Election 2010 could be a historic year and historic class for House Republicans.
In 1974, Democrats added 75 "Watergate babies" to their ranks. In 1994, Republicans had a class of 73 Contract With America freshmen. This year, the GOP's "Young Guns" – 77 of its most electable challengers – are looking to retake the House and take their party in a new direction.
They are Republicans, to be sure. But they come with a drop of "tea party" flavor mixed in. They oppose big government spending and even turn their anger at the Republicans who controlled the House from 1995 to 2006. And for many, their ideas for helping a struggling economy are thoroughly grounded in the nuts and bolts of personal experiences as small-business owners. In short: Help small business and you create jobs.
The small-business doctrine is hardly alien to the GOP. But the Young Guns approach it with a particular zeal, animating their campaigns with their own horror stories about how uncertainty about new federal regulations – along with changes in the tax code – hurt their businesses.
For Mike Kelly, that moment came in May 2009, when General Motors, at the behest of the Obama administration's Auto Task Force, announced plans to shut down more than 1,900 dealerships, including Mike Kelly Chevrolet-Cadillac Inc., in Butler, Pa., founded by his father in 1953. Mr. Kelly called his lawyer, went to arbitration, and eventually got that decision reversed.
But he also took another step: He lined up a campaign staff to challenge freshman Rep. Kathy Dahlkemper (D) in Pennsylvania's Third Congressional District. "If they can do this to Mike Kelly in Butler, Pa., they can do that to anyone," he said in an interview at a campaign stop at a German festival in Erie, Pa.
Washington has no common sense when it comes to creating private-sector jobs, he says. "Government doesn't understand the burden of creating jobs you're not going to be able to sustain," he says. "In business, you need common sense and to work hard. I work six days a week. You've got to recognize change and adjust very quickly…. In business, you fix; in government, you tax."
His plan: Cut corporate taxes, make the "death tax" go away, and cut the wage tax for six to 12 months.
At a campaign event in Erie, Kelly works the crowd as the outsider – the local businessman determined to bring his practical know-how to Washington. "I'm not really a politician; I'm a car dealer," he says. "The campaign is doing well, because the country is doing so poorly. I'd rather see the country do well."
Business credentials are a defining aspect of many Young Guns. "The vast majority of [Republican] challengers running this year have small-business backgrounds," says National Republican Congressional Committee (NRCC) spokesman Paul Lindsay.
In all, some 70 Republican small-business men – ranging from ranchers to high-tech start-up entrepreneurs – are in a race for a House seat, according to NRCC data.
But auto dealers, angered by the auto bailout launched by the Bush administration but largely implemented by the Obama administration, are on track to double their numbers in the house.
"May 1, 2009, was the darkest day in American capitalism, because that was the day government stepped in and said who should stay and who should go," he said. "I saw that government could step in and take my dealership."
Three months later, he launched his run for Congress. "This isn't about political parties; this is about being an American."
For their part, the architects of the Young Guns campaign – three Republican congressmen – have no problem with their protégés taking potshots at the establishment.
"The people we talk to and hear from everyday have made it clear that they're not in love with either party these days," wrote Reps. Eric Cantor (R) of Virginia, Kevin McCarthy (R) of California, and Paul Ryan (R) of Wisconsin in their new book, "Young Guns: A New Generation of Conservative Leaders." "Republicans controlled Washington from 2001 to 2006. They did some good things, but they also did a lot to give conservatism a bad name."
Young Gun businessmen can be a tough target for Democratic incumbents, because the newcomers to politics often have no voting record. Instead, Democrats are going after their business records. Rep. Mark Critz (D) of Pennsylvania defied the polls by defeating GOP businessman Tim Burns in a special election last spring, attacking his opponent's record on outsourcing jobs.
More recently, GOP challenger Ganley faced a sexual harassment complaint from a woman who says she sought a job at his dealership. The woman on Monday revised her complaint, dropping her previous and more serious allegations of sexual assault. Ganley and the NRCC call it an extortion attempt timed to disrupt the campaign, and Ganley denies all charges.
But overall, GOP businessmen say their outsider status is giving them an edge. David McKinley, running for an open seat in West Virginia's First Congressional District, has worked in engineering and construction for 45 years, 30 as head of his own firm, McKinley and Associates. Unemployment in the construction industry here is running at 35 percent, and people are disappointed that so little of last year's $787 billion stimulus plan went to bricks and mortar projects, he said at a volunteer firemen's breakfast in Kingswood, W.Va.
He proposes taking 5 percent out of the US foreign-aid budget and using it to put construction workers back to work making federal and state buildings energy efficient. "Let's use the money now being used to build infrastructure in other countries to put our people back to work," he says.