DeKALB, Ill. — The tea party movement is on the verge of devouring one of its own.
Freshman Rep. Adam Kinzinger, the young Air Force spy pilot who defeated a Democratic incumbent in suburban Chicago to become one of the fresh-faced shining stars of the Republican Party, is now under attack from the same conservative activists who propelled him to victory less than two years ago.
A redistricting process controlled by Democrats has thrown the 34-year-old Kinzinger against 10-term Rep. Don Manzullo in a fight that mirrors the larger Republican debate over what it means to be a conservative.
And less than two years after tea party activists fueled the energy behind the historic 63-seat pickup for Republicans in the House, this campaign has turned into a contest for this movement to flex its political muscle in helping determine what its most important values are, with some leading figures siding with the veteran insider because they view him as a more unwavering conservative.
The close Kinzinger-Manzullo race is one of more than a dozen incumbent-vs.-incumbent battles drawn across the nation by decennial reapportionment and redistricting. They are bitter campaigns, often between friends and allies who’ve spent years working together in neighboring districts only to find themselves trying to disqualify each other in the voter’s mind with assertions of ideological fraud or ethical baggage.
Kinzinger, lauded as a star of the 87-strong freshman class — the “Tom Cruise of Congress” according to the Hill newspaper — is touting his youth and dismissing Manzullo as part of a failed, or at least compromised, Republican past.
“We’ve changed the conversation in Washington, from how much more are we going to spend to how are we going to pay for it, how much are we going to cut and how are we going to pay for it,” Kinzinger told the seniors at the Pine Acres Rehabilitation & Living Center.
But in his one term in Congress, Kinzinger has already found that there is conservative, and there is conservative.
In April, Kinzinger opposed a budget proposal from the conservative caucus that mandated a balanced budget by 2020, cutting government spending at a far faster rate than the one offered by Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.), which he supported. Kinzinger also voted against other spending-cut amendments that were considered draconian, even by most GOP leaders.
Manzullo, despite having built a career delivering federal largesse to farmers in his district, maintains a strict conservative voting record on national issues. He voted for the deeper cuts in almost every case.
FreedomWorks, one of the best-financed tea party organizations, founded by former House majority leader Richard K. Armey, was once a strong backer of Kinzinger, providing financial and volunteer support in his 2010 rout of Democrat Debbie Halvorson. The organization now calls Kinzinger a lawmaker who “reneged on promises to fight for reduction of the national debt” and “has been content with protecting the status quo.”
It is one of several conservative groups who abandoned the freshman, including Erick Erickson, the founder of the conservative Red State blog; the Illinois Tea Party; and the American Conservative Union.
“Adam Kinzinger had not become a tea party leader, but a leadership flunky. His voting record is a disappointment,” Erickson wrote on his blog in late February.
On Tuesday, a week before the Illinois GOP primary, in the rural town of Amboy, Manzullo, 67, bragged that his two decades of experience put him in position to deliver federal funds for dams and roads. He accused Kinzinger of going native in Washington and caring about TV appearances that touted the preferred message from GOP leaders.
“He’s not a conservative,” Manzullo said, warning that Kinzinger “lives in the south Chicago suburbs.” One woman blurted out, “That’s Cook County,” warming to Manzullo’s effort to link Kinzinger to the controversial political past of urban corruption near Chicago and distancing him from what is now a district of rural and exurban voters.
There are seven Democratic and four Republican member-vs.-member races, but these campaigns will not likely determine the House majority. Instead, these contests force each party’s voters to determine who is truer to their idea of what the party should represent. Often the choice is whether they want someone to be their voice on the most controversial and heated national issues or someone focused squarely on bringing home the bacon from Washington.
Kinzinger’s biography seemed to set him apart. He joined the Air Force on Oct. 11, 2001, first flying fueling tankers and now, as an Air National Guard member, reconnaissance flights for counternarcotics missions. A captain, he has flown 120 combat missions in Iraq and Afghanistan on four tours.
The House leadership promoted him into key slots, and he even took on the Air Force by pushing an amendment to kill a $100 million flight suit — the legislative effort stalled, but military brass got the message and is considering ditching the pricey new suit. House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.) waded into a member-vs.-member race to endorse Kinzinger, and a super PAC run by former aides to Cantor and House Majority Whip Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) is spending $50,000 on his behalf.
“I’m 34 years old,” Kinzinger said Tuesday afternoon at the senior center here, 65 miles west of Chicago. About 20 elderly residents, most in wheelchairs, dropped their jaws. “Yeah, a few people tell me, sometimes, I don’t even look old enough to vote,” Kinzinger said, stumping as a “fresh conservative.” He urged the seniors to “make a clean break from the past” because veteran Republicans, during their reign in the 1990s and part of the last decade, had let them down just as much as Democrats.
But the new map that smashed him into the same district as Manzullo is less favorable. The sprawling 200-mile district forms a hockey stick around Chicago’s exurbs, beginning at the Wisconsin border in the north and heading south and east around suburbs, all the way to the Indiana border.
Just 31 percent of Kinzinger’s old suburban swing voters are in the new 16th Congressional District while nearly half the new district comprises Manzullo’s old constituents.
Unable to get to the right of Manzullo on the issues, Kinzinger has framed the race as one about leadership for the times. “What can Don Manzullo do in the next two years that he hasn’t had an opportunity to do in the first 20?” Kinzinger asked in an interview. “I’ve got a lot of ideas, a lot of passion left. This is not meant to be a career.”
Some voters are responding. Richard Waddell, a retired engineer and salesman of industrial storage, bemoaned that redistricting “forced two fine people” into a primary but said that Manzullo’s support for the cash-for-clunker auto program led him to decide that it was better to turn things over to a new generation. “Once someone has had that kind of tenure, the relationships they build make it too easy,” he said.
The new district’s GOP voters are not easily pegged, a mix of folks who want their federal government to splurge on local projects but also turn bright red at the mere mention of the Environmental Protection Agency’s efforts to regulate farming. At Manzullo’s 80-minute meeting with about 10 farmers in Amboy, 86-year-old Eleanor Zimmerlein got heads nodding with the first question, demanding to know when an infrastructure bill would pass Congress to build dams and roads. “How can we get funding?” asked Zimmerlein, whose family has run a corn-and-bean farm for more than 100 years.
Bob Logan, the mayor of nearby Franklin Grove, praised Manzullo for supporting an intermodal transportation hub.
Manzullo does not hide his support for such local projects and believes that they are part of what Congress is supposed to finance. He said his seniority on the Foreign Affairs Committee gives him the ability to wade into trade deals that will help boost agriculture exports.
He mocked Kinzinger’s national exposure and the endorsements from GOP leaders and the Chicago Tribune, which labeled the freshman a potential “game-changer” on the national level. “What do you expect out of a member of Congress? Do you want somebody taking care of you?” Manzullo asked the farmers. “Or somebody on TV out there trying to be whatever a game-changer is?”