No, said Ryan and others. The problem was deeper. A “fundamental rot” had set in, as party leaders had adopted bloated budgets, chased pork-barrel spending and worried too much about getting reelected. The American people had sent a punishing message. Voters hadn’t just chosen Democrats. They had deserted Republicans.
As the evening wore on, the melancholy gave way to strategizing about how to right the ship. A return to power required a return to the party’s core values, the group agreed. To change their fortunes at the polls, they had to change direction.
Cantor, McCarthy and Ryan had already set out to recruit Young Gun candidates who shared their vision. Smaller government and lower taxes, not explosive federal spending, would be their route to growth and prosperity. Despite the GOP’s crushing defeat at the polls in 2008, some of their recruits had won.
They vowed to redouble their efforts. By the time dinner ended, the mood had improved. “I thought, these guys have finally woken up,” said McCarthy, the man who would take a primary role in the coming recruiting blitz. “They’re not gonna sit back. They weren’t afraid to compete on policy . . . It was a turning point.”
Chapter 2: Diamonds in the rough
By December 2009, McCarthy’s expectations had brightened dramatically. “I can feel the ground moving and changing,” he told a Washington Post reporter who had come to see him at the Capitol Hill offices of the National Republican Congressional Committee, the NRCC.
McCarthy rifled through a massive binder, amassed over months of cross-country travel in his role as the GOP’s chief recruiter. A former small-business owner with a head of silver hair and a gleaming smile, he knew what he was looking for: That diamond in the rough with the charisma to raise piles of cash and the passion to inspire voters with a vision of limited government.
McCarthy would leave his suits in Washington, slipping on Levis for countless cups of coffee in countless small-town diners. He had a mathematician’s faith in numbers, charting census data and studying how a rival strategist, Rahm Emanuel, had built the Democratic majority in 2006.
He enrolled many of his finds in the Young Guns program backed by the NRCC. As the candidates proved their mettle, they moved up the ladder: from “on the radar” to “contender” to “Young Gun.” Each step came with more support from the party and various political action committees that McCarthy and the other Young Guns maintained.
The names spilled out as he took the Post reporter on a state-by-state preview of the GOP lineup:
“You know Sean Duffy? . . . a district attorney, a world-class lumberjack.”
“Adam Kinzinger . . . Good guy, good, aggressive guy.”
“This Steve Stivers, he’s a rock star.”
All would make it to Washington, joining the freshman class of 2011.
McCarthy’s travels had also alerted him to the gathering steam of the tea party. He saw a potential ally, not a threat. “We can’t sit back and think we have all the right ideas,” he said. “We have to be able to come up with an agenda that will unite everyone. I think we have the principles that do that from this idea of fiscal responsibility.”
Polls were showing a growing dislike for the Democrats. But he knew that didn’t necessarily translate into love for the Republicans. Still, there was time. McCarthy could sense a majority within reach.
“If we’re a stock, [voters] are buying at the bottom,” he predicted. “They’re going to make money on us.”
Chapter 3: Catching the wave
In early 2010, McCarthy’s faith in a Republican resurgence was bolstered by hard electoral evidence. Scott Brown won Edward M. Kennedy’s Senate seat in Massachusetts. Around the country, a new catchphrase appeared in the rhetoric of some Young Gun recruits, prompted by a nearly routine action in Washington.
On Feb. 4, Congress voted to increase the nation’s borrowing limit — a vote it had taken 40 times in the past three decades — and a little-known city councilwoman in Montgomery, Ala., issued a statement.
“This ‘need’ to raise the debt ceiling is caused by one thing: out-of-control spending in Washington,” said Martha Roby, a Young Gun recruit whose campaign was ramping up.
That same day, a roofing contractor and Young Gun candidate in Wisconsin named Reid Ribble released his own statement attacking the Democratic incumbent for voting to boost the debt ceiling. “This Congress has done nothing but spend future generations of this country into a black hole,” his statement said.
By summer, “debt limit” had joined runaway spending as a sound bite. In South Dakota, GOP challenger Kristi Noem used the phrase to hammer her Democratic opponent, Rep. Stephanie Herseth Sandlin. Noem told Fox News that Sandlin had “voted for the budgets that have put this country further into debt. She voted to raise our country’s federal debt ceiling as well.”