coffee, a nineteen-year-old freshman at Sam Houston State, said, “We’re seeing so much of the excess of atheism and a secular society that we’ve started to investigate these deeper problems in our country and where these problems arise. And we realized that the problems really come from a lack of religion.” Polling indicates that such thinking is common among Republicans aged 18 through 29 nationally, 58 percent of whom believe they are “under attack” for their faith, according to an April survey from the Harvard Institute of Politics.
At the conferences, speakers tended to amplify the sense that Republicans are under siege. Christian Collins, founder of the Texas Youth Summit and a failed GOP candidate for a U.S. House seat in north Houston, told his audience “to fight on the cultural battlefield of college” and compared the culture wars to the Allied D-Day invasion in World War II. There were regular messages for Republicans to hunker down together. Attendees joked that the conference was a potential matchmaking environment, with many touting a new dating app for conservatives. One booth at the Youth Summit advertised an app called PublicSq., a kind of conservative Yelp “connecting freedom-loving Americans.”
Despite the “us against them” messaging, however, those with Run GenZ told me they have to be more politically accommodating to find success. Some candidates were entertained by Trump’s crudeness and antiestablishment rhetoric, but they tend not to be quite as pugnacious, given the fact that their generation skews more liberal than others.
After Castro’s workshop in McAllen, members of the Brazoria County Texas Young Republicans delegation, who were about to skip a vote establishing a platform of legislative priorities, came to him to express displeasure with some of their compatriots for not being “America First” enough. As chairman of the Brazoria County chapter of Texas Young Republicans, Castro wouldn’t allow it. It didn’t matter if his delegation disagreed with fellow Republicans. “It’s our job to instill those timeless values into the hearts and minds of young voters across Texas,” he said.
Later, Castro recalled a favorite Reagan quote that he says has served as a guideline for his politics: “The person who agrees with you eighty percent of the time is a friend and an ally—not a twenty percent traitor.”