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This 21-year-old Republican beat a 10-term incumbent. What's next for Wyatt Gable?

While his college friends celebrated the end of midterm exams with a spring break trip to Florida, 21-year-old Wyatt Gable entered the home stretch of his bid to oust a 10-term Republican from the North Carolina House.

Weeks spent phone banking after class and driving about an hour home on the weekends to knock on doors paid off. The East Carolina University junior narrowly beat state Rep. George Cleveland, 84, this week in a primary election in which he cast himself as “the future of the Republican Party."

Gable's victory comes as voters nationwide express misgivings about the older ages of the frontrunners in the 2024 presidential race. Gable, who described himself as a “big Trump supporter," said he hopes that his candidacy injects youthful energy into a Republican Party that is often dominated by “older people” at county meetings.

While some voters told him he was too young to hold office, Gable said, others considered his opponent too old.

“A lot of people were just ready for a fresh face," Gable said in an interview.

Gable is the president of East Carolina's chapter of Turning Point USA, a conservative youth group founded by right-wing provocateur Charlie Kirk. In addition to his political advocacy against causes like gender-expansive restroom access, the business management major said he runs club track and plays intramural sports.

The education system's response to the COVID-19 pandemic compelled Gable to pursue elected office. As an unvaccinated freshman in college, Gable said, he was required to test every week for the disease. Failure to do so risked the deactivation of his student identification card, which meant no access to dining halls. He perceived the policy, which sought to limit the spread of the disease, as “total control.”

While sitting in a microeconomics class one day, Gable said, he sent an email about the issue to Cleveland, the lawmaker he defeated this week. Gable said he never got a response.

“I felt like no one really cared or didn't want to do anything,” he said. “So, I'm going to be the one that does something.”

Gable hopes one day those ambitions could propel him to the governor’s mansion.

Cleveland, a former Marine Corps drill instructor who leads a budget subcommittee for dozens of state agencies, did not return a message seeking comment.

Cleveland represented his constituents well, Onslow County GOP chair Christine Card said. But she thinks the national conversation around politicians' ages left voters wanting someone new.

“I don't think it's a vote against Rep. Cleveland,” she said. “It's a vote for change and a vote for youth.”

Card commended Gable for taking the race seriously, noting that he even enlisted his buddies to help contact voters. Gable estimates that he alone knocked on 1,000 doors and made 400 phone calls. Supporters handed out campaign materials at almost every voting precinct on election day, Gable added.

He will face Democrat Carmen Spicer in November. He is expected to win the general election in rural Onslow County, home to Camp Lejeune and 120 miles southeast of Raleigh, the capital. Donald Trump won three out of every five votes cast in the district for the 2020 presidential election.

In the North Carolina General Assembly, Gable plans to tackle education. He said high school students should take more home economics, shop and carpentry classes so they're “prepared for the real world.” He also wants to put more emphasis on physical activity.

“I’m still in college, so who better to work on the education system than someone that’s a part of it?” Gable said.

Any first-year representative will face a “learning curve,” Card said. But Gable’s determination to challenge a longtime incumbent “shows something about what he’s made of,” she said, and his inexperience won’t be a problem.

Gable stressed that he would represent constituents of all ages, but that it's important to include younger voices in public service. He wants to use his platform to improve turnout among people ages 18-29 and encourage that demographic to vote Republican.

He acknowledged that the last goal needs a lot of work. The GOP has performed poorly in every election cycle since 2016, he said, and voters don't always believe the party offers many solutions.

“Rebranding as a party and not electing the same cookie-cutter candidates," he said, “is going to be a big part of it.”

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Pollard is a corps member for the Associated Press/Report for America Statehouse News Initiative. Report for America is a nonprofit national service program that places journalists in local newsrooms to report on undercovered issues.