WASHINGTON — Politically secure locally for the first time in his congressional career, Rep. Adam Kinzinger, R-Ill., is stepping up on the national stage, with bookings on the Sunday talk shows the past four weeks an example of his growing profile.
Fate has played a hand in Kinzinger appearing on NBC’s “Meet the Press” June 1 and May 18; on CBS’ “Face the Nation” on May 25 and on ABC’s “This Week” on May 11. Big issues in Kinzinger’s wheelhouse are in play: the Veterans Affairs health treatment scandal, the decision of House leaders to form another committee to probe Benghazi, and most recently President Barack Obama’s decision to swap Army Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl for five Taliban held in Guantanamo, ending the soldier’s five years in Taliban detention.
A major in the Wisconsin Air National Guard and a pilot, Kinzinger, 36, told me in an interview the Bergdahl deal was “shocking” and “mind-blowing” and one “I think the administration never should have negotiated.”
Also, the circumstances of Bergdahl’s capture matter, Kinzinger said. It is one thing to be seized during combat or kidnapped, “vs. if you left your post voluntarily and if you deserted. I think there is a lot of evidence that Bergdahl is a deserter. I think it is almost unquestionable.”
Kinzinger’s Illinois political story starts when, as a student at Illinois State University, he won election to the McLean County board. He joined the Air Force but never left politics behind.
In November 2010, riding a big GOP wave in Illinois, Kinzinger defeated now former Rep. Debbie Halvorson, D-Ill. Once in Congress, GOP House leaders gave him an immediate boost with a plum appointment to the Energy and Commerce Committee.
In 2012, Kinzinger was forced to confront the reality of Illinois Democrats drawing the redistricting maps following the 2010 Census. Illinois lost a House seat, and the Democrats were determined to protect their own. Rather than tempt fate in a district packed with Democrats, Kinzinger chose to run in the newly redrawn 16th Congressional District, a gerrymandered quilt (sort of a reverse J shape) hugging the Chicago suburbs and touching the Indiana and Wisconsin borders.
The new 16th was GOP turf. And just as the Democrats hoped, the result was two Illinois House Republicans pitted against each other, Kinzinger vs. Rep. Don Manzullo. In an unusual move, top Republicans took sides and Kinzinger won.
After his 2012 re-election, Kinzinger, a resident of Channahon, decided to broaden his portfolio, a move that helped lead to his newfound prominence today.
The energy and commerce panel is so prime that GOP members usually serve exclusively with no other committee assignments. But Kinzinger wanted to also join the House Foreign Affairs Committee and needed to secure permission from House leaders. “I had to make the ask,” he told me.
“I think it is a natural fit,” Kinzinger said. “Nationally, I am concerned about this creep toward isolationism. . . . I have concerns about that in my own party. . . . I think we need calm, rational voices out there making the case for American strength. And not to put down any of my fellow members of Congress, but I think there is kind of a dearth or lack of national security knowledge among members of Congress.”
From his new perch on the Foreign Affairs Committee, in September, Kinzinger broke ranks to support President Barack Obama’s bid to win authorization from Congress for a military strike against Syria, but he is calling the shots as he sees them. At the end of May, Kinzinger said Obama’s Afghanistan troop withdrawal plan was “a callous act of political convenience that undermines our entire mission in Afghanistan.”
For his 2014 re-election bid, Kinzinger faces a nominal Democratic opponent in November and is assured of re-election. He went into the March Illinois primary season keeping his head down, because he did have a tea party opponent, David Hale Jr., whom Kinzinger dispatched with 78.44 percent of the vote.
As an Illinois political figure, Kinzinger is not yet all that well-known. He has stayed out the Illinois GOP intraparty fray. Like Rep. Aaron Schock, R-Ill., Kinzinger is seen as a comer. What’s next for Kinzinger isn’t obvious yet, but he’s positioning himself for the future.