On a Zoom call with the Grundy Economic Development Council in late February, U.S. Rep. Adam Kinzinger addressed a long list of issues facing the country and his north central Illinois district.
He shared his thoughts on the state of the COVID-19 pandemic, detailed his efforts to save nuclear plants in Illinois and touched on his worries about foreign adversaries in Syria and China.
Yet among the bevy of issues he spoke about, there was one that he said concerns him greatly.
“The thing that actually really keeps me up at night is not overseas. It’s here at home,” said Kinzinger, R-Channahon. “It is the level of division in this country right now.”
He said Americans see those with different political opinions as “the enemy. That is a really big problem,” he said.
The 16th Congressional District representative tried to illustrate the level of partisan polarization with a dramatic hypothetical: Kinzinger said he feared that if China were to drop a nuclear bomb on California, one of the most Democratic states in the nation, then “there would be some on my side of the aisle [Republicans] that said, ‘Good, now we can win the Senate back.’ ”
“I say that kind of jokingly, but kind of not,” Kinzinger said.
It’s that concern over the present political climate in the U.S. that has prompted the six-term congressman to not only call out what he views as extremism in both parties but also to buck former President Donald Trump and his supporters.
Kinzinger’s well-documented stances, from calling for the removal of Trump from office after the Jan. 6 insurrection at the U.S. Capitol to being one of only 10 Republicans to vote to impeach the 45th president, have invited backlash from several constituents.
Despite that criticism from a party that largely still approves of Trump, Kinzinger, 43, has remained steadfast in his journey to #RestoreOurGOP, a hashtag he uses on Twitter.
Even as the country begins to rebound from the devastation of a pandemic that’s killed more than half a million Americans and an economic crisis that cost millions of jobs, Kinzinger’s fight with members of his own party has captured headlines and, at times, sparked debates locally and nationally.
Interviews with more than a dozen of Kinzinger’s former colleagues, observers, political adversaries and allies reveal the kinds of rifts on the local level that could have broader implications for the future of the Republican Party.
‘I don’t know what he’s thinking’
The political knives were out for Kinzinger during a Will County Republican Central Committee meeting in late February.
A group of more than 100 members, many of whom attended in person at the party’s office with few face coverings and seemingly little regard for social distancing, overwhelmingly voted to censure the congressman.
They cited not only his vote to impeach Trump but also his announced effort to challenge sitting Republican members of Congress who had echoed the former president’s false claims of election fraud.
“As long as he was going after the [former] president, it’s politics as usual,” Chairman George Pearson said during the meeting. “But you start raising money to go after other Republicans, I have a real issue with that. That’s a problem. Not only did he insult other Republicans who were supporting the president, he then started insulting me as a voter, and I’ll be damned if I’m going to have somebody that’s elected insult me as a voter.”
The attendees applauded Pearson’s statement.
Another member said Kinzinger was not a Republican and called him a “bum.”
There still were a couple precinct committee members who said that while they didn’t agree with Kinzinger’s actions, they did not see the sense in censuring one of their own, especially one with proven electoral success in a blue state.
The arguments fell flat, however, as the party members voted, 111-5, with one abstention, in favor of censure.
Similar debates took place across the 16th District in the weeks after Kinzinger’s vote to impeach Trump.
Republican groups in La Salle and Iroquois counties voted to censure him. The chairwoman of the Ogle County Republicans said that while her organization didn’t censure Kinzinger, “we’re not supporting him, either.”
The debates were something of a microcosm of the broader internal divisions within the GOP playing out on a national scale.
Fidelity to Trump appeared to be a – if not the – defining factor causing those fissures.
“I don’t know what he’s thinking,” Larry Smith, chairman of the La Salle County Republicans, said of Kinzinger. “I just know that after he got elected, he went completely off the reservation.”
Smith said Kinzinger’s remarks about Trump were “so out of line” that he and his members felt obligated to take action.
When asked about Trump, Smith conceded he wished he were “more of a statesman” and that he can be “abrasive” at times.
“Sometimes he’d make me cringe,” Smith said of the former president.
But he also said he admired Trump’s ability to take the heat from liberals and the mainstream news media.
“I don’t know anybody who could have survived the beating that guy took for four years,” he said. “I think a lesser man would have folded under the pressure.”
Of course, some still failed to see the use of censure votes and bashing Kinzinger.
Aren Hansen, chairman of the Grundy County Republicans, said he thought Kinzinger has been a “great representative” who “doesn’t bite his tongue.”
Moreover, Hansen argued it made little sense to ostracize a staunchly conservative Republican who is “arguably our most talented, up-and-coming” representative. He said Kinzinger could provide Illinois Republicans their best chance to win a statewide office, all of which Democrats control.
Observers have speculated that Kinzinger is positioning himself to run for a U.S. Senate seat or governor in 2022. When asked about it during a virtual news conference in February, he said he did not have any plans to run for higher office.
He argued his priority is to “save” the Republican Party, which he said is “a great party that’s very much lost its way,” but he also conceded a more practical reason for not seeking higher office.
“People that speculate that don’t know me, and I would even argue that they probably don’t know something about politics if they think I can get through a primary pretty easily,” Kinzinger said.
Kinzinger already has drawn several primary challengers for the 2022 cycle.
Even though the new map for legislative districts has yet to be determined, two Republicans who challenged U.S. Rep. Lauren Underwood, a Democrat in the 14th Congressional District, have set their sights on Kinzinger.
Catalina Lauf of Woodstock and James Marter of Oswego announced runs in Kinzinger’s district.
Lauf has called Kinzinger a “fake Republican.” Another challenger, Jack Lombardi of Manhattan, has called Kinzinger a RINO – an acronym meaning Republican in name only – on Twitter.
In effect, these candidates have turned down the opportunity to take on a potentially vulnerable Democrat such as Underwood in favor of challenging Kinzinger.
It’s that calculus that appeared to perplex Kinzinger’s allies.
State Rep. David Allen Welter, a Republican from Morris, said he thinks Kinzinger is taking his stance without regard for his political future. He conceded it’s a risk for Kinzinger, as many local Republicans have turned against him.
“I don’t think they care about the political realities,” Welter said of Kinzinger’s critics. “It doesn’t matter what you say or what logic you use.”
Some allies pointed to how well Kinzinger did in the 2020 cycle, winning his district by nearly 30 points, compared with Trump, who won it by 16 points.
Although some Illinois Republicans have embraced Trump and his brand, others, such as Hansen, advocate an approach that can attract swing voters the party lost in 2018.
But Hansen said he feared the GOP faithful were effectively eating one of their own and possibly hindering their party’s journey back to competitiveness in Illinois.
“It’s been frustrating watching our own party members throw him to the wolves,” he said. “Maybe it’s a peek into the window of why we struggle so much.”
‘He’s got guts’
For those who’ve known Kinzinger from his earliest days in politics, his stances over the past few months are not surprising.
When he was a 20-year-old sophomore at Illinois State University, Kinzinger beat a three-term incumbent and became the youngest member of the McLean County Board.
Tari Renner, the mayor of Bloomington, served with Kinzinger on the board starting in 1998. Renner, a Democrat, said he remembers working quite well with Kinzinger, who even then was a conservative Republican. They both took practical approaches to local and less partisan issues.
“We both wanted to blow the place open,” Renner joked. “The old guard who ran the place forever didn’t like questions or open government.”
Renner said he’s kept in touch with Kinzinger since their days as colleagues. In recent weeks, as he saw Kinzinger take heat for his stances against Trump, Renner said he sent him text messages lauding him for “sticking by your guns.”
It was that principled stand without resorting to personal attacks that Renner said he remembers seeing when Kinzinger was a younger man.
Renner recalled one instance involving another board member who he said was “incompetent” and “nasty.” He remembered Kinzinger once calling out that member for his incompetence but without any name-calling.
He said Kinzinger’s actions showed his “deepest, strongest character,” traits he again sees in this latest set of battles.
“It’s not about issues,” Renner said. “It’s the fact that he realized that we shouldn’t have a sociopath in the White House.”
George Gordon, who also served on the McLean County Board from shortly before Kinzinger was elected until last year, also remembered Kinzinger as a “serious” and “conscientious” elected official.
Gordon, a Democrat, remembered that one of the most hotly debated votes on the board was one in 2000 for who would be chairman.
Kinzinger gave the decision “serious thought,” Gordon said, and he ultimately decided against the preference of some within his own party. Gordon said other members were struck by Kinzinger’s ability to buck partisan expectations, much like he’s done recently.
“He’s got guts,” Gordon said. “I think he’s been entirely sincere with the things he’s said.”
Kinzinger routinely has decried the latest evolution of electoral politics, including on his new podcast, “Country First Conversations.” In the first episode, he said the advent of social media helped encourage new members of Congress to focus more on self-promotion than legislating.
As if reminiscing about a bygone era, Kinzinger said he remembers his first years after being elected to Congress in 2010 were focused on more substantive issues. His congressional YouTube page is full of speeches from his early days criticizing the Obama administration for its spending and pushing for regulation cuts to help boost an economy still suffering from the Great Recession.
John McIntyre, the Republican chairman of the McLean County Board, said that as he watched Kinzinger’s career play out, he’s seen the deterioration of American politics unfold as well.
McIntyre said he’s been friendly with the Kinzinger family for many years and that his wife taught Kinzinger when he was in grade school.
As a Republican, McIntyre said he, too, thinks modern politics has become hyper-polarized around more and more extreme viewpoints and also admired Kinzinger for his stand on principle.
“We need more people like Adam,” McIntyre said.
‘I’ll never look back’
In late March, as national politics moved on and Republicans turned their focus on attacking the Biden administration’s push for a huge infrastructure package and its handling of a migrant crisis, Kinzinger was back in his district.
He met with members of the Will County Farm Bureau, who presented him with their Legislator of the Year Award for his votes on pandemic relief for farmers, a trade deal with Canada and Mexico, and estate taxes.
The congressman appeared at ease, complimenting the host farmer for his old-school tractor and fielding questions about his latest concerns over China.
But Kinzinger also told of the tensions lingering in Congress after a “really rough year” between navigating new safety rules on Capitol Hill because of the pandemic, and even more measures after the Jan. 6 insurrection.
He said additions such as metal detectors, which even members of Congress needed to go through, were installed “just to make a point.”
“That just boils the tension up,” he said.
Despite the challenges, he said he felt reinvigorated to debate actual legislation. Even if he was on the side out of power and in dissent of what Democrats were doing, it felt to him like he was “fighting for a purpose.”
He expressed no worries about a looming reelection bid in 2022 and was about to announce a big fundraising quarter, but he also appeared to acknowledge the political fights engulfing the country had perhaps taken a toll on him.
“When I’m done with politics,” Kinzinger said, “I’ll never look back.”