Originally Published 1/31/17
By Sarah Chamberlain
Two months ago, almost all the pundits and political prognosticators foresaw doom not just for Donald Trump, but also for any GOP candidates running outside of the most conservative states and districts. That was cause for alarm at the Republican Main Street Partnership, which I lead. We’re a coalition of nearly 80 Republican members of Congress, and our members mainly represent the swing districts and “purple” states that, it was claimed, were most at risk from the supposed voter backlash against Trump.
Needless to say, the pundits were wrong. Trump won. So did all but one of the incumbents whose re-election campaigns we backed. So too did nine of the first-time candidates we supported. The Republican Party kept its majority in Congress thanks to our wins in the nation’s most competitive districts.
The nine incoming members of the Republican Main Street Partnership offer insight into the ways that the party is continuing to evolve. They hail from six different states and a variety of backgrounds. Some were early and vocal champions of Donald Trump’s candidacy, while others kept their distance. But all of them share the belief that governing matters. They’re not coming to Washington to shut government down but to make it work more effectively. They’re conservatives, not obstructionists. They want to address the causes of voter discontent by finding solutions rather than trying to prove how uncompromising they are.
Several of our new members come from military backgrounds. Don Bacon (pictured), who defeated incumbent Democratic Rep. Brad Ashford in Nebraska, is a retired U.S. Air Force brigadier general. Scott Taylor is a former Navy SEAL and veteran of Operation Iraqi Freedom who will now represent the Virginia Tidewater district with the highest concentrations of veterans and active-duty personnel in the nation. Brian Mast, who now represents Florida’s 18th Congressional District, served with the U.S. Army and lost both of his legs in an explosion in Afghanistan.
Other new members served in different branches of law enforcement. John Rutherford, a 28-year police veteran, rose from the rank of patrolman to be elected sheriff of Jacksonville, Florida, from 2004 to 2015. Pennsylvania Rep. Brian Fitzpatrick served for a decade and a half in the FBI, where he held leadership positions in the fight against political corruption and global terrorism, including Operation Iraqi Freedom. He was also a special assistant United States attorney, known for his successful prosecutions of violent drug and gun offenders.
Although the conventional wisdom held that Republican voters would be turned off by candidates with government experience, several of our new members were victorious in hard-fought races precisely because voters knew they had served with distinction in state legislatures. John Faso was the former minority leader of the New York State Assembly, where over the course of three decades he became known as a strong fiscal conservative who helped close a $5 billion deficit, balanced budgets, and achieved the first reduction in state spending in decades. Lloyd Smucker of Pennsylvania entered public service at the local level before serving for eight years in the state Senate, where he was chairman of the Education Committee and authored a law that played a key role in the economic revival of Pennsylvania’s urban areas. Matt Gaetz — at age 34, the youngest of Main Street’s incoming members — served for three terms in the Florida House of Representatives, where he chaired the committees on criminal justice and finance & tax, and led the House’s efforts to cut taxes by $1 billion over two years.
Political commentators also frequently assert that the Republican Party is moving ever further to the right, driven by primary challenges supported by outside groups like the Club for Growth and Heritage Action. But the reality is that these organizations, which oppose all Republicans who aren’t ideological purists, spent millions of dollars on primary elections in the last cycle without much to show for it.
Another one of Main Street’s incoming members — Roger Marshall, an obstetrician from Kansas — was victorious in a GOP primary election in the Sunflower State’s 1st District, one of the most conservative in the nation. He unseated Rep. Tim Huelskamp, a far-right Republican who’d spent most of his six years in office battling against his own party’s leadership. Although Republican incumbents supposedly lose primary elections only when they’re challenged from the right, Dr. Marshall won in a landslide by vowing to get things done in Washington rather than rabble-rouse.
The overall lesson I draw from the elections of these nine new Main Street members is that Republican voters want change, but they’re tired of electing legislators who refuse to legislate. I don’t think these voters have grown any less conservative. It’s more that they have a better understanding of the difference between a conservative who wants to govern, and someone who just wants to grandstand and make gridlock even worse. The other lesson is that politics is still local. Voters want candidates who have principles but who also understand the needs of their districts, not candidates whose primary loyalties are to deep-pocketed ideological groups and Washington think tanks.
I believe that the nine new members of the partnership will be the party’s stars of the future. They’re going to Congress to pass effective conservative policies that will benefit all Americans. Their success will demonstrate that electing more governing Republicans will be good for the party — and good for the country, too.