Paul Ryan has an army. It’s also known as the House Republican freshmen, 87 strong and dedicated to the proposition that conservative reform is not only possible but achievable, so long as Mitt Romney is elected president.
Without his army, Ryan would still be an influential House member, but not Romney’s running mate. His budget and plan for saving Medicare would be languishing. The 2010 election changed everything. It sent 87 recruits to Ryan, while moving the ideological balance in Washington to the right. Ryan transformed them into an army of followers. They elevated him and made him a political star.
Now, for Ryan’s reforms (as revised by Romney) to be enacted, his army must be reelected in November—most of it, anyway. The prospects look good. Six freshmen have no Democratic opponent. The Democrat facing Steve Womack of Arkansas dropped out in June after admitting he’d lied about serving in a Green Beret unit in Afghanistan and Iraq.
Democrats in Arkansas may have a death wish. Tim Griffin, a freshman Republican from Little Rock who was already favored, got further help when his Democratic challenger, Herb Rule, was arrested on a drunk driving charge in mid-August. Rule says he’s not dropping out.
Here’s how two experts see things. David Wasserman of the Cook Political Report, the premier analyst of House races, lists at least 70 of the freshmen as favored to win. Of the others, 2 are likely to lose, 2 are in districts that lean Democratic, and 10 are in tossup seats. One freshman lost in a primary, another will lose in a merged district in Arizona that pits 2 members of the class of 2010 against one another, and a third might.
If all 17 lose in November, that will be a serious setback, but not a total calamity. It would be par for the course. A dozen freshmen elected in the 1994 Republican landslide lost their seats in 1996. Short of a tectonic shift in the political landscape, not all 17 will lose. They include a number of exceptional candidates—Allen West in Florida and Chris Gibson and Nan Hayworth in New York, to name three—in marginal districts.
Brian Walsh of the American Action Network (AAN), a pro-Republican super-PAC, puts the freshmen in three groups. Roughly one-third of their districts have become more Republican through clever reapportionment by GOP state legislatures.
Robert Hurt of Virginia is an example. He defeated an incumbent Democrat, 51 percent to 47 percent, in 2010. But his redrawn district is rated “solid R” by Wasserman. So he’s a shoo-in. Renee Ellmers of North Carolina would have been vulnerable after winning by 1,483 votes in 2010. Her district is safely Republican now.
Another one-third consists of first-termers in red states where the Romney-Ryan ticket should win overwhelmingly. Even those who won narrowly two years ago, like Martha Roby of Alabama and Kristi Noem of South Dakota, are out of reach for Democrats in 2012 in red states.
Walsh’s third group is the problem: freshmen in blue or purple states. Orphan states where President Obama will run strongly and Republicans won’t mount a challenge are the most worrisome. House GOP whip Kevin McCarthy is raising funds to aid candidates in California and Illinois. They’ll need the help.
New York was a bonanza for Republicans in 2010 with six freshmen elected. Now it’s an orphan state. AAN, well financed and nimble, is concentrating on tight House races, most involving freshmen. “They won with the wind at their back [in 2010],” he says. To win reelection, “they are going to have to run very good campaigns.”
Most are capable of that. The 2010 class is different from its media caricature. They aren’t Tea Party dominated. Only 15 joined the Tea Party Caucus in the House. Thirty-five never held elective office before, thus aren’t career hacks. Their election had an enormous impact. “It made the whole [Republican] conference more conservative,” a GOP official says.
Some were instantly ready to line up with Ryan. “I ran on the Roadmap,” the first version of Ryan’s reform budget, says Hayworth. “One of the biggest thrills I had was sitting next to Ryan at a meeting,” she says. Hayworth, whose district extends to Albany from the suburbs of New York City, describes herself as a “libertarian Republican.”
Months before the 2010 election, Ryan, McCarthy, and Majority Leader Eric Cantor made plans to brief the newcomers on the conservative reform agenda. Republican candidates had been warned off it during the 2010 campaign by Republican strategists in Washington. “I was aghast,” Hayworth says, when she heard that advice. She ignored it.
Beginning in early 2011, 30 meetings were held in the conference room of McCarthy’s Capitol office, chiefly for the freshmen but also for other House Republicans. These were hour-long “listening sessions”: They listened to Ryan. Robert Costa of National Review dubbed the attendees “students of Paul Ryan.”
Ryan has an unusual teaching style. He suffers fools gladly. Peter Roskam, the deputy Republican whip, told me Ryan reminds him of what St. Ambrose, the 4th-century bishop of Milan, said about proposing rather than imposing. He presents an idea, not an argument. It works.
In those sessions, Ryan’s army was born. His budget had been poorly received by Republican veterans in 2009 and 2010. It had only a handful of cosponsors. The freshmen changed that. In 2011, when the budget, including the reform of Medicare, passed the House, only one freshman, David McKinley of West Virginia, voted no. This year, when it was approved again, four did. House Speaker John Boehner, quietly allied with Ryan, was fully behind it. Better yet, Romney embraced it.
Ryan, his army, and conservative reform—less government, reduced spending, lower taxes, entitlements rescued from bankruptcy—are now embedded in the political culture. Ryan is running in two elections. If he and Romney lose, Ryan is likely to be reelected to his House seat. And most of his army will return. Washington has changed.
Fred Barnes is executive editor of The Weekly Standard.