MONTGOMERY, Pa. — In a midterm year widely expected to favor Republicans, Nick Troiano is the kind of voter that GOP leaders would want to attract, not just to boost the party’s effort in November, but also to secure its long-term future.
He’s a motivated 24-year-old fiscal conservative who adheres to the core Republican values of limited government and personal responsibility.
But Troiano canceled his Republican registration last fall when GOP lawmakers forced a partial shutdown of the federal government as part of a confrontation with President Obama over the national health-care law.
Troiano saw the shutdown as evidence that the GOP had completely lost its way.
“It was a political maneuver that totally overreached,” he said. “It was the last straw in remaining affiliated with a party that has been captured by its extreme elements.”
A self-described “civic entrepreneur,” he quit his job with a Washington nonprofit group last year and is now running for Congress as an independent.
It is a long-shot campaign, but one that is drawing attention because it so crystallizes the problems both parties face in attracting and engaging young voters in the future. A recent Pew Research study found that young people between ages 18 and 33, the millennial generation, are less attached to traditional institutions, such as political parties and organized religion, than their parents and grandparents. The study also found that they are the “most racially diverse generation in American history,” with 43 percent of them being non-white.
Given the GOP’s older, whiter base demographic, the millennial problem is more acute for Republicans. And Troiano is Exhibit A.
“I’m not an advocate for a third party,” he said in an interview. “I think our two-party system works well when they work together. And they’re not right now and it’s going to require a shock to the system, which I think millennials are going to deliver.”
After graduating from Georgetown University and working briefly in Washington, he moved home to northern Pennsylvania — a rural area where Pittsburgh Steelers banners flap in the wind alongside American flags on front porches — to plot his future.
“Most people have a favorable view towards fiscal responsibility and economic growth and limited government,” he said, describing the district he hopes to represent. “These are important ideas that the Republican Party has traditionally championed and ideas that I agree with, frankly. But I think many believe that Republicans have lost touch with those principles with pursuit of purification of ideology. The tent has shrank over the last few years.”
Troiano is challenging a two-term incumbent, Rep. Tom Marino (R-Pa.), who has more than $500,000 in his campaign account. Troiano has raised $30,000, but that’s $5,000 more than he expected at this point and more than Scott Brion, the long-shot Democratic candidate.
He knows he needs a couple of lightning strikes to win, but he wants to make a larger point.
“What I hope to see happen is that there be a movement outside of both parties that is robust enough where one of them will wake up and realize that there’s a large part of the electorate that feels this way,” he said in an interview.
Several appearances on cable news have boosted Troiano’s name recognition. There may be more Republican voters in this rural congressional district, but he has internal polling suggesting that 75 percent of residents are open to supporting an independent.
Troiano grew up in Dingmans Ferry, Pa., served as high school president and has been concerned about the nation’s fiscal problems since his days at Georgetown. He will turn 25 next month — making him eligible to serve in Congress.
His current trajectory can be traced to a 2009 lecture he attended by David Walker, the former U.S. comptroller general. Walker warned that future generations of Americans would be saddled with a ballooning debt if Obama and congressional leaders didn’t enact significant structural changes to the tax code and entitlement programs.
Inspired by Walker, Troiano teamed up with other 20- and 30-somethings to launch The Can Kicks Back, a nonpartisan group that has sought to build support among millennials for the elusive “grand bargain.”
“He’s very concerned about the issue. He sees it as something that’s going to hold back our generation and our country,” said Ryan Schoenike, executive director of the group who worked with Troiano until he left last year to start mulling a congressional bid.
The grand bargain has yet to materialize, but Troiano’s work with the group drew attention from several Washington veterans. In addition to Walker, he befriended former senator Alan Simpson (R-Wyo.) and former White House chief of staff Erskine Bowles, who co-chaired the 2010 Fiscal Commission. Simpson even agreed to dance “Gangnam Style” with a man dressed as a can in a Web video promoting the group. In the years since, Walker, Simpson and Bowles have become Troiano’s mentors and, more recently, donors.
“Whether it will work, I don’t know, but I sure as hell give him a lot of credit for trying,” Simpson said of Troiano in a recent interview. “He knows the game, he knows he’ll be whacked around, abused and savaged, but he knows math, not myth — and he could be very effective in making people wake up.”
Walker is now running for Connecticut lieutenant governor as a Republican, but he is keeping tabs on Troiano. “There’s no question that Nick wants to win,” he said. “But it’s also clear to me that the major reason that Nick is doing this is to help set the terms of the debate much as Ross Perot did and to elevate public discussion and discourse on this important issue.”
Andy Onufrak, 51, the Republican mayor of Montgomery, is helping Troiano launch his campaign and also cited Perot’s 1992 independent presidential campaign as a model for what might transpire in northern Pennsylvania.
“We all know that government’s screwed up,” Onufrak said. “The way to fix it is going to start with somebody who doesn’t play the political game, who says, ‘This is the problem. How are we going to fix this?’ ”
Troiano needs to collect at least 3,500 signatures by Aug. 1 to earn a spot on the November ballot; so far, he has more than 1,400.
He spent last Saturday knocking on over 100 doors and visiting a town park in search of support.
At the park, he approached a man who introduced himself as Rich.
“Who’d you vote for for president?” Rich asked. “Did you vote for Obama?”
“I voted for Obama in 2008 and Mitt Romney in 2012,” Troiano said.
“That’s too bad,” Rich said. “I can’t support anyone who has any kind of relationship with Obama. I just — I just can’t.”
Troiano had better luck up the street, where he told 44-year-old Matthew Trager that he’s running “to try to get our leaders to work together on some of the big problems.”
“Young man, you have this much going for you,” Trager told him. “I haven’t voted for a Democrat or a Republican in over 25 years.”
“And why’s that?” Troiano asked.
“The problem with a lot of it is, is that we’ve got idiots who think they’ve got to choose from one or the other,” Trager said. “You know what the big problem with liberals and conservatives is? It’s that sometimes they’re both right.”
Trager signed Troiano’s petition and offered some encouragement.
“At least you’re willing to put it out there, because you know what, kid? If you go down in flames, you’re just going to get up and do it again,” Trager said. “I like the idea that younger people are saying, ‘Why do I need to pick from one side of the aisle or not?’ It’s kind of nice to see a generation of people saying, ‘The heck with this.’ ”