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Who is Adam Kinzinger, the former Tea Party darling now leading Republican resistance to the Trump faction?

Long a loyal party member, the Illinois congressman turned against the former president when he tried to overturn the election result

Nathan Place
Saturday 06 February 2021 19:08 GMT
Congressman Adam Kinzinger was one of 10 House Republicans who voted to impeach Donald Trump a second time.
Congressman Adam Kinzinger was one of 10 House Republicans who voted to impeach Donald Trump a second time. (POOL/AFP via Getty Images)

Last Sunday, a Republican congressman named Adam Kinzinger launched a political action committee with a soaring speech about the future of his party, urging the GOP to “turn back from the edge of darkness and return to the ideals that have long been our guiding light.”

On Wednesday that party voted to censure him.

Kinzinger, one of the few House Republicans who voted to impeach Donald Trump last month, represents the 16th district of Illinois. An official Republican group in that area, the La Salle County Republican Central Committee, announced this week that it voted overwhelmingly to disavow him “for acting contrary to the values” of the committee, specifically citing his impeachment vote.

This was hardly the only time Kinzinger has angered his fellow Republicans, even within the past week. On Wednesday, he forcefully defended Rep Liz Cheney as Republicans decided whether to punish her for her pro-impeachment vote, railing against House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy in the process. The next day, Kinzinger voted in favour of almost exactly the same punishment for another congresswoman, the Trump ally Marjorie Taylor Greene, for her hate-mongering social media posts.

With these votes, Kinzinger has done something many of his colleagues have avoided: staking out a clear position on the future of his party. Rather than try to duck the conflict, the congressman has left no doubt which side he is on – against the pro-Trump, conspiracy theory-driven wing of the GOP, and in favour of what he calls traditional conservative values.

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“The Republican Party has lost its way,” he tells us in the video unveiling his PAC, Country First. “If we are to lead again, we need to muster the courage to remember who we are.”

But who is this congressman, who until a few days ago was relatively unknown on the national level? And what are the conservative values he claims to champion? Is he bravely choosing the principled path he describes, or is he simply choosing his team at a moment when it’s impossible to stay neutral?

Adam Daniel Kinzinger was born on February 27, 1978, in Kankakee, Illinois. He graduated from Normal West High School in 1996, and got his bachelor’s degree from Illinois State University in 2000. His major was political science.

While he was still in college, Kinzinger ran for office for the first time. As he told the Washington Post, a friend had jokingly suggested he campaign for the County Board in McLean County, Illinois, and Kinzinger took him seriously. He won. At age 20, Kinzinger became one of the youngest board members in the county’s history.

Motivated by the September 11 terrorist attacks, Kinzinger joined the Air National Guard in 2003. He began his service by flying refuelling tankers in Chicago, and from there moved on to South America, Guam, Afghanistan, and Iraq, where he transported troops and took mortar fire.

Ironically, it was back in the United States where he had his most heroic moment. One night in 2006, Kinzinger was walking down a street in Milwaukee when he saw a woman clutching her neck, screaming that her boyfriend had cut her. Kinzinger leapt into action, wrestling the knife out of the assailant’s hands and pinning him until police arrived. For this he received the National Guard's Valley Forge Cross for Heroism.

In 2010, Kinzinger ran for Congress. It was the year of the Tea Party, an insurgency within the GOP that many now see as a precursor for today’s pro-Trump populism. On paper, Kinzinger’s chances didn’t look good. He was running to unseat an incumbent, the Democrat Debbie Halvorson, and first he had to get through a primary with four other candidates. But with his Iraq war record, plus an endorsement from then-rising-star Sarah Palin, Kinzinger won both races by wide margins. He entered Congress in 2011.

Very little in Kinzinger’s record since then would suggest the controversial course he’s charting now. During the Trump years, he voted with the president 90.2 per cent of the time, according to FiveThirtyEight. He voted to repeal Obamacare, opposed late-term abortions, and supported the concealed carry of firearms across state lines. When Trump was impeached the first time in 2019, Kinzinger voted against it. For all intents and purposes, he appeared to be a consistent, conservative Republican.

The turning point seems to have been after the 2020 election, when Trump repeatedly tried to overturn the results. After the defeated president tweeted a 46-minute, rambling speech promoting conspiracy theories about his supposedly stolen victory, Kinzinger replied on Twitter, “Time to delete your account.”

A month later, after the president’s words helped motivate a mob to attack the US Capitol, Kinzinger became the only House Republican to support using the 25th Amendment to remove him from office. It wasn’t a long road from there to supporting impeachment, and from there to being censured in his own district.

And yet for all the recriminations, Kinzinger shows no sign of doubt about his decisions.

“This is not a vote I took lightly, but a vote I took confidently,” he said of his vote to impeach. “I'm at peace.”

If that’s true, Kinzinger may be the only person in his party who feels that way.

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