The website for Republican Voters against Trump (RVAT) reads, “Donald Trump is not representative of the Republican Party I fell in love with.” This sentiment encapsulates a problem that the organization is working to solve: a fragmentation within the party, in which numerous Republicans, in the wake of the 2016 election, feel like their party has abandoned them. Sarah Longwell ’02, the founder of RVAT, is one of those Republicans. From the beginning, she has opposed the Trump presidency and has done all she can to make sure Trump’s reelection campaign fails.
Longwell grew up outside the small, staunchly conservative, town of Dillsburg, Pa. She was first introduced to Kenyon by her high school philosophy teacher, an alumnus, who thought it would be a great fit. The College captivated Longwell on her visit. “I got on campus, and I knew it was the right place for me,” Longwell said.
When she arrived at Kenyon, Longwell had not yet developed a strong interest in politics. However, that changed early on. “I took the intro [political science] class Quest for Justice … and from then on I took every political science class I could get my hands on,” said Longwell.
At Kenyon, Longwell developed relationships with political science faculty, especially Professor Emerita of Political Science Pam Jensen. She was so fond of Jensen that she took summer seminars with her after graduating Kenyon. “The Kenyon political science department had a profound impact on my life, and set me off on my professional trajectory,” said Longwell.
Longwell’s Kenyon connections helped her land her first job. While working at the Kenyon Observer, a student-run political magazine, she met an alumnus who worked for a thinktank that assisted conservative college publications. He offered Longwell an interview after graduation and, subsequently, her first job.
Since then, Longwell has worked primarily in communications, managing numerous policy initiatives under the guidance of former lobbyist Richard Berman. She believes her experience as a political science major at Kenyon prepared her well.
“One of the things that Kenyon gave me through the way that it teaches was the ability to express myself clearly,” Longwell said. “It teaches you to articulate an argument — I didn’t have to swallow anyone’s agenda because I knew how to articulate what I thought.”
These lessons carried over into her other work in politics, specifically during her time on the national board of the Log Cabin Republicans. “I got comfortable pretty early with the idea that everyone was mad at you. Democrats would be mad at you for being a Republican who was gay and would just say how they couldn’t understand and didn’t see how it was possible, and Republicans, until more recently, weren’t that wild about gay people in the party,” Longwell said.
Longwell was extremely unhappy with Trump’s election in 2016. She felt he was ill-equipped to be president and that he did not represent Republican values, so she decided to take action. With her first project, she conducted focus groups to analyze the motivations of Trump voters. “One of the things I really landed on in the research was that there were lots of people who were traditional Republican voters who did not like Donald Trump and thought he was horrible, but that they were scared of what Democrats would do,” Longwell said.
Fortunately, Longwell was not alone among her Republican colleagues. In 2017, she joined Meeting of the Concerned, a group of anti-Trump Republicans who gathered weekly to discuss their frustrations with the direction of the party. There, she connected with notable anti-Trump conservatives like Bill Kristol. In 2018, Longwell used her communications background to collaborate with Kristol and spearhead the formation of Republican Voters Against Trump (RVAT).
RVAT, she explains, has embarked on a $25 million campaign which targets “persuadable” Republican voters, right-of-center independents and people who voted third party in 2016 to vote for Vice President Joe Biden in the upcoming election. RVAT focuses on publishing the testimonials of everyday Republicans, rather than messages from Washington policymakers.
JJ Conway ’22 and Kassie Rimel ’22 interned at RVAT over the summer after being introduced to Longwell by Professor of Political Science Fred Baumann, and subsequently deferred this semester to continue working there. The pair works with a closely knit team and its parent organization, Defending Democracy Together, on a host of different projects. Rimel works primarily on editing testimonial videos as well as scheduling social media posts. “We’re approaching almost a thousand videos,” she said. She and Conway also chose the quotes for a billboard campaign that will be displayed in North Carolina and Pennsylvania.
They explained that their work at RVAT falls under a larger political movement. Rimel described her and Conway’s role as creating “permission structures for Republicans where they feel like they don’t have to vote for Trump.” They stand to give Republicans and other undecided voters a place where they can reconcile their beliefs with a decision to vote for Biden.
Both Rimel and Conway find the experience rewarding. “For me, it’s been very nice to see the way that people are able to come together. I really enjoy talking to people on the phone who have found the [RVAT] community,” said Rimel.
“I get to build something new,” Conway added. “Something that really resembles what I believe in, devoid of all the negative parts exposed by Trump.”
Longwell, Conway and Rimel all consider their experiences as political science majors at Kenyon as significant contributors to their confidence in their work. They are taking what they learned at Kenyon to “build coalitions and connect with people” on a fundamental human level.
Longwell is hopeful that four years of carefully gathered research on the Trump voter base will lead to his defeat on Nov. 3 and restore the morals of the Republican Party.