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Young people in Minnesota see a new cause: Voting can save our lives

It's been a long time since a Democrat has represented this Minnesota district.

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Mallory Simon
(CNN) — It's been a long time since a Democrat has represented this Minnesota district.

So long that the young voters seen as key to this battleground haven't been alive to see one.

And in many cases, neither have their parents.

Minnesota's 3rd District, which encompasses some of Minneapolis' swanky suburbs as well as working-class neighborhoods, has been represented by a Republican since 1961. Incumbent Rep. Erik Paulsen has easily won his five elections.

But the seat is seen as a key pickup opportunity for Democrats. Hillary Clinton won the district in 2016.

And in this race, challenger Dean Phillips believes his route to victory can be helped by people who have never voted before, by young people motivated by the Parkland school massacre and other generational issues.

One of those supporters is Sam Simonet, 18, from Minnetonka, who is committed to voting for the first time, and says he is far from alone.

"I think young people are starting to see that voting can save their lives, voting can put people in office that are going to make decisions and create policies that will help them stay alive in their day-to-day life."

Perhaps not coincidentally, the concerns of the youth bloc are what persuaded Phillips, 49, to run.

"I'm the father of two teenage daughters and I watched that election with them that night in November of 2016, and I remember their reaction -- their fear, their anxiety, their tears," Phillips said of Trump's win and the Republicans retaining control of the House and Senate.

"They represent an entire generation that I think has realized that they, too, have a responsibility, a unique responsibility to take action, and I made a promise to them the next morning at the breakfast table that I would do something."

Phillips, a liquor heir and grandson of Jeanne Phillips, the "Dear Abby" columnist, became a first-time candidate, one of thousands who stood up after Trump's election to try to effect change in the midterms.

And from the outset he called on young voters to help, setting up his "Dean's List" to attract the newly enfranchised and get them to the polls.

The team are aware of the stigma about younger people -- they just don't vote -- and Phillips shares the harsh statistics of turnout at a meeting of his young supporters.

"But we're going to change that!" one girl shouted out.

This could indeed be the year that youth turnout increases substantially and has an impact on the outcome of key races.

The Paulsen-Phillips battle ranks third on Tufts University's list of Congressional districts where young people have the potential to swing the result.

In previous years, young voters appeared to have energy except when it came to actually casting a ballot. Census Bureau statistics show that in 2014, less than 20% of eligible voters aged 18-29 cast a ballot. That compares to nearly 60% participation among Americans aged 65 to 74.

A new national poll from the Harvard Kennedy School's Institute of Politics showed significant increases in engagement, with 40% of Americans under 30 saying they definitely plan to vote in the midterms, compared with 23% who said the same in 2014 and 31% in 2010. Historically, the actual turnout is lower than the survey suggests, but 2018 could still see a "youth wave."

College student Simonet pledges that this year, the talk will turn to action.

"I think Parkland was really the biggest turning point in US history for young people, because the day after, the weeks after, marches in the streets were happening," he said.

"I just want people to know that being young doesn't correlate with being uninformed," he said.

"We're not just lazy teenagers sitting on the phone. We see a lot of the effects of policy in everyday life in school, in the policies implemented in school. And ... most of the policies are affecting young people more and more today -- with college tuition, with how schools are set up, with the security in schools, and kids know that the decisions being made in Congress are going to affect them as young people a lot and sometimes a lot more than people of older generations."

Simonet's viewpoint doesn't stop with his own vote. He's even influenced his 91-year-old grandfather, Bob Small, who told Simonet he will vote for a Democrat after a lifetime of supporting Republicans, he said.

"He just saw through the lens of me," Simonet said.

Paulsen has been a successful vote-getter in Minnesota's 3rd District, even as it has swung between Republican and Democratic presidential candidates. Now he sometimes distances himself from Trump, and his campaign website paints him as bringing "hard-working, reform-minded leadership."

His campaign did not make him or anyone available to CNN to talk about their battle and the youth vote.

In his district, even high schoolers too young to vote are determined any "youth wave" will not be a flash in the pan.

Eleanor Dolan, 15, and Brandon Johnson, 17, said they were motivated by the Parkland school attack where 17 students and staff were killed, and by active shooter drills in their own schools and seeing Parkland survivors becoming politically active.

Dolan campaigns for Phillips wearing a shirt commemorating the "March for Our Lives" that students led after Parkland, and is committed to voting even if that is two cycles away.

"It was like a flip of a switch," Johnson said of the aftermath of the Marjory Stoneman Douglas massacre. "That's why the numbers are going to go up in the 2018 midterm for that 18 to 24 range."

That would gratify Parkland survivor David Hogg. He has hit the road not to endorse candidates, but to promote the importance of voting and show the next step for those who walked out of school a month after the massacre to call for action on gun violence.

"Even if we got a fraction of the kids that walked out to vote, the millions of kids that walked out to vote. ... Even a small fraction of that would make a huge difference in so many elections across the United States," Hogg said during a stop at a New York school registration drive.

Activating the youth vote isn't just about gun violence, Hogg and other Parkland students say. It's about raising up the voices of students and young people on issues that matter the most to them in their communities, fellow survivor Delaney Tarr said.

"If we're focusing just on what happened with Parkland, that's not the entire country," she says. "We knew that the only way to actually truly shift our culture to become one of peace, to become one of empowering young people, was to inspire and bring together every single person, every single young person, no matter their experience, no matter their story ... to have them come together as this unified front."

Many issues -- from global warming and the environment to immigration, police brutality and sexual harassment -- motivate young voters, as with any other age group, but sometimes they do not seem to be the priorities of the candidates, says 19-year-old Ramon Contreras, a national field strategist for "March for Our Lives."

"Identifying with the issues is what both parties are lacking right now," he said. "They're not pushing a message that connects with young people."

The Harvard survey suggests that younger voters skew Democratic.

In Phillips' case, he sees the opportunity and has been campaigning at Friday night high school football games, with his revamped milk truck-turned government repair truck and pontoon boat to get their attention. And he's addressed so-called youth issues.

"If we don't take care of the environment, have clean air, clean water, nothing else matters. If we don't talk about college affordability, nothing else matters. And then there's some issues that are unique to younger demographics that it's important that they advocate for," Phillips says.

The outstanding question remains -- will voters in their teens and 20s make it to the polls?

Contreras and other "March for Our Lives" students have their answer: "It's happening."

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