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This butterfly farmer wants to strengthen the Republican Party's hold on Alabama

John Wahl, 37, is the youngest GOP state party leader in the country. He also runs a business as a butterfly farmer in Athens, Ala. "This is me, the chairman of the Alabama Republican Party, in his natural habitat," he told NPR during a visit to his butterfly farm.
Quentin Renard Gunn for NPR
John Wahl, 37, is the youngest GOP state party leader in the country. He also runs a business as a butterfly farmer in Athens, Ala. "This is me, the chairman of the Alabama Republican Party, in his natural habitat," he told NPR during a visit to his butterfly farm.

ATHENS, Ala. — John Wahl spends his afternoons tending to the cocoons and fluttering creatures on his butterfly farm.

He can be found building out his butterfly houses, expanding conservation efforts or selling butterflies to zoos and botanical gardens.

"My dream on the farm is to have a place where the public can come in, especially school groups, and experience the same thing I get to every day," Wahl said. "Like watch a butterfly hatch from its chrysalis. So few people ever get to do that."

When he's not working as a butterfly farmer, he's thinking about the future: specifically, 2024.

That's because he is chairman of the Republican Party of Alabama and, at 37, the youngest GOP state party leader in the country.

This is his second term as chair and, after picking up seats in the 2022 midterms across local races, he wants more out of 2024. The butterfly farmer from north Alabama hopes to put the state on the map for the national Republican Party.

Alabama is a reliably red state. But that doesn't mean Wahl is ignoring the work he has ahead.

"I think it's easy to overlook Alabama across the board. We're a smaller state population-wise. We're in the Deep South, and there's a little bit of a stereotype about Alabama...[that it is] kind of a backward Southern state," Wahl said.

The chairman joins other Republican leaders nationwide in vying for the attention of two rising demographics: young voters and Black voters. These are two groups that could sway elections in competitive races, and help solidify party footholds in the 2024 presidential election. Plus, a redistricting battle working its way through the courts could result in a new House seat for Democrats in southern Alabama — and it's in the exact area Wahl is looking to make inroads.

He has his eyes set on voters in the Black Belt region of the state, southern Alabama election districts with larger Black voting populations, who are represented by Democrats locally but who voted for former President Donald Trump in 2020. He is also looking to increase GOP turnout among younger voters.

"You're going to see a state that is making inroads with minority communities, with young voters. And I think this is something that could be used across the nation," Wahl predicted. "It really is going back to policy and how that affects people's lives and less about personality and personal attacks."

Courting new GOP voters

But even in deep red states, Republicans have fallen behind in connecting with these groups. Although Trump secured Alabama in 2020, voters ages 18 to 29 and Black voters both generally trended toward President Biden. And nationally, while rural voters typically vote Republican, young rural voters are more evenly split. Just 50% of rural voters under 30 voted for Trump in 2020, compared to 47% who voted for Biden.

Wahl, 37, sits for a radio interview at WVNN in Athens, Ala. "You can be a young Republican until 40," he joked. "So there's benefits to being a Republican."
/ Quentin Renard Gunn for NPR
/
Quentin Renard Gunn for NPR
Wahl, 37, sits for a radio interview at WVNN in Athens, Ala. "You can be a young Republican until 40," he joked. "So there's benefits to being a Republican."

Wahl is in the early stages of creating a plan of action to reach more Black voters: noting key counties and a list of districts where he thinks Republicans can win by connecting on issues like faith and the economy.

"We support religious liberty. We support the family unit, and we support local communities governing more than a centralized federal government," Wahl said, all values he believes align with the Black community in Alabama.

When it comes to young voters, Republicans statewide agree there's more that needs to be done.

In a meeting for local GOP leaders, the first question posed to the chairman came from Rodgersville, Ala. Mayor Richard Herston: "Do you have any plans to make inroads with young voters? Especially in the swing districts?"

"We just write off voters," Herston told NPR after the event. He is concerned Republicans don't try to court younger voters in the state because younger voters tend to back Democrats.

"It's kind of like the Black vote. We abandoned that sometimes," Herston said.

For young voters specifically, Wahl told Herston and others he plans to make dedicated college campus appearances to engage students in debate, though he hasn't launched these efforts yet and does not have a clear roadmap to do so.

For Black voter outreach, Wahl is relying on party recruiters to bring on viable GOP candidates in split party districts.

"We want the state party there to help them with the support they need to be successful in areas where traditionally they haven't had the support," Wahl explained.

It's a party strategy seen in other Southern states, like neighboring Georgia, which has been home to higher-profile federal races over the last two election cycles.

To Camilla Moore, the chair of the Georgia Black Republican Council, most GOP organizations have not had Black conservative voices in their efforts, which she says is key when party leadership wants to discuss issues that motivate the base.

"Even though their intentions have been well, we've missed messaging, we've missed the issues that are most important," Moore said.

"We're not going to make any movement in terms of political behavior in the Black community until the diversity of those that are making decisions or having discussions reflects that."

Moore does argue that Wahl's comparatively younger age could help him connect with younger voters who don't want to get into identity politics and feel like political parties do not represent them well.

Wahl stands in front of a mural located in Athens, Ala., where he was born and raised. As chair, he's hoping to raise Alabama's profile, inviting major party personalities like former President Donald Trump and Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, both Republican presidential hopefuls, to speak at record-breaking fundraisers.
/ Quentin Renard Gunn for NPR
/
Quentin Renard Gunn for NPR
Wahl stands in front of a mural located in Athens, Ala., where he was born and raised. As chair, he's hoping to raise Alabama's profile, inviting major party personalities like former President Donald Trump and Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, both Republican presidential hopefuls, to speak at record-breaking fundraisers.

"I think Alabama is in a great position of moving the needle because traditionally Republican leaders are seen as old white guys in their 60s or 70s who are totally clueless to young folks," Moore said.

Democrats in Alabama are taking note of this strategy and calling on the national Democratic Party to pay attention.

"We've got to play the long game. It has to be early and often, and we got to lean in and do things at scale," said Democrat Anthony Daniels, minority leader in the Alabama state House.

"Even if the state is not a blue state — it'll never be a blue state if you're not working toward that," he said.

Democrats skeptical Republicans can make inroads

The potential for a new blue-leaning congressional seat to provide better representation for Alabama's Black population, and influence control of Congress, has energized some local Democrats. But it hasn't been simple. This week, federal judges ruled that the redistricting plan put forward by Republican state lawmakers likely violates the Voting Rights Act by weakening Black voters' power instead.

The fight over redistricting is still in the courts, and court-appointed experts are now working on a map proposal for 2024.

In the meantime, Daniels warns that the larger party needs to maintain enthusiasm by investing immediately in areas where they currently lack a strong presence in order to force Republicans into more competitive races — especially if a new seat becomes in play.

Daniels does believe there is one bright spot for Democrats in Alabama. He doesn't think it's going to be easy for the GOP to make gains in the Black community.

"Based upon some of the policies and the national narrative, it'll be very difficult," Daniels said, referencing state Republican opposition to Medicaid expansion and reproductive health access as well as national efforts to change how race is discussed in schools. "How do you expect minorities to be open to going to the Republican Party when those things are in place?"

But nationally, the Republican power hold over the South should still raise alarms for the larger Democratic Party as they decide which races to invest support in, he said.

"If we're not careful, we'll lose it all," Daniels said.

While Democrats hope to make gains with a new congressional seat, Wahl said he plans on being competitive regardless of what the map is.

"The Republican Party as a whole needs to get back to the basics of talking about policy, talking about values and issues. We have a bad tendency of getting trapped in talking about personality and individuals," Wahl said.

"And if we're honest, the Republican Party's focus should not be on any one person because the party will outlive every single one of us."

"I have cloudless sulphurs, zebra long wings, zebra swallowtails, monarchs, great southern whites, and there may be a Buckeye or two," Wahl told NPR while walking around one of his butterfly enclosures in Athens, Ala.
/ Quentin Renard Gunn for NPR
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Quentin Renard Gunn for NPR
"I have cloudless sulphurs, zebra long wings, zebra swallowtails, monarchs, great southern whites, and there may be a Buckeye or two," Wahl told NPR while walking around one of his butterfly enclosures in Athens, Ala.

This story is part of a two-part series on the country's youngest state party chairs. Read part one here.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Ximena Bustillo
Ximena Bustillo is a multi-platform reporter at NPR covering politics out of the White House and Congress on air and in print.
Elena Moore is a production assistant for the NPR Politics Podcast. She also fills in as a reporter for the NewsDesk. Moore previously worked as a production assistant for Morning Edition. During the 2020 presidential campaign, she worked for the Washington Desk as an editorial assistant, doing both research and reporting. Before coming to NPR, Moore worked at NBC News. She is a graduate of The George Washington University in Washington, D.C., and is originally and proudly from Brooklyn, N.Y.