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.
This article appears in the August 25, 2012 edition of National Journal Magazine.