January 28, 2022

Opinion

Nowlan: A path forward for Adam Kinzinger

What is Adam Kinzinger going to do? What should he do? Friends ask me. His options aren’t good, yet I have a path forward for Kinzinger. First, some background.

Kinzinger is the typically conservative, four-term Republican congressman from the edge of the Chicago suburbs, who has been dissing Donald Trump since even before the Jan. 6 confrontation at the U.S. Capitol.

Democrats have drawn new congressional districts in Illinois, which put Kinzinger in a Deep Red GOP district with Trump ally U.S. Rep. Darin LaHood. And when a Republican crosses their man, the intensely loyal Trump fans cross him off their list, for good. No path forward here.

What about running for U.S. Senate, or governor? Even though Adam is young, attractive, an Air Force pilot with Afghanistan tours, would he – would you – want to run against an unobjectionable woman senator who had her legs blown off in Iraq piloting an Army helicopter in defense of her country?

As for governor, Kinzinger could not win the GOP primary next June, because Trump voters dominate the Grand Old Party. Even if he did win the primary – say against a large field of Trumpsters – he couldn’t win the general election, because Trump Republicans would lay off and not vote in his race. I tell you, the Trump base is loyal to their man.

So, to give himself some breathing room, Kinzinger has created Country First, a national movement (he hopes), which is against toxic politics and wants to unite the country. The website is glossy, positive, and bland. I agree with all of it, yet it doesn’t arouse me, because there is little detail.

The problem with Country First is that it positions Adam on the sidelines, along with former moderate Ohio GOP Gov. John Kasich, who has his own movement. Only coaches are important on the sidelines. To be a player, you have to be in the arena.

So, here is my path forward for Adam: Run for a fifth term in the U.S. House, from one of the several new suburban districts. The most likely would be the 14th, where Democratic African-American nurse Lauren Underwood is the incumbent. The district includes some of Kinzinger’s former territory, and is arguably more moderate than the other suburban congressional districts.

Adam’s legal residence is in small-town Channahon, which is being enveloped by southwest Chicago suburban sprawl. A candidate does not have to live in the district in which he runs. And Adam is really a Washingtonian, rather than, let’s say, a longtime a member of the Channahon Rotary. His wife is a Capitol Hill staffer, so that’s where their life is centered. I don’t say that as criticism. If you want to move up the ladder in D.C., you have to spend lots of time there.

Adam could run as a member of the Country First Party, not a bad label, or as an Independent, also a positive label for someone with Kinzinger’s established credentials and visibility.

Other advantages: 1) he would avoid an expensive primary contest, and 2) he would not have to win 50% plus one of the votes, but only a plurality, say, 38% or so. This, on the premise, likely, that both the Dems and GOP will field competitive candidates. (Abraham Lincoln won the presidency in 1860 with 39% of the vote in a four-way contest.)

With his frequent appearances on national news shows, Adam could draw attention to this test in Illinois of whether there is indeed a new, Third Way forward in American politics. If he won, he could trumpet such as proof positive for others to run similarly across the country, building a new force inside the political arena. (In the 1850s, the new Republican Party required four election cycles to win the presidency.)

If he lost, Adam would still have his Country First movement, which he could grow during his run for the House next year. Or, he could become a high-paid talking head.

There are no guarantees in fickle politics. I think too many in the political game look for guarantees, which is why they never make it to the top. Based on my experience, admittedly decades cold, of running U.S. Senate and presidential campaigns, I think a run for the House in the suburbs – which is the crucible of American politics right now – is the path forward for Adam Kinzinger.

• Jim Nowlan is a former state legislator and aide to three unindicted Illinois governors. A retired professor of American politics, he writes a newspaper column on Understanding Illinois.