CHICAGO (AP) — Three years after he was elected with support from Sarah Palin and other tea party activists, Illinois Congressman Adam Kinzinger finds himself in new territory: the target of a primary battle waged by people who say he's not conservative enough.
While similar challenges prompted some GOP lawmakers to move to the right or temper their rhetoric, Kinzinger has tried to hold his ground and become more visible and vocal than ever. He has made the rounds on TV talk shows to argue for military action in Syria — a position he shared with President Barack Obama — and he has criticized the groups targeting him for contributing to paralysis in Washington.
It's a calculated gamble by Kinzinger, who enjoys the advantages of incumbency in what's considered a safe Republican district. But he argues that it's also an opportunity to show other Republicans — especially in blue states like Illinois — that the GOP can make gains by welcoming younger voters and minorities, by not "going on cable TV all the time and yelling and screaming" and by accepting that it's a big party and "we're not going to agree on everything."
The House GOP's national campaign arm has selected the 35-year-old Channahon congressman to help with election efforts across the Midwest in 2014.
"I think there are people in D.C. that are scared of that idea of a primary," Kinzinger said in an interview this month in his Washington, D.C., office. "I think when you're challenged and you can defend your ideas and win big, it makes you stronger."
David Hale, who founded a local tea party group in Rockford, announced earlier this month that he'll take on Kinzinger in 2014. He said Kinzinger's position on Syria solidified his decision to run. While he knows he faces an uphill climb against an "established Republican sweetheart," he points to votes such as Kinzinger's support for a deal that averted the so-called "fiscal cliff" but raised taxes on upper incomes as reason to fight.
"To me it's about principle. It really is," said the 50-year-old U.S. Army veteran, who works in health care information management. "(Kinzinger) says the right things. He's just not what he says he is or who he says he is."
A veteran of Iraq and Afghanistan, Kinzinger was one of few House Republicans to come out in favor of military action in Syria amid evidence of a chemical attack. The former Air Force pilot, who still serves in the Air National Guard and has photos of himself in his flight suit throughout his office, said the ability of the U.S. and its allies to defend themselves in the future depended on enforcing a century-old ban on chemical weapons.
While he also criticized the Obama administration, saying it's shown "a complete failure to lead" on foreign affairs, Kinzinger's stance was seen by opponents of military action as a betrayal.
Club for Growth Action, a conservative anti-tax organization, has named Kinzinger to a list of 10 "Republicans in name only" that it's targeting for primaries. Among the others listed on the group's "Primary My Congressman" website are fellow Illinois U.S. Rep. Aaron Schock of Peoria and U.S. Rep. Greg Walden of Oregon, the chairman of the National Republican Congressional Committee.
GOP strategist Doug O'Brien says Club for Growth's efforts run counter to the way Illinois voters make decisions. They tend to be more concerned about local needs and problems, he said, rather than "30,000-foot issues people inside the beltway care so much about."
Still he said Kinzinger's recent strategy was unusual in the face of a primary threat.
"A lot of politicians in that situation would have shied away from further exacerbating that," said O'Brien, a former aide to U.S. Sen. Mark Kirk, another Illinois Republican who's infuriated tea party activists because of some moderate views.
Illinois' 18-member congressional delegation includes just six Republicans, after Democrats completed a near sweep of the most competitive races in 2012. The year before, Democratic lawmakers who control the Legislature redrew the state's political maps to favor their party.
The tea party hasn't held as much influence in Illinois as in some other states. Kinzinger had support from many tea party activists when he was first elected to Congress in 2010. When Democrats redrew the maps to make Kinzinger's district more Democrat-friendly he decided to challenge longtime GOP Congressman Don Manzullo — whose new 16th district included much of Kinzinger's old one. The district, where Republican Mitt Romney got about 53 percent of the vote for president in 2012, hugs some of Chicago's outermost suburbs and stretches through north-central portions of the state.
Manzullo had support from tea party activists, while Kinzinger was backed by House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, who's often considered the tea party's link to GOP leadership. Kinzinger won the primary and easily took the general election.
The Club for Growth, through its website, is still inviting the public to recommend a challenger to Kinzinger, though with six months left before the March primary a bid could be difficult, particularly for an unknown candidate.