Indiana’s impressive new representative
Columbia City, Ind. — The northeast corner of Indiana is Trump country — a big, flat piece of farmland wrapped around Fort Wayne, a Rust Belt city of a quarter-million people, overwhelmingly white. It contains Indiana’s third congressional district, which borders Michigan and Ohio, and where manufacturing jobs make up a greater percentage of the labor force than in any other congressional district in the country: 23.3 percent, according to the Economic Policy Institute. Donald Trump cleaned up around here, winning 56 percent of the vote in urban Allen County and topping 70 percent in many of the rural areas that surround it.
Jim Banks did even better. This fall, as he sought a seat in Congress for the first time, the Republican ran ahead of Trump almost everywhere. In Allen County, which dominates the district, he outpaced Trump by nine points. “I’m overwhelmed and humbled,” he said afterward. Banks benefited from a weak Democratic opponent: Tommy Schrader is a jobless high-school dropout who gets by on disability insurance. Even so, Banks enjoyed an impressive win — bigger than that of any other third-district Republican in recent memory — and he probably can hold his new seat for as long as he likes.
His showing also suggests that although conservatives will support many parts of Trump’s agenda, their political survival won’t necessarily demand complete fidelity: Banks favors free trade, entitlement reform, and traditional strategic alliances, such as NATO. He praises Paul Ryan and Ryan’s “Better Way” policy plan. Just two weeks before Election Day, when I met with Banks at a coffee shop in his hometown of Columbia City, he admitted that he still hadn’t decided how to vote for president. “Trump is extremely flawed,” he said. “I’m sad that we’ve set the bar as low as we have when so much is at stake.” In the end, Banks joined many other Trump skeptics and late deciders in backing the unconventional GOP nominee — but in a post-election interview, he continued to emphasize his discontent: “I was never an enthusiastic supporter.” He doesn’t appear to have suffered in any way for his differences or his doubts.
The 37-year-old Banks himself is unconventional, at least for a Republican: He grew up in a trailer park. His father worked in an auto plant and his mother cooked at a nursing home. Their ancestors came from Kentucky. “I just finished reading Hillbilly Elegy,” says Banks, referring to the best-selling book by J. D. Vance. “Those are our people.” They went to church, hunted deer, belonged to unions — and mostly voted for Democrats.
Banks did well in school, and in 1997 he went off to Indiana University
– the first in his family to go to college, he says. He took courses in political science because “they were easy.” Then he joined the College Republicans, partly because he was drawn to the group’s pro-life beliefs but also because he was interested in Amanda Izsak, an attractive member of the group. “That’s how I initially got involved,” he says, smiling. They interned for Republican congressman John Hostettler, and Banks took time off school to help Hostettler campaign in the “Bloody Eighth,” the southern-Indiana congressional district famous for flipping back and forth between Democrats and Republicans. Between the demands of part-time jobs and sabbaticals for campaign work, it took Banks seven years to earn his diploma.
After graduating, Amanda lit out for Colorado Springs, where she worked for Focus on the Family, the conservative group headquartered there. A year later, Banks followed. “I was pursuing her,” he says. He worked at Barnes and Noble until Focus on the Family hired him as well. They married in 2005.
The couple moved back to Indiana in 2007, settling in Jim’s native Columbia City. Banks took a job in commercial construction and began his rapid rise in GOP politics. First, he became the head of the party in Whitley County. “Nobody else wanted to do it,” he explains. In 2008, he was elected to the county council. Then a seat opened in the state senate. Its retiring occupant, who had been Banks’s boyhood dermatologist, encouraged Banks to run. “I guess it’s a good thing I had acne issues,” jokes Banks. He won that race in 2010.
One of his supporters was Byron Lamm — “my most significant mentor,” Banks calls him. In the 1990s, Lamm headed the State Policy Network, the national umbrella group for state-based free-market think tanks. Now he lives in northeast Indiana, close to Banks. “Jim is intellectually curious,” says Lamm. “He always wants to talk about policy. He’s much more interested in policy and principles than in politics.”
As a state senator, Banks participated in the final stages of Mitch Daniels’s governorship. “He was a revolutionary leader,” Banks says of Daniels. “He would have made an excellent president — he was our best available option.” Banks pushed for a full repeal of the state’s death tax and joined the movement to adopt a right-to-work law, which limits collective bargaining. “About 25 union members picketed on my front lawn,” he says. “Back in the day, my father might have been one of them.” He has no regrets: “It was controversial when we did it, but since then I haven’t had a single phone call of complaint. We can show a link between the passage of right-to-work and job growth.” In the wake of right-to-work, Indiana’s total employment has grown by about 10 percent, versus 6.5 percent for the entire country.
Around the time Banks went to Indianapolis as a state senator, he also signed up for the Navy. “I was getting a little old for it, but I wanted to do it and learned that the Navy has a direct-commission program,” he says. Banks joined the Reserves, became a logistics specialist, and found himself shipped off to Afghanistan in 2014 for an eight-month tour of duty. “I was prepared to resign from the legislature,” he says. Under an obscure state law, however, lawmakers who are called up on active duty may be temporarily replaced — and Amanda took over for him.
While in office, she voted for a religious-freedom bill that would have allowed Indiana businesses to opt out of government-mandated insurance that covers birth control and abortion drugs. Then-governor Mike Pence signed it into law before facing the sharp criticism that led him to call for the removal of its core protections. Amanda voted against the overhaul — and her husband says she was right to do so. “Religious liberty is fundamental to everything,” he says. “This may be the great social issue of our day — it could be the cause of my generation.”
Banks watched this controversy unfold from Kabul. “There I was, serving in the Navy but working in a landlocked country, ordering around MRAPs and Humvees,” he says. “It felt like I was in a movie.” Yet he wasn’t entirely disconnected from politics. In Afghanistan, he met Senator Ben Sasse, the Nebraska Republican, who was visiting the troops. They became fast friends. “Conservatism needs more than generic Republicans who simply ‘vote right,’ ” says Sasse. “We need leaders who make the case for limited government explaining what we’re for — not just what we’re against. Jim gets that.”
In Congress, Banks hopes to focus on national security. “My experience in the service is more recent than any other member of Congress,” he says. “I watched us take steps backward in Afghanistan. President Obama is leaving behind a world far less safe than the one he inherited.”
He wants to help rebuild the military — but he knows that the last thing the federal government needs to do is boost its budget. “Our $20 trillion debt is a national-security issue,” he says. Economic growth may be the answer, and Banks sees free trade as an important contributor. “I grew up in a home where ‘NAFTA’ was a dirty word, but it’s good for Indiana and it’s good for America,” he says. He supports the Trans-Pacific Partnership, the proposed trade agreement that Trump has loudly condemned.
For much of October, Banks thought that Trump would lose the presidential election. In the last days, though, he started to wonder: “On the campaign trail, you could tell something was going on that was not accurately reported in the slanted media.” He also decided to vote for Trump, despite their disagreements. “The Supreme Court made the difference for me,” he says. “We have an opportunity for a constitutionally minded Supreme Court. I’ve never seen that in my lifetime. It could be the most significant outcome of this election.”
Another significant outcome could involve Banks himself. A few conservatives are already wondering whether he should run for the Senate in 2018, challenging incumbent Democrat Joe Donnelly, whose liberalism could make him an easy target. “You can never say never, but it’s not on my mind currently,” says Banks. “Right now, I’m excited to go to Washington and be part of an opportunity for conservatives to advance an agenda.”
He aims to do it for a long time.