The three House Republicans who founded Young Guns—Eric Cantor, Kevin McCarthy, and Paul Ryan—weren’t much of a force when they banded together in 2007. And they weren’t all that young, either. Cantor was 44, McCarthy 42, Ryan 37. Four years later, their influence has zoomed and Young Guns is a brand.
Its impact has been palpable and it’s likely to grow. Young Guns changed the way Republican House candidates are recruited, nurtured, and, once elected, pampered. They published a book last year (with the obvious title Young Guns) that spent at least one week on the New York Times bestseller list, and now they’re going big-time with a super-PAC to support Republican challengers in House races, a separate political arm, and a policy shop.
A few weeks ago, John Murray left Cantor’s office—he’d been deputy chief of staff—to set up the three new Young Guns entities independent from the congressional group. “YG,” as Murray refers to Young Guns, “captured a new sort of energy and vibe through these three guys. How do you keep the brand and the movement alive? You have to create a new vehicle to do it. Every movement needs a megaphone.”
Murray says the YG political action committee aims to raise $20 million to fund “independent expenditures” on behalf of candidates challenging Democratic incumbents or running in open seats. The policy group will hold conferences to publicize conservative policies, and the political unit will run issue ads in congres-sional races, Murray says.
The rise of Young Guns was accelerated by the Republican takeover of the House in 2010 and the increased prominence of the three principals. Cantor is majority leader, McCarthy is Republican whip, and Ryan is chairman of the House Budget Committee and the leading Republican voice on domestic policy.
The three were prompted to form Young Guns by a cover package in The Weekly Standard of October 1, 2007, that pointed out that their political skills were complementary: Cantor the party leader, McCarthy the strategist, and Ryan the policy thinker. The cover dubbed them “Young Guns of the House GOP.”
“We saw eye-to-eye on what we needed to do, where we were, and how we diagnosed our problem,” Ryan says. They knew Republicans had lost their way, ideologically and politically. And they were eager to promote House candidates from diverse backgrounds, with little or no political experience but a zeal for bold conservative reforms.
“We focused our effort,” Cantor says, “on recruitment of people who wanted to run for the right reasons.”
In the 2008 election, Young Guns played a small role. Five House Democrats were defeated, four by Young Guns-endorsed candidates. Three others won open seats.
In 2010, Young Guns played a huge role. Its approach was adopted by the official House GOP campaign outfit, the National Republican Congressional Committee (NRCC). The result: Sixty-two of the 92 candidates dubbed Young Guns were elected. Also, Republicans fielded 431 House candidates, up from 421 in 2006 and 426 in 1994, a landslide year for Republicans.
McCarthy was the chief recruiter in 2010. He’s partial to candidates with “real life” experience rather than a deep political background, candidates who may never have run for office or even thought about running. He scouted candidates, but insists he never asked anyone to run. Asking wouldn’t produce the right candidates.
In Young Guns, he recounts a conversation with a potential candidate:
McCarthy: Are you going to run?
Candidate: Do you need me to run?
McCarthy: No. I don’t need you to run.
Candidate: Do you want me to run?
McCarthy: No, I don’t want you to run. I’ll help you if you want to run.
“By the time the meeting had ended, I told him not to run,” McCarthy said. “ ‘This can’t be about you. This is about changing America.’ ”
Recruitment is but one phase of the Young Guns strategy. In 2010, McCarthy determined that a minimum of 15 Democrats would have to retire for Republicans to gain control of the House. Open seats are easier to win.
Many months before the election, the NRCC went after incumbents in Republican-leaning districts, airing radio and TV ads and making thousands of robo-calls to voters. As it turned out, more than 15 Democrats retired. The list included moderate John Tanner of Tennessee, who’d had no Republican opponent in 2008, and liberal David Obey of Wisconsin, a 40-year House veteran.
The Republicans who succeeded Tanner and Obey were ideal Young Guns candidates. Stephen Fincher was a farmer concerned, McCarthy says, about how he would answer his children when they asked, “What did you do when the country changed? Did you stand up and fight?” Sean Duffy was a local prosecutor and world champion lumberjack.
In the 2012 cycle, the NRCC has already run television spots in 18 Democratic seats and made robo-calls in dozens more. So far, 6 Democrats have announced their retirement.
McCarthy, and now the NRCC, judge candidates by specific criteria. McCarthy recently took House Republicans to see the movie Moneyball, the story of a major league baseball general manager who felt obscure metrics often told more about a player than scouting reports.
Thus, to be deemed Young Guns, candidates last year had to meet a series of metrics. Reaching a fundraising threshold put candidates “on the radar.” Building a significant campaign operation made them contenders. Drafting a campaign plan leading to victory and reaching a higher fundraising goal elevated candidates to full Young Guns status.
Is the Young Guns activity responsible for the Republican landslide? It’s bound to have helped. Ryan thinks Young Guns has emboldened Republicans in the House. As a Young Guns leader, “I stick to my policy stuff,” he told me. Yet he has his own measurement for the impact of Young Guns.
In 2008, he had 8 House cosponsors for his Road Map, whose sweeping reform of entitlements was controversial. In 2010, with the House controlled by Democrats before the election, he had 13.
Everything changed this year with the influx of GOP freshmen, three-fourths of them Young Guns. Ryan drafted a budget that mirrored his Road Map. Only 4 Republicans in the House voted against it. In the Senate, only 5 Republicans voted no. Would this have happened absent Young Guns? Not a chance.
Fred Barnes is executive editor of The Weekly Standard.