On May 11, the night before the House GOP would vote to remove Rep. Liz Cheney as its No. 3 leader following her persistently critical comments against former President Donald Trump, Illinois Rep. Adam Kinzinger was having a moment on Twitter. First, he called House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy “an employee of Donald Trump” and tweeted that he would be “embarrassed” if he were McCarthy or the No. 2 Republican, Rep. Steve Scalise. Then he tangled with his GOP colleague Florida Rep. Matt Gaetz, dropping a reference to the federal investigation into Gaetz over possible sex trafficking.
He was still feisty the next morning when I asked him, immediately after the conference vote to remove Cheney, if he was expecting similar consequences for anything he’d said. Over the previous few months, he’d gone from expressing occasional unease about Trump’s statements to becoming one of the most outspoken anti-Trump Republicans. He was one of 10 Republicans to vote to impeach Trump (the second time) and had been the first to call for the invoking of the 25th Amendment.
“Well, I mean, they haven’t given any [punishment] to Marjorie Taylor Greene or Gaetz,” he told me. “So we’ll see.”
A couple of months later, after McCarthy had warned Republicans that they’d risk losing the rest of their committee assignments if they accepted an offer from Speaker Nancy Pelosi to serve on the Jan. 6 select committee, Kinzinger’s response was more terse.
“Who gives a shit?” Kinzinger told reporters.
Kinzinger and McCarthy haven’t spoken lately. Kinzinger did, however, speak with Pelosi on Sunday, when she offered him a seat on the Jan. 6 committee, which holds its first hearing Tuesday. Kinzinger, in a statement, said that he “humbly accepted” the invitation and “will work diligently to ensure we get to the truth and hold those responsible for the attack fully accountable.”
Such a party-bucking decision at such a partisan time is, to put it mildly, unusual these days. So unusual that it’s hard to imagine why Kinzinger is doing it when so many other Republicans who were once critical of the former president have fallen in line. So unusual that it’s quite natural to prompt the following question: What is Kinzinger’s political calculation here?
In speaking out the way he has against Trump, McCarthy, and other members of the House GOP conference, Kinzinger—a straightforward conservative and reliable vote for the House GOP under Trump—has made himself a target. Members of his conference want to see him punished. McCarthy referred to Kinzinger and Cheney, who also accepted an appointment to the Jan. 6 committee, as “Pelosi Republicans.” And several eager contenders have jumped into the Republican primary to challenge Kinzinger, including a former Trump administration official with whom the president has met. Trump obviously wants Kinzinger gone.
Still, Kinzinger does have a couple of reasons not to give up altogether. The first is that if Republican candidates challenging him don’t coordinate well, they could divvy up all of the Republican opposition to Kinzinger and he could survive. His turn against Trump has been lucrative for fundraising, too. By the end of June, his campaign had a little over $3 million cash on hand, while his most high-profile opponent—former Trump administration official Catalina Lauf—had a little over $140,000.
Where Kinzinger does not have a say over his own fate, however, is whether Illinois Democrats chop up his district and use it for parts in redistricting. In fact, even as Democrats welcome him to the committee and Pelosi lauds him as “an Air Force veteran and Lieutenant Colonel in the Air National Guard” who “brings great patriotism to the Committee’s mission,” the biggest threat Kinzinger faces to his career is probably from the Democrats.
It’s not just that Illinois is required to cut one district due to population loss. The national party is relying on Illinois and New York, specifically, to gerrymander aggressively to serve as bulwarks for Democrats’ House majority. And Kinzinger’s northern Illinois district is well suited, geographically, for slicing. Its more liberal parts could be used to shore up Democratic incumbents or even take out a Republican next door, while its rural, conservative parts could be packed into those districts of the Republicans they spare.
Kinzinger has said he plans on running for House reelection. He’s also left the door open to running for other office, though, saying if he ends up “getting drawn out of a district and you have no opportunity to run again for the House and you want to stay involved, yeah, it makes, it makes frankly looking at the Senate or the governor a little more attractive, I guess.”
The most cynical read, then, for why Kinzinger has come out as strongly against Trump as he has (after voting for him in 2020) is that, well, his district has a good shot of being eliminated, so why not vocally distance himself from the national GOP’s devotion to Trump as he prepares for a statewide run in a blue state?
I think that’s a little too cynical, though. Even in such a blue state, that’s a lot of antagonism to take on from your party, support from which you’d still need in a general election—if you can get through the primary. And Kinzinger doesn’t have a golden parachute the way some other anti-Trump (or at least “will regularly call out Trump”) Republicans in Congress do. Utah Sen. Mitt Romney is a rich man in his 70s who has been a presidential nominee. If he never gets to be a two-term senator, he can live with that. Fred Upton and Peter Meijer, both from Michigan and who both voted for impeachment, are scions of wealthy families, and Upton has already served as a committee chairman. They will not be left starving on the street if they lose congressional primaries. Liz Cheney’s father was the vice president.
Kinzinger doesn’t get to fall back onto any such royal privileges if he’s stripped of committees, his conference membership, a GOP congressional nomination, or a congressional district. What he does have, however, is his freedom, and I don’t mean that in a chest-thumping, patriotic way. Ever since Trump’s efforts to overturn the presidential election, Kinzinger has gotten to say what he honestly thinks about it, and now he has an even more prominent position from which to do so. So what’s his angle? What’s his political calculation? To quote him, I’d have to say, who gives a shit?