CHICAGO — It was a dreary Friday morning and Adam Kinzinger was hanging out in a conference room with huge windows overlooking a college campus. And he was tired. Not just because it was the end of the week and it was raining. He was tired in his bones.
“It’s like you’re taking on the world all the time,” he said. “I wouldn’t mind having a break.”
Kinzinger offered this in response to the very introspective question “How’s it going?” — which most people answer with “great” or “fine” or maybe even “meh” on an especially bad day. That Kinzinger responded this way, barely a minute into our conversation at the University of Chicago in early April, was revealing about the current predicament of Adam Kinzinger, no longer just a rank-and-file GOP moderate from the nation’s second-largest corn-producing state.
This shift happened last year during the second impeachment of President Donald Trump. Democrats in the U.S. House of Representatives, along with 10 Republicans, voted to advance articles of impeachment against Trump for spurring the Jan. 6, 2021, riot at the U.S. Capitol. Kinzinger was one of them.
The move uncorked the white-hot fury of the Trump base and instantly turned Kinzinger’s career upside down. Kinzinger and Rep. Liz Cheney (R-Wyo.) compounded the injury by voting to create, and then joining, the Democratic-majority select committee investigating the attack. In February, the Republican National Committee passed a resolution censuring Kinzinger and Cheney for serving on the Jan. 6 panel, whose mission it bizarrely characterized as the “persecution of ordinary citizens engaged in legitimate political discourse.”
As this all unfolded over the past year, many have looked at Kinzinger, a star member of the House’s 2010 freshman class and one of the most visible of the pro-impeachment Republicans, and wondered: Is he totally screwed? Or was this vote a deliberate way of teeing up the next chapter of his political career as a Trump antagonist? Can this GOP tolerate a Trump-basher anywhere in its midst?
Most importantly, what does Kinzinger actually want?
I wasn’t the only one trying to figure this out. The bro-y and charismatic Air Force pilot has been intensely sought after in the media. Case in point: the documentary crew that was also following Kinzinger’s every move that morning at the university, where he was speaking on a panel at a conference dissecting the toxic rise of disinformation on the right.
Kinzinger may be on the inside of the snow globe looking out, banging on the glass, but he’s found an escape hatch. Rather than compete for a seventh term under a new congressional map that pits him against another incumbent Republican, he’s more than happy to give up this fight. He also knows that he’s been shut out of running for governor or U.S. senator in a state where he’s been censured by his own party. What’s left?
Well, he might run for president.
“So, I look at it this way,” he began after I asked him about this. What followed was the boilerplate response from someone who’s mulling things behind the scenes: “I’ll make a decision when we get there, if there’s a need and a desire. It’s truly not anything I’m planning right now, but I’m not going to rule it out,” he said, his voice rising in such a way at the end that suggested this was supposed to be the main takeaway. “Look, if we’re in a position, if it’s just terrible candidates and the country’s in a worse place? Maybe. But there’s no grand plan right now.”
I asked Kinzinger whether he wants to run against Trump, who is expected to mount a third campaign for president. “I would love it. I really would,” he said, his eyes instantly widening. “Even if he crushed me, like in a primary, to be able to stand up and call out the garbage is just a necessary thing, regardless of who it is. … I think it’d be fun.”
The only thing Kinzinger seems to know for sure about his future plans is that Congress is the absolute last place he wants to be after this year. “I’m exhausted of the same arguments, the same kind of performative politics,” he said, a declaration that rings like a campaign pitch. The cold and drizzly weather outside the conference room windows was adding to the feeling of over-it-ness that Kinzinger was describing.
“I don’t know. Maybe I would have run for governor. Maybe I would have run for Senate. Who knows? But yeah, my time in the House is, mercifully, coming to an end,” he said.
“I’ll make a decision when we get there, if there’s a need and a desire. It’s truly not anything I’m planning right now, but I’m not going to rule it out.”
The news articles about Kinzinger’s impending exit from Congress describe the move as a “retirement,” which is an odd way to think about the career pivot of a 44-year-old with a newborn at home. Kinzinger is still boyish-looking with an impish smile. He says “like” a lot. He’s shorter than you might expect in person given the large amount of space he occupies in Trump’s head.
Kinzinger and Trump have become each other’s best foils. Since the second impeachment, Trump has done everything in his power to brand Kinzinger and Cheney as the ultimate RINOs, slang for a phony Republican. When Kinzinger announced in October he wasn’t running for reelection to the House, Trump’s PAC released a statement cheering the “2 down, 8 to go,” a nod to the 10 Republicans who voted to impeach him and his crusade to end their careers. Two more have since called it quits, but Cheney, who’s trying to stick it out in Wyoming, isn’t one of them.
The obsession goes both ways. Kinzinger’s political posture has become entirely about calling out his party and not holding back on Trump. He enrages Republicans and shouts the things Democrats like to imagine most Republicans think but can’t say. He’s called out the “cancer” in the GOP “of lies, of conspiracy, of dishonesty,” blaming it squarely on Trump. He freely tosses out the word “con man” to describe his party’s de facto leader. Kinzinger said his biggest regret in office has been not voting to impeach Trump the first time, when Trump was accused of asking the Ukrainian president to meddle on his behalf in the 2020 election. In 2021, Kinzinger formed a super PAC to collect and spend money on other Republicans willing to defy Trump.
The nation has lived many lives between the 2020 election and now, but Kinzinger is still annoyed that he voted for Trump the second time he ran. In 2016, Kinzinger wrote in former CIA operations officer Evan McMullin. He called his 2020 vote a dumb move and chalked it up to feeling despondent about the party, with which he was already on the outs.
“Everybody was just like, ‘You didn’t vote for Trump, you’re a piece of shit.’ And I dealt with that for four years,” he said. “And in 2020 I was like, he’s not going to win Illinois so I’ll just vote for him. But that’s a big regret. That and the first impeachment. I’m the only guy in history that didn’t vote for Trump in ’16 and did vote for him in ’20.”
It sounds like the windup to a terrible punchline you might hear on Fox News: RINO congressman walks into woke university, meets Barack Obama’s political adviser, bashes Trump to Democrats.
Depending on your political lens, a version of these events happened on April 8. That’s when Kinzinger was in Chicago for the conference put on by the woke Atlantic magazine, the very woke Institute of Politics and woke-by-association Obama strategist David Axelrod. The topic was “disinformation and the erosion of democracy,” something Kinzinger, as a Jan. 6 select committee member, has some insight into. But Kinzinger isn’t able to say much about his work on the committee, which has subpoenaed Trump’s family members and a number of his associates, until public hearings begin this summer.
Kinzinger and Axelrod chatted briefly in the greenroom at the David Rubenstein Forum before the event. The exchange was filmed by the documentary crew, which spent the morning hovering over Kinzinger with a sometimes comically obtrusive boom mic. (The film’s director didn’t want to go on the record yet about this project. After we finally managed to ditch the crew in an elevator, Kinzinger said his office fields lots of similar requests that he’s had to turn down. Maybe not surprisingly, Kinzinger, a young Gen Xer, went with the filmmaker who happened to co-write one of this generation’s classic coming-of-age movies. Kinzinger said he and his wife, Sofia, felt it would be a good way to document “this crazy time” in their lives.)
Axelrod, who steered Obama’s presidential campaigns, told HuffPost he admires the way Kinzinger has stood up to his party.
“There are two ways to do that,” he said. “One is to be Marjorie Taylor Greene and light yourself on fire, and light everyone else on fire. Or you can try to cast some light. I think he’s chosen the right route. He’s a valuable guy, he’ll do fine. Plus, he’s got a newborn at home. What could be better?”
A lieutenant colonel in the U.S. Air Force who served two tours in Iraq, Kinzinger was first elected to Congress in the 2010 tea party wave, beating an incumbent Democrat. (Kinzinger was also endorsed in that race by former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin, who has recently returned from political exile.) Two years later, he was competing in a new congressional district with Don Manzullo, a GOP old-timer who branded Kinzinger the lesser conservative and tea partyer. But with the backing of then-House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.), Kinzinger managed to squeeze out Manzullo, securing a seat to watch Republicans implode under Trump.
As a lawmaker, Kinzinger hasn’t been especially outspoken on many issues that excite the GOP base, outside of maybe foreign policy. As the party lurched further right, Kinzinger seemed to remain planted in the center. Even so, his votes aligned with Trump’s positions 90% of the time. The Democrats who admire Kinzinger might also be disappointed to learn he generally carries a concealed weapon in lieu of a security detail.
“He’s basically representing the Lincoln Project wing of the party, which doesn’t exist. They’re just Democrats, right?”
“Kinzinger was moving in the opposite direction of the party to stay alive,” Terry Schilling, president of the conservative American Principles Project, told HuffPost. Schilling’s father, the late Rep. Bobby Schilling, was elected in the same freshman class as Kinzinger and was also from Illinois.
Democrats might see Kinzinger as brave, but Schilling said there’s no demand in the GOP for what Kinzinger is selling.
“He’s on the wrong side,” he said. “It’s a movement that has been destroyed, a party that has been destroyed. The Republican Party that Adam Kinzinger grew up in doesn’t exist anymore, and so he has no constituency. He’s basically representing the Lincoln Project wing of the party, which doesn’t exist. They’re just Democrats, right?”
That raises the central question dogging Kinzinger since he went fully anti-Trump: Who claims him? Is he even still a Republican? His answer to this was surprising, even given everything he’s said about the party.
“I think mentally I feel more like an independent than a Republican. If there were more Democrats like [House Majority Leader] Steny Hoyer, I could probably identify in that area, some kind of a moderate Democrat. In essence, I guess I’m still comfortable holding the Republican label for now. Because as much as people love it or hate it, the Republican Party is going to be around for a while, and it deserves to have a battle for who it is,” he said.
But few Republicans want Kinzinger to take on that battle. Kinzinger described the uncomfortable split screen that is getting shunned by colleagues at work while also being recognized and praised out in public. He tries to steer clear of the “bad people” in Congress who just want to be famous, like extremists Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-Ga.) and Madison Cawthorn (R-N.C.), both of whom Kinzinger is often in the media bashing. He insisted that he rarely runs into them, and if he did, he would skip the formality of elevator greetings that he sometimes exchanges with someone like Jim Jordan (R-Ohio). “I don’t know anything about them,” he said of the two right-wing lawmakers. “They’re freshmen. I don’t care.”
There’s a “coldness,” Kinzinger said, when he’s voting on the House floor. Many of the young lawmakers he came up with in 2010 are gone, and his remaining friendships are strained. “It’s like how you stop dating somebody without breaking up with them. You do a week between dates and then three weeks. It’s like a slow ghosting. It’s the same in Congress. I just sort of ghost having friendships.”
Kinzinger is alone on this island, and it’s a weird place to be.
The Republicans from Homer Township, Illinois, meet every Saturday morning at their party headquarters in a modest strip mall, chatting over coffee, doughnuts and the occasional indoor cigarette. The group members seem to be exclusively white and exclusively of a certain age, and they do not like Kinzinger.
“I see him on TV and I just want to barf,” one of the Republicans told me.
It so happens this slice of Will County is adjacent to, but not actually in, Kinzinger’s congressional district. A byproduct of gerrymandering, Will County, a Chicago exurb, is currently split between six House members. Kinzinger represents an L-shaped chunk of the county. The Homer Township Republicans are fairly certain that Democrat Marie Newman is their representative, and the main thing they know about her is that she’s been endorsed by Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.), the East Coast democratic socialist.
“Around here we’re pro-Trump and pro-gun,” said Steve Balich, a township trustee supervisor, gesturing to a Trump 2024 sign on the wall. Balich is the guy who said Kinzinger makes him want to vomit. “I just don’t get why he’s so against Trump.”
“I think it’s pretty transparent the angle he was playing,” another Republican said of Kinzinger.
In February 2021, an overwhelming majority of the Will County GOP voted to censure Kinzinger for supporting Trump’s second impeachment. Other county Republican groups have followed suit, erasing any doubts about how Kinzinger is perceived now in the state. Asked to answer some questions about Kinzinger and the party’s midterm messaging, a spokesman for the Illinois GOP told HuffPost: “We will pass, thank you.”
“I think it’s pretty transparent the angle he was playing.”
This is the grassroots GOP, and it’s what Kinzinger would be up against if he does decide to run for president.
Joe Walsh has been on the losing end of that battle. A former Illinois congressman who is also outspoken against Trump, Walsh, in a certain sense, was Adam Kinzinger before Adam Kinzinger. In the span of about a decade, Walsh went from tea partyer to “never Trumper” to ex-Republican. He ran for president in the 2020 GOP primary against Trump, really thinking he might beat him. He dropped out after the Iowa caucuses, the first nominating contest. Walsh is Kinzinger’s Ghost of Christmas Yet To Come.
“I think he’s going through what I went through four years ago when I realized I had no place in this Republican Party,” Walsh, who’s friends with Kinzinger, told HuffPost. “He’s trying to figure out if he can even stay in the party.”
Walsh is still conservative but “hanging on in the political wilderness” since what he calls his “mission impossible” primary.
As for Kinzinger, even if Trump doesn’t run in 2024, the eventual nominee “is going to be the Trumpiest person you can be,” Walsh said. “And if you’re a Joe Walsh or an Adam Kinzinger and you’re an outspoken opponent of Trump, you can’t run for anything. If you’re an opponent of Trump, you have no viability in a Republican primary.”
I asked Kinzinger if there’s a policy or position in the GOP that still resonates for him, anything to grasp on to now. He struggled to find the answer. “I don’t really know, because I don’t really know what the party stands for anymore,” he said. “I used to say things like foreign policy, but Putin sympathy isn’t my thing. I guess spending? I’m a moderate on spending. I see a role for the government but we shouldn’t overspend.”
For the first time in our interview, Kinzinger was truly feeling the chill of Walsh’s political wilderness.
“I don’t know. I don’t know what I identify with anymore,” he said. “I’m just not a Democrat.”