Some of the GOP's heavy hitters are giving thought to the party's future.
Through the tall trees of northern Wisconsin, Republican Sean Duffy is stalking a giant. The 38-year-old district attorney is talking fiscal responsibility, job creation, entitlement reform. He's scoring Washington for higher taxes, and for a health-care takeover. He's Facebooking and Twittering. He comes across as a serious yet positive reformer, a combo that has caught the public's eye.
He'll need that eye, and more, since his Goliath is one David Obey, Democratic head of the Appropriations Committee, the liberal bull who has occupied Wisconsin's Democratic-leaning 7th congressional seat since before Mr. Duffy was . . . born. That the Republican is getting some traction says something about how bitter voters are with the Democratic agenda. It says something equally important about a nascent GOP effort to rebrand the party.
Meet the new Young Guns.
The recent wave of Democratic retirements bodes well for Republicans. Yet they are still largely winning by default. The public doesn't like the Democratic agenda, but it hasn't forgotten the GOP's own corruption and loss of principle. And crafting a new image is a tough haul for a minority that is stuck responding to events, and that is still populated by many of the same, entrenched faces.
What is happening instead is a real (if underreported) effort to reshape the party from the bottom up—to, in effect, repopulate it with a crop of reformist candidates in the midterm. Behind the effort are three congressmen—Wisconsin's Paul Ryan, Virginia's Eric Cantor and California's Kevin McCarthy.
At a recent interview, Rep. McCarthy remembers that not long after the article, the three sat down and vented frustration that party leaders seemed more interested in protecting old faces than investing in new talent. Inspired by Mr. Barnes's label, they began the Young Guns program, to recruit and bring along a new generation of House Republicans.
In the 2008 election, the program singled out 24 conservative candidates, providing them money and help. Seven went on to win in the GOP wipeout. Several of the victors—Texas's Pete Olson, Florida's Tom Rooney—are already proving to be aggressive new voices. Pete Sessions, who took over the National Republican Congressional Committee, was impressed enough to bring the program within the committee structure and expand it.
Participation in Young Guns today is more challenging. Candidates must hit benchmarks to qualify for the title, money and support; 47 candidates are working to qualify. And what exactly is a prospective Young Gun? It isn't as mapped out as Newt Gingrich's Contract With America. Yet it also isn't Rahm Emanuel's famous Red-to-Blue program, which simply ran candidates—regardless of ideology—who could win.
Mr. McCarthy says Young Guns tend to "fit their district." What they have in common is "that they are all fiscal conservatives" who believe in entrepreneurship and limited government. Many were already unhappy with Republican earmarking and spending, and the bailouts and deficits have provided a new focus on cleaning up government and tackling crony capitalism.
Most are running bread-and-butter economic campaigns, similar to Virginia Gov. Elect Bob McDonnell's. They are folks like Stephen Fincher, a farmer running for retiring Democratic Rep. John Tanner's Tennessee seat, or Frank Guinta, mayor of Manchester, challenging New Hampshire's Carol Shea-Porter. Mr. McCarthy is quick to note these are not backroom-anointed candidates, a la Dede Scozzafava in New York. In some districts, more than one prospective Young Gun is running in a primary.
Wisconsin's Mr. Duffy describes it this way: "I'm running because this is the fight of my generation. The prior one fought the Cold War, before that it was World War II. But our fight is becoming one for the principles of free markets and against creeping socialism." He's targeting Mr. Obey for writing the $787 billion stimulus, highlighting Democrats' failed economic program. The DA (who is also a professional lumberjack athlete) is crisscrossing the district to warn about rampant spending, Medicare cuts, higher taxes and overregulation.
But he's also aware that Republicans can only shake a tarnished reputation by embracing a modern, reform agenda. He's been laying out conservative alternatives to government-run health care. He's honest about the coming entitlement bomb. He's proposing a flatter, smarter tax code. In his first fund-raising quarter, he raised $140,000—a record for the district.
Young Guns is no panacea. Party leaders are still searching for a clear message. The NRCC is struggling to raise money to support its recruits. Voters remain skeptical of the GOP, and the environment may improve for Democrats as the year goes on.
Yet what the program does suggest is some of the GOP's heavy hitters are giving thought to the party's future. Given the Republicans' recent years of wandering, that's a start.
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