The original Republican Young Guns are high-ranking leaders now, and the group and its members are trying to hold on to a brand that previously brought them so much success.
In the 2008 cycle, three emerging GOP Members started the Young Guns program — an organization to recruit and support the next generation of Republican leaders. Republicans hyped the fresh faces of Reps. Paul Ryan (Wis.), Kevin McCarthy (Calif.) and Eric Cantor (Va.) as the future of their party at the time.
The trio now holds three of the top positions in House GOP leadership. But over the course of the past four years, the Young Guns brand diffused into separate franchises and, in the process, may have lost some of its original flavor.
“The Young Guns ‘brand’ is going through somewhat of an identity crisis,” one GOP strategist said. “They are no longer perceived as up-and-coming Members. They are the establishment, and that requires a certain style of leadership.”
Most recently, the YG Action Fund super PAC — run by a former Cantor aide — waded into the Illinois primary between freshman Rep. Adam Kinzinger and longtime Rep. Don Manzullo, drawing the ire of many GOP Members. The PAC spent $52,000 on a radio ad boosting Kinzinger, whom Cantor personally endorsed. That investment paid off Tuesday, when Kinzinger toppled Manzullo.
Rep. James Lankford (Okla.), a freshman lawmaker who was not part of the Young Guns program — now run by the National Republican Congressional Committee — in 2010, called Cantor’s involvement a tough call. With so many members of the 2010 Young Gun class now up for re-election, Lankford also acknowledged that the group is trying to figure itself out and that the episode in Illinois is an example of that soul searching.
“I think they’re still trying to figure that out because it’s new,” Lankford said. “You’ve got three people who coordinated all that in the past, and does that continue going on? Is there a transition? Is it a permanent part of the NRCC from here on out and loses the mystique that it once had?”
On Tuesday, Cantor reiterated that his support in the Member-vs.-Member race was simply making good on a promise he made to Kinzinger last summer.
“I try to always be somebody of his word,” he explained.
Manzullo said last week that Cantor’s involvement in the primary has been toxic within the GOP Conference, and this week he said the Majority Leader should resign his position.
“I can’t tell you how upset the rest of the Members of the Republican Conference are — that what Cantor did is very divisive,” Manzullo said during an interview last week.
Even Members without primary challenges from a colleague were grimacing Tuesday as voters in Illinois went to the polls. Rep. Doug Lamborn, a three-term lawmaker, said Cantor’s decision could be hurtful to the GOP Conference.
“My only take on it is that they’re viewing a younger Representative as having more years ahead of him than an older Member,” the Colorado Republican said. “But I’m concerned because that wouldn’t show sufficient respect for someone who has been here supporting Republican principles for a long time.”
House Republicans lost dozens of seats during the first cycle the Young Guns PAC was in existence, but the program proved it had potential.
By 2009, the NRCC had co-opted the Young Guns program, but the trio remained heavily involved. NRCC Chairman Pete Sessions (Texas) picked McCarthy to head candidate recruitment for the party, and the committee used the Young Guns brand as its benchmark fundraising and infrastructure program for open-seat and challenger races.
“The original Young Guns remain actively involved in the NRCC program and played a big role in helping to recruit and prime so many candidates for victory in 2010,” NRCC spokesman Paul Lindsay said.
Also in 2010, Ryan, McCarthy and Cantor penned a book, “Young Guns: A New Generation of Conservative Leaders.”
Republicans made historic gains in the House last cycle, and the trio reaped those benefits: Cantor became Majority Leader, McCarthy became Majority Whip, and Ryan became House Budget chairman.
After the trio claimed its new mantles, the Young Guns program shifted again.
In October, former Cantor aide John Murray filed the paperwork to open YG Action Fund. Although the super PAC is branded with the Young Guns name, Cantor cannot legally make any decisions on its behalf.
A few months later, another Young Guns PAC terminated, according to Federal Election Commission reports. Just a couple of weeks beforehand, the PAC split the remaining cash between the three leader’s individual leadership PACs — $71,400 each to Prosperity PAC, Majority Committee PAC and Every Republican is Crucial PAC.
Meanwhile, the NRCC’s Young Guns program remains successful, but sources said Cantor, McCarthy and Ryan have stepped back from their involvement compared to 2008.
Ryan, a darling of the right, is carrying out much of the Young Gun’s political principles as an architect of the party’s fiscal agenda and budget blueprint. The budget draft, released Tuesday, caused unrest among many of the conservative freshmen.
McCarthy, who has had to work overtime to keep a majority together on key votes as the party’s Whip, has largely stayed out of intraparty tussles that might otherwise compromise his relationships under the Dome.
“I think McCarthy has done a very savvy job of distancing himself from being blamed” for some of the problems within leadership, a former GOP leadership aide said.
A GOP lawmaker agreed, arguing that while McCarthy has been “in a tough situation, just based on where the leadership is,” he has largely sidestepped those conflicts and maintained solid relationships with both Speaker John Boehner (Ohio) and Cantor.
And Illinois Rep. John Shimkus, who endorsed Kinzinger in the contentious primary, lauded Cantor’s decision to get involved.
“When you’re a leader, you stand in front and lead and take risks. I think that’s courageous,” he said.
But acknowledging that more unrest could occur in Member-vs.-Member primaries in other states, Shimkus quipped “All I have to say is, get ready.”
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., carries a musket on stage as he speaks during the American Conservative Union's Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) at National Harbor, Md., on Thursday March 6, 2014.