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Rising Stars of the GOP

Who will dominate the party’s future?

(AP Photos)

photo of Naureen Khan
August 23, 2012

Recent years have elevated a new cast of Republicans. The newest generation of conservatives—younger, brasher, and more diverse than their predecessors—is poised to leave their mark on a GOP struggling to appeal to a wider swath of voters, all while selling the small-government vision of the Reagan years. National Journal profiles six GOP comers who you’re likely to see more of as they navigate the national political stage.


Without ever having won elective office, former Texas Solicitor General Ted Cruz has electrified conservatives around the country. His rise—he secured his party’s nomination to replace retiring Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison and upended the Texas GOP establishment—has Cinderella-esque contours.

A few months ago, few expected the political novice to make it very far against Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst, a lawyer worth $200 million who had spent a decade in public office accruing the support of such Texas titans as Gov. Rick Perry. But despite the $20 million Dewhurst gave his own campaign, Cruz, 41, forced him into a runoff and prevailed, with strong grassroots support and high-profile endorsements from the likes of former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin, Sen. Jim DeMint of South Carolina, and the Club for Growth. In deep-red Texas, Cruz’s primary victory all but assures him a seat in the Senate. It was a blow to the establishment that signified a rightward shift for the party.


Cruz, a champion debater at Princeton and a Harvard-educated lawyer, is expected to follow in the mold of other uncompromising tea party-aligned Senate Republicans and be a powerful voice in support of constitutional limits on federal government. “He’s showing that when grassroots work together on an issue or a candidate, amazing things can happen,” says Jenny Beth Martin, cofounder of Tea Party Patriots. “He’ll be another person in the Senate that America can depend on to stand up for the Constitution.”

Cruz also has a story to tell about how he came to his brand of fiery conservatism: His father, Rafael Cruz, a Baptist pastor, fled Cuba in 1957 with $100 sewn into his underwear and worked his way through college.


New Mexico Gov. Susana Martinez represents the direction many believe the Republican Party must follow if it wants to survive. The first Latina governor in the nation could help the GOP appeal to key demographics, including Hispanics, women, and Westerners.

Martinez, 53, grew up in a middle-class family in El Paso, Texas. Her parents started a security-guard firm when she was a teenager, and the young Martinez learned to a tote a gun while still in high school. After getting her law degree, Martinez moved to Las Cruces, N.M., where she landed a job as an assistant district attorney.

When she decided to run against the district attorney in Doña Ana County in 1996, Martinez was a registered Democrat. That was before local Republicans invited Martinez and her husband to lunch to discuss various policy issues. “I remember telling my husband, ‘We’re going to be very polite. We’re going to say thank-you very much, and we’re going to leave,’ ” she recounted to the Los Angeles Times in 2010. “We got in the car, we looked at each other, and said, ‘Oh my God, we are Republicans! Now what do we do?’ ”

Martinez won her gubernatorial bid in the 2010 GOP wave and quickly became one of the most talked-about governors in the country. “Governor Martinez could be symbolically important to send the message that women—and women of color—can find a place of support in the Republican Party,” says University of Mexico political scientist Christine Sierra. “She would presumably have broader appeal than the white men who are dominant in the party at the present time.”

Martinez has also exhibited an independent streak—she has spoken out for comprehensive immigration reform, a position most in the GOP have abandoned, and praised part of President Obama’s health care law. She could be a particularly important figure as the West emerges as a new swing region. Changing demographics have helped Democrats bring states like New Mexico and Nevada into the Democratic fold as far as presidential politics are concerned, but moderate Republicans like Martinez have a chance to stem that tide.


There has been no shortage of drama in Wisconsin since Gov. Scott Walker took office in 2011. His effort to cut benefits and curb collective-bargaining rights for public employees prompted a fierce backlash and allowed his political opponents to amass enough support to force a recall election. But when he survived—becoming the first governor in the nation to do so, with the help of a $58.7 million war chest—Walker, 44, emerged as something of a conservative idol. Since the recall, he’s been a regular on the Sunday talk-show circuit and a high-profile surrogate for Mitt Romney’s presidential campaign. Walker isn’t shy about giving his advice either: The Wisconsin governor has urged Romney to campaign as a crusading fiscal reformer and to take a few more risks in running his operation.

Walker’s damn-the-torpedoes approach draws praise from Republicans and sets an example for other executives seeking to enact their agendas, no matter how ugly the process. Walker’s success indicates that the transformationalist bent in the GOP is likely to continue for the foreseeable future. “Walker’s saying that look, we can provide smart government and we can push forward with a strong private sector within our country, but in order to do that you’ve got to make some hard decisions,” says Matt Langston, a Walker volunteer and GOP political consultant who worked on the successful campaign of Sen. Ron Johnson, R-Wis. “He comes to the party with boldness, with a vision, with leadership that folks rally around.”


Kristi Noem was one in a crowded class of more than 80 GOP freshmen swept into the House of Representatives during the 2010 midterm elections, but she already has made a name for herself in Congress. Shortly after being elected to represent South Dakota’s at-large district, Noem, 40, was chosen by her peers to serve as freshman class liaison to the House leadership, along with Rep. Tim Scott, R-S.C. As such, she has a seat at the table with Speaker John Boehner, where, as only the second woman to serve on the Republican House leadership team, she provides a much needed optics boost for her party.

Noem cut her teeth on politics as a young state legislator in the South Dakota House, where she quickly ascended the ranks to assistant majority leader. She kicked off her career in Washington two years ago by toppling Rep. Stephanie Herseth Sandlin, a Democrat who was considered a rising star in her own right and had won her two prior elections with more than 70 percent of the vote. In an era where hefty campaign contributions are nothing to write home about, Noem was the House Republican challenger to raise the most money for her bid in the 2010 cycle: Outside conservative groups contributed $2 million to her coffers.

Noem also has a gripping personal story. Her father died in a farming accident when she was still in college, and Noem put her studies on hold to come home and help her family run the ranch. She earned her bachelor’s degree earlier this year while serving in Congress. Her down-to-earth approach and tea party-friendly conservatism earned her the nickname “the Sarah Palin of South Dakota” while she was running for the House, but Noem shied away from such comparisons, preferring to remain independent—an instinct that could serve her for years to come.


Chris Christie doesn’t fit the mold of slick, glad-handing, baby-kissing politician, and that is part of his appeal. The notoriously profane and unapologetic 49-year-old New Jersey governor has won over fans with his brash forthrightness, shepherding tough budget measures and an overhaul of teacher tenure through a Democratic Legislature. Despite the potential for backlash, Christie maintains an approval rating over 50 percent in a deep-blue state, demonstrating his crossover appeal. “Christie is representative of a new breed of thinkers in the Republican Party that are reform-oriented,” says GOP consultant Steve Lombardo. “What Christie has is candor—the kind of straight talk and straight shooting that gets honed down as people run for election and reelections. But Christie is as sharp as he ever was.”

That kind of popularity led to feverish speculation about Christie’s 2012 presidential ambitions late last year, with the likes of former first lady Nancy Reagan, former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, and media mogul Rupert Murdoch reportedly pushing for him to run. While Christie decided to opt out of the race this time around, he has been one of the most oft-deployed surrogates for Romney, serving as an off-the-cuff and forceful supplement to the notoriously buttoned-up nominee. Among Christie’s greatest hits: shouting down chants of “Christie kills jobs” at a Romney rally in Exeter, N.H. (“You know something may go down tonight, but it ain’t gonna be jobs, sweetheart!”)

Christie has said that he’s open to taking the national stage at a later point should the opportunity arise. If Romney loses in November, Christie’s name would automatically rocket to the top of potential 2016 contenders.


Months of buzz followed Marco Rubio as a potential running mate for Romney, and although the 41-year-old senator from Florida didn’t get the nod, he has plenty
of room to rise in a GOP struggling to connect with an evolving electorate. Rubio’s family history looms large in his self-styled political narrative: His parents fled Cuba in the 1950s to begin a new life in the United States. His father worked as a bartender and his mother was a hotel maid. Rubio has said repeatedly that his story epitomizes the American Dream—an inspirational tale not unlike the one which figures prominently in Obama’s biography.

In 2010, Rubio prevailed in a tumultuous race for the Senate seat in Florida, with the backing of movement conservatives who were taken by his story and his message of fiscal responsibility. Now he’s a well-known figure with national clout (undoubtedly helped by the swirling veep rumors). He has made official visits to Afghanistan, Pakistan, Libya, and Guantánamo Bay in his first term, and he released a memoir earlier this year called An American Son. Rubio has also been the voice of moderation in his party on the issue of immigration, pushing Republicans to take a more compassionate stance and advocating for a compromise on the Dream Act.

Although some wonder whether he can withstand a national vetting, many political observers see Rubio playing the long game in the GOP. “His star can only rise,” says Ana Navarro, a Florida-based GOP political consultant who has known Rubio for more than a decade. “What makes his prospects so bright is that even though he understands and has become the go-to guy on Hispanic issues, he is much more than that—and is not a niche politician. He has very broad-based appeal within the Republican Party.”

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