Why This 25-Year-Old Republican Is Running For Congress

Courtesy of Rebekah Johansen Bydlak.
Update: Voters in Florida's panhandle will encounter a ballot this week that includes a candidate who could become the youngest woman to ever serve in Congress. Ahead, a look at the candidacy and views of Rebekah Johansen Bydlak, a 25-year-old Republican running for the U.S. House of Representatives.

This story was originally published on July 19, 2016.

Rebekah Johansen Bydlak doesn't really remember a time when she didn't care about politics.

A native of the Florida Panhandle, one of the most conservative areas of the United States, Bydlak says she "was born with an inherent understanding, from my perspective at least, that government is not my friend."

At age 10, she stayed up all night watching the returns from the 2000 presidential election trickle in — results that put her home state at the center of a contested and controversial election fight that was ultimately decided by the Supreme Court. She begged her mom to drive her to volunteer shifts during election years. And as a young adult, she went on to work for a group that urges members of Congress to rein in federal spending and tackle the national debt.

Now, at age 25, she's running for the House of Representatives herself. And she's driven, in part, by the gridlock and governing fails she's watched unfold over the past two-plus decades.

“For most of my life, most of the outside political events that I observed were just steeped in dysfunction," Bydlak, one of eight candidates running in a crowded primary for Florida's 1st District, said. "It’s very easy to romanticize politics and to romanticize Washington — I think it’s fabulous and would love to represent the district — but I will go there with a very deep understanding of how broken the system is.”

Bydlak also hopes her candidacy demonstrates the power millennial women have to shape and lead the Republican Party. Should she win the primary in August, she could become the youngest woman ever elected to Congress. (Another woman in the running for that record, Democrat Erin Shrode, lost her own bid in California earlier this year.)

The GOP's effort to court — and retain — young female voters and candidates will be in the spotlight this week as elected officials, delegates, party officials, and more gather in Cleveland for the Republican National Convention.

Bydlak, who will not be in Cleveland this week, spoke with Refinery29 from her campaign office in Pensacola about the "out of body" experience of running for office, presumptive GOP nominee Donald Trump, and why she believes more women should vote Republican.

So, why are you running for office?
"For me, I see a lot of problems in the country. From my perspective as a millennial, it’s a lot of problems that I’m going to have to deal with down the road, and future generations are going to have to deal with, as well. There are about 19 trillion reasons that Congress has failed, and it’s going to take energetic, fresh voices to bring about real change. Politicians are terrible, but that’s not the only reason Congress can’t pass budgets. The rules of the game are outdated and broken. I want to shake things up and bring new solutions to Washington, particularly on behalf of my district."

It shouldn’t be surprising that a young woman is running in the Republican Party.

Rebekah Johansen Bydlak

Why do you think young people are better positioned to break through this gridlock?
“This might not be a popular thing to say in some circles, but I’m actually really optimistic and really happy with the millennial generation for a lot of reasons. We’ve been born into pretty tough circumstances — a lot of which have nothing to do with our own choices — that we are going to have to deal with one way or another.

"We are an entrepreneurial generation. This is the Lyft and Uber generation, this is 3-D printing and the blockchain, and social media and everything that comes along with that. Of course, I am biased, but I think naturally millennials have been born into obstacles, and we’ve become resourceful and innovative as a result. It’s nothing unexpected to face challenges, because that’s been what we inherited and that’s what we know."
What’s been the biggest challenge of your campaign so far?
"The long hours are certainly a challenge. When [people] think about running for office, they think about the fun parts of talking to voters and giving speeches, and not so much the 12-hour days in the office and all of the drudgery that also comes along with running. That can be difficult. Anyone who wants to run for office needs to be prepared for the toughest thing they’ve ever done in their life, but also the most fun they’ve ever had."

Our poll found that 78% of women think the outcome of this election will impact their lives. How will it affect yours? Besides the personal impact of winning or losing this race, what’s at stake for you?
“I think a lot is at stake. My perspective as a conservative Republican might be a little different than a lot of readers in the polls. From where I stand, there’s a lot at stake with government dysfunction. Here in my district, there are a lot of service members and veterans who are dealing with the impacts of what happens when bureaucracy gets out of control and the [Department of Veterans Affairs] can’t take care of people. I talk to people literally every week who are waiting, still waiting, absurd amounts of time for routine care. We see these political scandals as flash points, and in terms of national attention, they come and go, but for the people on the ground who are depending on these agencies that are so broken, it never stops. Even if the headlines have faded, the problems still are very much present.
"This election is also an interesting focal point for followers of national politics in general because what I’m seeing on both sides is that the bases of the parties have revolted and have realized they don’t necessarily have to follow their establishments. It’s hard to say how each side will turn out in the long run…but I think it’s very encouraging to see the fiscal conservative, small government base being energized in these races all over the country, and seeing that they can make a difference in how their voices are heard."

How do you feel about your party’s presumptive nominee, Donald Trump?
“For me, I’m a Republican. I support the Republican nominee. I’ve been up-front about that for a while.

"For me, it all comes down to, We have to win the White House and we have to keep the Congress because there are things that have to change. We have to protect our country, we have to protect the fiscal state. From where I stand, the Democratic nominee is one of the most corrupt individuals who has ever been nominated. Particularly as a woman, it’s troubling that someone that has so much [in her record] that is deeply concerning is representing me just in a demographic stand.”

Polls show very high percentages of women have negative and unfavorable views of Donald Trump. And many cite some of the things he’s been quoted as saying about women. Other millennial women delegates I’ve talked to say they’re worried about the ability to persuade other young women to vote GOP because of this. Are you concerned about that?
"I’m really focused on my race. What I can do about that is be an example and lead the way. As a millennial running for office, I want to inspire other women to get involved in the political process and make a difference and step up and run themselves.

"I was on an airplane sitting next to a 9-year-old little girl. She asked me what my job is and I said, 'Well, actually, I’m running for Congress.' Her eyes lit up and she said, 'That’s so cool — I want to be the youngest female president one day.' That’s also why I’m running. I’m running because I have very important issues that I want to represent. But I’m also running to lead the way and show other young women that they don’t need to wait their turn. If you see something wrong, you can stand up and make a difference."

About 78% of millennial women believe the outcome of this election will impact their life.

Refinery29's Vote Your Values Poll

Why do you think the Republican Party is the best for millennial women? The millennial women we polled overwhelmingly identify as Democrats or Independents.
“When we look at the Republican Party, we still haven’t done enough for winning the culture wars and winning the messaging. It shouldn’t be surprising that a young woman is running in the Republican Party. It shouldn’t be surprising when we see newer, younger demographics. Unfortunately, my party still needs to do a better job [at] grabbing the bull by its horns and reaching out to younger people. That’s what I’m trying to do.

"It’s important, particularly because women suffer the most when government dysfunction creates a bad economy, when government programs can’t do their jobs. Women have the most at stake…Women are often the ones to suffer more and have hours cut when the economy lags. I think that all issues are women’s issues, and particularly the future of the economy is going to greatly impact women. I want to make sure that young women have the best economic opportunities that they possibly can."

About 20% of Congress is female right now. What can we do to encourage more women to run?
“I don’t know if there’s one good across-the-board answer, to be honest with you. I think it’s going to be a process of supporting other women, of helping along these candidates, or helping to recruit candidates. There’s been some research done that shows that women are not socialized to be candidates, that they don’t grow up thinking of politics as a career path for them. That’s something that may not change overnight, but I think people are working very hard to do that.

"It’s going to change. I hope it happens sooner rather than later. There is value in having equal representation for females because we approach problems differently, and we have both perspectives equally represented. And they’re not right now, particularly conservative women.”

Who are your role models?
"This may be corny, but I’ve always looked up to my mother because she taught me early on that I should never shirk at any opportunities.

"A couple of years ago, I was going out at a political event and I had dressed up and I was wearing my pearls. I was feeling really nice and I said something as I was walking out of the house [along the lines] of, ‘I think I look like a congressman’s wife!’ And my mom interrupted me and she said, ‘Excuse me, you look like a congresswoman.’ She’s worked as a teacher, she’s homeschooled four kids, so having that strong female role model in my life was very instrumental I think in building who I am and what I was willing to speak to."

What would it mean to you to be the youngest woman serving in Congress?
“It would be amazing to make history on behalf of the 1st District. Not only for my hometown — my family’s been in the county for nine generations, this district is who I am and where I come from. To be able to make history on behalf of this district would be incredible. To be able to do so as a Republican woman when Republican women are still fighting for representation, and still fighting for having our voices heard, whether in the media or in Congress itself, would be fantastic.”

This interview has been edited and condensed.

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