When the 112th Congress convenes in January, it will include at least 72 new members — one of the largest freshman classes in the nation’s history — at least 63 of whom will join the Republican majority. This year’s crop of GOP candidates was an impressive group, consisting of tea partiers, political novices, military veterans, and a record number of minority candidates, almost all of whom pledged in their campaigns to extend the Bush tax rates, repeal Obamacare, and rein in federal spending. It is a group that promises not only to challenge the Democratic agenda of the past two years, but also to keep their fellow Republicans honest. Here’s a look at twelve potential stars of the class of 2011.
Diane Black (TN-06) is a former emergency-room nurse, an experience that gives her extra credibility when she discusses how to address America’s health-care issues. Black says that working in the medical field showed her that it’s essential that doctors and patients, not government bureaucrats, make decisions. She’s ready to repeal Obamacare and replace it with a series of market-oriented reforms, including changing fees from per procedure to a performance-oriented model and letting Americans purchase health insurance from churches and other large non-employer groups.
Black, who served in the Tennessee state senate for six years and became chair of the Republican caucus, is part of the wave of new GOP representatives from formerly Blue Dog districts. With the luxury of representing a more right-leaning district (62 percent of voters there chose McCain in 2008), Black looks well positioned to fight for a resurgence of social- and fiscal-conservative values.
Francisco Conseco (TX-23) is one of several Hispanic Republicans elected this year, along with Florida senator-elect Marco Rubio, New Mexico governor-elect Susana Martinez, and four other GOP congressional winners. Conseco, who beat six-term congressman Ciro Rodriquez, is a small business owner with concrete ideas about how to spur job creation. Instead of the $862 billion stimulus, Canseco would have preferred cutting taxes on small businesses and increasing tax exemptions on businesses’ net operating losses to provide companies with desperately needed cash.
On immigration, Conseco’s message is firm: “Amnesty is simply NOT AN OPTION,” states his website. Canseco sees border security as crucial to the nation’s homeland security. Watch for Canseco — who says he has disagreed with the GOP in the past about the party’s decisions to back big spending bills — to hold Republicans accountable to their platform of small government and lower spending.
Sean Duffy (WI-7), a five-time world-champion log climber and former star of MTV’s The Real World — said most people told him he was crazy for attempting to challenge 21-term incumbent Rep. Dave Obey in a district that voted 56 percent for Obama in 2008. Even though Obey opted for early retirement, it’s not unreasonable to think that Duffy, with his charm, good looks, and political savvy, could have taken him out in a head-to-head contest.
Duffy served eight years as a county district attorney, where he earned a reputation as a dogged prosecutor of child molesters. Backed by Sarah Palin and Minnesota governor Tim Pawlenty, Duffy describes himself as “pro-life, pro-traditional marriage, pro-gun, pro–Second Amendment,” and has spoken passionately about the need to end earmarks and tackle the federal debt. To quote a line from one of his much-viewed woodsman-themed campaign ads, Duffy is “bringing the axe to Washington,” and lawmakers of both parties should be on the lookout.
Cory Gardner (CO-04) has already proved he will stand up against tax hikes: In 2009, his service as a state senator won him recognition from the Colorado Union of Taxpayers, which declared him a “Taxpayer Guardian.” That’s the kind of attitude that could help make Gardner, who defeated incumbent Democrat Betsy Markey, a key promoter of the tax policies the new Republican Congress hopes to usher in.
Called a “GOP idea man” by the Denver Post, Gardner already has plans for what he’d like to accomplish in Washington. He told CQ Politics that he would like his first measures to include slashing spending and passing a balanced-budget amendment. He’d also like to tackle reducing onerous regulations that impact development in Colorado.
Chris Gibson (NY-20) is a decorated 24-year Army officer — four Bronze Stars, two Legions of Merit, and a Purple Heart — who served four combat tours in Iraq and holds a Ph.D. in government from Cornell. He went on from being 17 points behind in the polls at one point to claim a stunning ten-point win over Rep. Scott Murphy in the race for Sen. Kirstin Gillibrand’s old seat. Voters were drawn to Gibson’s down-to-earth demeanor and powerful personality.
An early signatory to the Club for Growth’s pledge to repeal Obamacare, Gibson is a vocal and articulate proponent of tax cuts and smaller government. Gibson said that if elected, he would donate his military pension back to the federal government “as a good-faith gesture that he is serious about reducing the deficit.” On the campaign trail, he proved himself to be a formidable fundraiser, earning him GOP “Young Gun” status. Republicans are going to need strong, experienced leaders on Capitol Hill to tackle the challenges that lie ahead. They have one in Gibson.
Joe Heck (NV-03) is a prime example of the new breed of “citizen legislators.” While he’s held political office before — he spent four years in the Nevada state senate — he’s also worked in the private sector as an emergency-room doctor and owner of a small medical business. Heck is also an Army reservist called twice to active duty, including a 2003 deployment in Iraq.
That personal background, paired with a policy platform that offered solutions on how to help Nevada decrease unemployment (currently the state has the highest unemployment rate in the nation) and restore its troubled economy, proved compelling enough to catapult Heck to victory. He won by a narrow margin (just under 2,000 votes), but for Republicans devastated about the outcome of the Nevada Senate race, it’s some comfort that this Mitt Romney–endorsed candidate triumphed in a district where Democrats outnumber Republicans, and independents constitute about a sixth of voters.
Jaime Herrera (WA-3) celebrated her 32nd birthday just one day after winning a seat that Democrats had held for more than a decade. She will also be the first Latina to represent Washington State. A prominent member of the GOP’s “Young Guns” crew, Herrera is already familiar with the inner workings of Capitol Hill. She served as a legislative aide to Rep. Cathy McMorris Rogers (R., Wash.) from 2005 to 2007 before accepting an appointment to the Washington State legislature.
An outspoken opponent of both the stimulus and the health-care-reform bills, Herrera has called for extending the Bush tax cuts permanently. She has admitted feeling “let down” by Republicans as well as Democrats regarding their failure to get federal spending under control. “Congress is spending money in an attempt to get us out of this economic crisis, not realizing that overspending is the crisis,” she recently told Time in an interview for its “40 leaders under 40” issue highlighting the “rising stars of American politics.”
Adam Kinzinger (IL-11) has a résumé most people can only dream of having by the time they’re 32 years old. Kinzinger won his first elected office at age 20 when he defeated a three-term Democratic incumbent for a seat on the McClean County Board. He was a sophomore at Illinois State University at the time. Kinzinger signed up for the Air Force shortly after 9/11 and has flown numerous combat missions in Iraq and Afghanistan. In 2007, he was awarded the Milwaukee Red Cross “Hero of the Year” award for saving a woman’s life by fending off her knife-wielding assailant. Now, he can add U.S. representative to that list.
Kinzinger speaks with more confidence and knowledge about policy issues than politicians twice his age. He has been calling for the repeal of Obamacare since the day after it passed, but insists that Republicans are at least partially at fault for ignoring health-care reform during the Bush administration. He has said that while his primary focus right now is on cutting spending and creating jobs, the federal government’s “paramount role” should always be defending the country. Keep your eye on this kid.
Kristi Noem (SD-AL) has already proven herself to be a formidable fundraiser, drawing $1.1 million in donations in the third quarter, almost twice as much as her Democratic opponent, Rep. Stephanie Herseth Sandlin. It was the highest amount raised by any Republican congressional challenger in that quarter, a fact that speaks to Noem’s combination of conservative principles and personal charisma — traits that have earned her frequent comparisons to Sarah Palin.
A former South Dakota state senator, Noem beat Herseth Sandlin by about two points in the highly competitive race where Herseth Sandlin sought to make Noem’s driving record (which includes 20 speeding tickets and two arrest warrants) more important than her political record. It didn’t work. Noem, who lives on a ranch with her husband and three children, has already announced she has no plans to live in Washington, D.C. An outsider determined to beat the system, Noem looks likely to become a national player.
Jon Runyan (NJ-03) cites New Jersey governor Chris Christie as his political role model. A former Pro Bowl offensive lineman for the Philadelphia Eagles, Runyan is not wanting for toughness, an attribute that will come in handy on Capitol Hill. In 2007 Runyan played most of the season with a painful tailbone injury that prevented him from sitting on long flights. The year before, he came second in a 2006 Sports Illustrated poll asking NFL players to name the dirtiest player in the league. He knows how to play by the rules, though. Runyan once went an entire season without committing a penalty.
In what was his first ever campaign for political office, Runyan ousted a well-funded Democratic opponent, Rep. John Adler, by running on a simple, compelling platform: keep taxes low, keep spending down, and keep government small — period. He also favors congressional term limits and has pledged to serve no more than four terms in the House. At 6′ 7′’, 330 pounds, Runyan will, quite literally, be a force to be reckoned with.
Tim Scott (SC-1),like his fellow South Carolinian Jim DeMint, won on a staunchly conservative platform: Vehemently opposed to earmarks and Obamacare, Scott proudly touts his Tea Party values. A former county councilman and South Carolina state representative, he boasts of having never raised taxes in his 15 years of public service. And he’s a proven himself as a job creator: Scott says he helped bring over 20,000 new jobs to his state by attracting a handful of companies to South Carolina.
Scott’s election will make him the first black GOP representative from the Deep South since Reconstruction. He was raised by a hardworking single mother in a poor household, and he says that he learned his traditional and conservative principles from her, and from a Chick-fil-A operator who mentored him. It’s easy to imagine this confident congressman-elect inspiring a new generation to adopt those same values.
Allen West (FL-22), easily one of the most prominent figures in the Tea Party movement, is already well known to most conservatives. His fiery speeches, viewed by millions on YouTube, have garnered a national following for the retired Army officer who famously declared, “If it’s about the lives of my men and their safety, I’d go through hell with a gasoline can.” Andrew Breitbart has called him “presidential material.” Keith Olbermann has called him the “worst person in the world.”
West, who is black and grew up in inner-city Atlanta, won in a district that is more than 80 percent white. Not one to shy away from controversial statements, West is as staunch a critic of President Obama as he is a defender of American exceptionalism, saying he wants to do away with the “failed idea of multiculturalism” and warning that Obama’s policies are “enslaving” citizens in a culture of victimhood. Expect to see liberal commentators squirm in discomfort as they fight the urge to call him a racist. And expect West to be a vocal presence in the 112th Congress.
—Andrew Stiles and Katrina Trinko write for National Review Online’s Battle ’10 blog.