The Penn chapter of College Republicans has been unusually quiet in regards to Donald Trump, neither endorsing nor denouncing the 1968 Wharton graduate. That stance nearly changed this month, but a proposed disavowal of Trump fell through, according to interviews with group members.
In the middle of October, the College Republicans executive board voted to formally condemn Trump, chapter vice president and Wharton senior Grayson Sessa said. But the decision was never carried out.
The board had originally decided against making any formal statements on Trump after a poll at the start of the school year found the club’s membership was split on the candidate, but the topic was reopened this month, following the release of the Access Hollywood tape where Trump about groping women.
The board decided to write an op-ed that members could shop around to newspapers such as The Wall Street Journal and New York Times, but the project eventually fell through, Sessa said.
“It was really a cost-benefit analysis,” said College Republicans Communications Director and College sophomore Ryan Snyder, who thought the benefits of a public denouncement at this point in time would be rather low. “That disavowal a month and a half ago would’ve had a lot stronger effect than a disavowal two weeks before the election.”
In terms of potential costs, Snyder compared the club’s situation to that of Penn State University’s College Republicans chapter, which announced their decision not to endorse Trump back in August and faced subsequent pressure from the national committee for its board members to resign.
Chapter President and College and Wharton senior Jennifer Knesbach opposed making a chapter-wide denouncement this year, on the grounds that the College Republicans serves as one of the only places for conservatives to voice their political beliefs on Penn’s predominantly liberal campus.
“This election cycle has been really difficult on the Republican party and on Republican college students,” Knesbach said, “and that’s why as an organization we didn’t want to join the other majority of campus in condemning [Trump].”
Following a push by the majority of board members, Knesbach relented and let the members of the board who wanted to write up a denouncement, do so.
College Republicans Executive Director and College senior Matt Shapiro was one of the board members excited to criticize Trump, but said enthusiasm quickly faltered among the potential writers.
“I made a Google Doc, [and] sent it out to everyone, as I was requested,” Shapiro said. “The only person that ever said anything to me about following through with the statement was Grayson.”
Shapiro blamed many factors for the failure of the denouncement to happen, primarily timing. Other College Republican chapters at Harvard University and Penn State had already earned publicity for refusing to endorse Trump. Penn wouldn’t have received the same plaudits for joining the list and may have even been scolded for waiting as long as it did, Shapiro said.
Additionally, Shapiro pointed to hesitance from some of the board’s members “whose jobs don’t like them speaking about politics,” as well as a wariness of “alienating other conservatives that do support Trump.” He also believed the statement condemning Trump would be signed on behalf of the group’s entire executive board, while Knesbach only thought the students who wrote the letter would be signing their names to it.
Either way, Knesbach said the null result is at least reflective of the board’s divided views on the idea of disavowing Trump.
“We decided as a board that if certain members of the executive board wanted to write a statement and publish it, they could’ve, [but] they never ended up doing that,” she said. “The topic was always pretty split and it remained that way even after the tape was released.”
Shapiro, for one, wished the group had publicly criticized the candidate before the release of the Access Hollywood tape.
“I do think it was late,” Shapiro said, “100 percent. But I still think we should have done it to correct the mistake that we had made by not making a statement earlier.”
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