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Adam Kinzinger, Rising Republican Star

9:15 AM, Jul 6, 2012 • By MICHAEL WARREN
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In March, Kinzinger defeated fellow Republican House member Don Manzullo in a hard-fought primary. A Democratic legislature in Springfield had consolidated their adjoining districts, forcing the freshman to challenge a ten-term veteran. Kinzinger beat Manzullo, who was perceived as “more conservative,” 56 percent to 44 percent. Now he’s running unopposed for a second term.

“It’s tough,” Kinzinger says of taking on his elder in the party. “Because ultimately, we’re in the family. We’re brothers. We’re fighting for the same thing.”

Perhaps, but the party likes the way he fights. In his first two years, Kinzinger has become a favorite of the House Republican leadership. Majority leader Eric Cantor endorsed him in his primary. Chief deputy whip Peter Roskam, also of Illinois, says Kinzinger is highly regarded among his fellow House Republicans.

“He wears well. People like to be around him,” Roskam says. “He doesn’t speak every week [at caucus meetings], but when he does, people listen. He’s earned their respect.”

A deputy whip, Kinzinger has voted with the leadership on each of the contentious debt ceiling increase votes—though he also voted for the “Cut, Cap, and Balance” alternative plan of the conservative Republican Study Committee, of which he's a former member. He’s also a member of the moderate Republican Main Street Partnership.

But it’s not just Republicans who like working with Kinzinger. He’s co-authored a bill with Illinois Democrat Dan Lipinski to create a federal “manufacturing competitiveness board.” He’s also been working with Democratic senator Mark Warner of Virginia on addressing an oxygen malfunction on the F-22 Raptor fighter jet, an issue that’s garnered him some national headlines. “His future is very bright,” Roskam says. “He’s all upside.”

We’re sitting in his Capitol Hill office, a cramped, dorm-sized room in an upstairs corner of the Longworth building—typical placement for a freshman, regardless of one’s star power potential. Amid the photos, books, and baubles often found in a congressman’s office are some revealing relics of his past. On the windowsill sits a heavy empty artillery shell. He picks it up and hands it to me.

“This is a 105-millimeter shell out of an AC-130 gunship,” says Kinzinger, a veteran Air Force pilot who still flies in the Air National Guard. “That was expended when I was in Iraq. Isn’t that cool?”

It is pretty cool, as are the smaller shells (45-millimeter and 25-millimeter) on display in an adjacent cabinet. Kinzinger says he keeps them for the “cool factor” as well as to remind him about his time served in Iraq.

A month after 9/11, Kinzinger signed up for the Air Force, first flying KC-135s, mid-air refuelers, in missions over Iraq and Afghanistan. Later on, while stationed in Iraq, he piloted RC-26 low-level reconnaissance planes. Now in Congress, he’s among the fiercest defenders of the wars and of military spending in the Tea Party Republican freshman class.

In December 2011, Kinzinger took the House floor and offered a stirring defense of the war in Afghanistan. “The easy thing to do is to stand up and say ‘Let’s just declare victory and let’s leave,’ and then whatever happens after we’re gone, it’s not our fault. It’s not our problem. That’s the easy thing to do,” he said. “You know the America I grew up in and continue to grow up in and live in is not the country that always picks the easy thing. The thing about the American DNA is I believe we do, typically, the right thing.”

Kinzinger is the youngest of eight veterans of the post-9/11 wars currently in the House, and is the fourth-youngest sitting congressman. Of the 21 under-40 congressmen, 14 are Republicans, and the 10 youngest members are all Republicans.

“What you’re seeing is this new generational movement is actually hitting the Republican party first,” Kinzinger says. “Our party is all about empowering the individual, and I think that is something that just naturally lends itself to [young people].”

But it could be generational as well. Several of these young Republicans, like Kinzinger, all came of political age during the early years of George W. Bush’s administration. Kinzinger’s parents are Republicans, and he says he always considered himself “hawkish” on national defense, but in his first presidential election in 1996, he voted for Ross Perot. As he grew older, he became less libertarian and more Republican.

“I’m a social conservative, obviously a fiscal conservative, and I believe that America is the best leader of the free world,” Kinzinger says. “And if we give up that mantle, we’re doomed.”

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