(CNN) — Rep. Adam Kinzinger wants to save the Republican Party from Donald Trump. His first challenge: Convincing the party it needs to be saved.
“That, I think, is the question,” said Kinzinger, who is beginning his sixth term as an Illinois congressman. “If it doesn’t want to be changed, that’s a decision Republicans get to make. If that’s the case long-term, I think we will lose elections and will be a regional party that won’t compete on the national stage.”
As he settles into his role as one of the fiercest Republican critics of the former president, Kinzinger is embracing the political risks he’s facing by openly confronting Trump and his loyal base of supporters. It’s the latest front in the simmering GOP civil war that threatens to divide the party.
He knows that his outspokenness could cost him his congressional seat. He’s already drawing a handful of potential GOP primary rivals who are making plans to challenge him, even as he faces a new district boundaries before 2022.
He insists the risks were a price worth paying.
“It could be a kamikaze mission,” said Kinzinger, 43, who joined the Air Force after the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, and still flies as a pilot in the National Guard. “But it could be the thing that saves the Republican Party.”
The first step to rebuilding the Republican Party, he said, is extracting it from the grips of Trump and what he sees as an ideology not rooted in conservatism, but in relentless fear and divisiveness.
“Any time in the history of the party, there have been competing visions — except for now,” Kinzinger said in a hometown interview here at River Hawk Brewing, where patrons seem far more interested in happy hour than talking politics. “It’s just been Donald Trump’s vision and nobody else has said anything else. We have a right and a responsibility to offer competing visions to Republicans.”
‘I think I’ll survive’
The Republican Party is at a crossroads, yet it’s still Trump country in this stretch of Illinois, where flags are still spotted waving in support of the former president. More than four months after the election, the Trump signs still on display in some front yards make clear that not all Republicans are searching for a new vision for the party.
Elected to Congress a decade ago with the rise of the Tea Party, Kinzinger is now at odds — and increasingly out of step — with the driving movement of his party.
He backed Trump in November, he said, a vote that he began to regret after Trump intensified his false claims that the election was fraudulent. By Jan. 6, when the U.S. Capitol was attacked and Kinzinger was among the members of Congress whose life was threatened, his regret had immensely deepened.
“Knowing what I know now?” Kinsinger said. “If I could go back in time, I wouldn’t vote for him.”
Of the 17 Republicans who supported impeachment in the House and Senate, Kinzinger stands alone as trying to use that vote as a rallying cry to persuade others to join him in turning the page from the Trump era. He is the face of a new super PAC, Americans Keeping Country First, which his allies formed to help other Republicans stand against Trump in the midterm elections.
So far, his phone isn’t exactly ringing off the hook. Yet he insists the journey is not as lonely as it may appear.
“There’s a lot of people on board. They’re not just super public — especially in my business,” Kinzinger said. “I think a lot of folks are waiting to see where it goes. I don’t blame them.”
Here in the sprawling Illinois 16th Congressional District, which stretches across 14 counties from the Wisconsin border, far beyond the western Chicago suburbs and back towards the Indiana line, Kinzinger outperformed Trump by 8 percentage points last fall.
Illinois is poised to lose at least one congressional seat when district lines are redrawn later this year, raising the question of whether Kinzinger is going to be squeezed by state Republicans who have voiced their displeasure at his criticism of Trump. But even as he undoubtedly loses support among loyal Trump followers, he could be gaining a new look from other more moderate voters if his district is redrawn to include more of the suburbs near Chicago.
The calculation of his re-election, he insists, is not why he’s waging a very public fight for the future of the Republican Party.
“Even if I don’t survive long in this job, the reality is, I will have been part of history,” Kinzinger said. “Like in warfare, until you’re willing to put your life on the line — when you’re willing to put your job on the line, then you’re free.”
He paused for a moment, before adding: “I think I’ll survive. But if I don’t, I don’t, and I’m at peace. But only in that understanding can you actually operate in truth.”
His congressional district includes the town of Dixon, the boyhood home of former President Ronald Reagan, who inspired a young Kinzinger.
“That optimistic, powerful, moral clarity that he had,” Kinzinger said. “It’s that kind of stuff that I think Americans are desperate for.”
‘I was a little surprised with Kinzinger’
Conversations with people in downtown Dixon on a recent morning were mixed.
One business owner said he was furious at Kinzinger, whom he called “a showoff.” He declined to be identified because he said he feared it would hurt his business. A half-block away, another business owner took the opposite view and praised the congressman for standing up to Trump. He, too, feared being named because he said too many of his customers are diehard Trump admirers.
Interviews with voters across the district, including here in his hometown about an hour southwest of Chicago, made clear that Kinzinger is making a name for himself — in ways good and bad.
“When he went along with the impeachment of Trump, I thought, what is this guy thinking?” said Dick Tyler, a retiree who was having a late-afternoon beer, who voted for Trump. “But I’m glad there is somebody like an Adam Kinzinger who has the courage to speak out. I know it’s from his heart.”
Some people here described his vote — and his criticism of Trump — as brave. Others question out loud whether it was politically calculated.
“I was a little surprised with Kinzinger,” said Jeff Phelps, as he left breakfast the other morning. “I feel like you should be loyal to your party.”
His wife, Angie, added: “I believe he’s looking out for political gain for himself.”
Rick Cunningham, a science teacher who typically votes Republican, said he was proud that Kinzinger stood up to Trump and wishes more Republicans would follow suit.
“He did what needed to be done. He took a stand for the Republican Party,” Cunningham said. “I just don’t think anybody deserves to have 100 percent allegiance. There’s got to be accountability for what Trump has done.”
A divide has emerged here among Republican officials, too.
The LaSalle County Republican Party voted last month to censure Kinzinger, following a long list of local GOP organizations seeking to rein in their members of Congress who supported impeachment.
“If Adam wants to be a Republican, then act and talk like one be a team player,” Larry Smith, the county GOP chairman, said in an interview. “I think he’s seriously misjudged the nature of his district and the state in general.”
Yet in neighboring Grundy County, party chairman Aren Hansen and his committee rejected an attempt to rebuke the congressman.
“We’re not going to get anywhere as a party in Illinois if we have a party purity test at every turn. It’s okay to disagree,” Hansen said in an interview at the bar he owns, Honest Abe’s Tap & Grill, which decorated to pay homage to one of the state’s favorite Republican sons, Abraham Lincoln. “I don’t agree with his impeachment vote, but I’ll get over it.”
Yet Trump loyalties here — and in red districts and states across the country — run deep. And many Republicans don’t believe their party is broken at all, a challenge that Kinzinger and others are confronting.
“I think part of saving the Republican Party is just being really clear about what the Republican Party has become,” Kinzinger said, noting the legacies of Reagan and Lincoln in his state of Illinois. “We have such a great history, I think, but now we’re off the rails.”