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Adam Kinzinger Among GOP Young Guns Taking Aim at Democratic Seats

5 years ago
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As if to call out the absurdity of Democratic plans to run against George W. Bush's record this November, a crop of young Republicans -- who weren't in office back then -- is eagerly taking on establishment Democratic politicians. Adam Kinzinger, running in Illinois' 11th District, is one example of this trend. Less than 2 years old when Ronald Reagan won his first presidential election, Kinzinger is seeking office in President Obama's home state.

A new internal poll shows Kinzinger leading the incumbent opponent by 11 points.

Though just 32, Kinzinger has an impressive resume. He served in the Air Force Special Ops, Air Combat Command, Air Mobility Command and Air National Guard. After serving overseas, he told me, "now we have some defending to do at home."

Kinzinger's focus is on fixing the economy, specifically by eliminating business uncertainty, creating jobs and extending tax relief.

So far, Kinzinger is running a competitive race against first-term Democratic Rep. Debbie Halvorson. "I think Illinois-11 is the type of seat Republicans need to win to get back to a majority," said political analyst Nathan Gonzales of The Rothenberg Political Report. "It's not in the top tier of opportunities and it's not in the South."

There is a stark contrast between Halvorson and Kinzinger, who is 20 years younger than his opponent. Prior to being elected to Congress two years ago, Halvorson served for years in the Illinois state Senate, becoming its first female majority leader. In Congress, she voted for Obama's health care reform, cap-and-trade energy proposals, and other liberal policies.

Kinzinger, who won his party's nomination in February, is running an aggressive campaign, charging that last year Halvorson failed to hold a single town hall meeting. "We actually did town hall meetings, instead of her, and we had over 3,000 people at them," he said. (In fairness, it should be noted that Halvorson did hold telephone town hall meetings.)

The 11th District has historically been a Republican area, though some believe demographic shifts have made it a swing district. It includes southern and southwestern Chicago suburbs, as well as parts of Joliet, Kankakee and Bloomington. Prior to Halvorson's election, GOP Rep. Jerry Weller, who decided not to seek re-election amid questions regarding a land deal in Nicaragua, held the seat from 1994 through 2008.

Though 2006 and 2008 were tough years for Republicans nationally, they may have also served to prune some of the older, long-serving Republicans, clearing the way for young upstarts. In Illinois, the retirement of giants such as former Speaker Dennis Hastert and Henry Hyde (who died in 2007), along with the vacancy created when Ray LaHood (who was appointed secretary of transportation) also helped pave the way for young Illinois Republicans.

Clearly, some long-suffering Illinois conservatives are excited about this generational shift. "Kinzinger's got a very good chance of taking back the 11th CD for the Republicans, and he'll be a thoughtful, energetic, conservative leader, alongside Illinois' rising congressional stars Peter Roskam and Aaron Schock," said Fran Eaton, editor of the conservative Illinois Review website.

But youth can also have a downside, and Halvorson's campaign manager, Travis Worl, tells me: "Seniors have real issues about someone who has never come close to being in their shoes talking about their retirement security."

The district is clearly winnable for a Republican in a good year. President Bush received 54 percent of the district's vote in 2004, while President Obama drew 53 percent four years later. And as I noted earlier, Kinzinger's internal poll has him up by 11 points. Worl, in response to the polling, said Halvorson is "focused on her work as a Congressman," and that, "It's not hard [for Kinzinger] to score political points when your sole focus is on trashing your opponent."

Kinzinger, though young, is no political naïf. When he was 20 and attending Illinois State University, he ousted a 12-year incumbent to win a seat on the County Board of McLean County. In 2003, he joined the Air Force, eventually earning his pilot wings and the rank of captain. In early February, he handily won a crowded primary to become the GOP nominee for the district. Kinzinger became a bona fide hero in 2007, when he saved the life of a young mother who was stabbed by a a former boyfriend on the streets of Milwaukee.

Kinzinger is also part of the National Republican Campaign Committee's "Young Guns" program ("dedicated to identifying, recruiting, and mobilizing a new generation of conservative leaders") and has raised respectable funds, though Halvorson's incumbent advantage has allowed her to outpace him. According to Open Secrets, Halvorson boasts $1,443,425 cash on hand, compared to Kinzinger's $480,046. When it comes to running TV ads in the Chicago media market, the million-dollar disparity should cause concern for the Kinzinger campaign, which is already up against a better-known opponent.

"There is a path to victory for Kinzinger," Gonzales told me, "but Halvorson has proven to be one tough campaigner."

The campaign reached a low point in July, when Democratic operatives sought to catch the wave of national attention brought about by Connecticut Attorney General Richard Blumenthal's misrepresentation of his military record, as well as similar concerns about Illinois Senate candidate Mark Kirk, by accusing Kinzinger of over-stating his military record.

As The Chicago Sun Times' Steve Huntley explained,
When his campaign website went up last year, a staffer wrote that reserve officer Kinzinger "now serves as a pilot with the Air Force Special Operations Command." Indeed, at the time Kinzinger was on Special Ops duty. It was a temporary assignment, but after he returned to civilian life, the wording was not changed. When a complaint surfaced that Kinzinger was trying to make Special Ops seem like a permanent posting, the wording on the website was changed to "has served" and added his work in other units.
After it became clear that Halvorson's campaign manager had (as Kirsten McQuery reported) "e-mailed military officials to inquire about Kinzinger's titles and roles without identifying himself as representing a political opponent," the press rightly slapped Halvorson for her "specious" attacks.

But Kinzinger told me that Halvorson, who serves on the House Veterans Affairs Committee, "talks about how much she loves veterans . . . until one of them runs against her."

In response, Worl reminds me that Halvorson's son and husband are both veterans, and says: "There's no doubt about her dedication to veterans."

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