When Mitt Romney tapped Rep. Paul Ryan, R-Wis., for the Republican vice presidential nomination, he chose more than a man. He got a movement.
Ryan is a founder of the Young Guns, a group of GOP lawmakers known — like the characters in the forgettable Hollywood horse opera from which they take their name — for youth, edge, and attitude.
They have a reputation for confrontation, not cooperation.
“We have finally begun to cleanse ourselves of the corruption that occurred when Republicans were (last) in the majority,” Ryan promised in the group’s 2010 manifesto. “We cannot be intimidated.”
“I think Romney has now tethered himself to a very rigid, uncompromising right-wing approach,” says Rep. Chris Van Hollen, D-Md., the senior Democrat on the House Budget Committee, which Ryan chairs.
The Young Guns moniker — in fact the whole movement — was invented five years ago by creative editors at the conservative Weekly Standard magazine. It is now far more than media hype, and wields considerable clout in Washington. Ryan is now on the national ticket and his two Young Gun cofounders — House Majority Leader Eric Cantor of Virginia and Republican Whip Kevin McCarthy of California — rank right behind Speaker John Boehner in the House Republican leadership.
Behind the Young Gun troika march dozens of foot soldiers, giving the Romney-Ryan campaign a special connection in a hundred or so congressional districts. Like former Speaker Newt Gingrich and his revolutionary cadre of 1994, the Young Guns have worked diligently to identify promising candidates around the country, raise money for their campaigns, teach them political skills, and educate them in conservative doctrine.
The Young Guns are in politics “with a purpose,” says Brad Dayspring, a senior adviser to the movement’s super PAC. “It is absolutely a movement,” he says. “To go on offense. To make a difference. Not just to come to Washington and wear a 'Member' pin.”
Since 2009, the program has been lodged in the National Republican Congressional Committee, where it played a key role in the Republican takeover of the House in 2010. Step by step, candidates move up a ladder from “On the Radar” to “Contender” to “Young Guns Vanguard” to the final, coveted laurel of “Young Gun.”
“They have set up a system for identifying top-quality candidates, and a formal structure with metrics that can be assessed,” said Rep. Tim Griffin, R-Ark, one of the Young Gun candidates from 2010.
The Young Gun leaders “sacrificed personally” in 2010. “They traveled, visited with candidates, spent time away from home in the districts,” said Griffin, and the work paid off. In the 2010 cycle there were 92 candidates who achieved “Young Gun” status, according to the organization, and 62 of them were elected.
There are now a Young Gun super PAC and two political nonprofits, the YG Network and the YG Policy Center. In the 2012 election cycle, 30 Republican candidates have reached the “Young Guns” level, including Mia Love, an African-American mayor from Utah, and Richard Tisei, a gay state legislator from Massachusetts who supports same-sex marriage.
Van Hollen acknowledges that the Young Guns “brand … has certainly been good marketing,” but says the verdict is still out on the program’s impact. “I am not sure about the real-world effect,” he said. “The 2010 election could have ended up as it did without the branding of Young Guns.”
The Young Gun leaders don’t stop working when their candidates get elected. There’s a continuing process toward a “lasting relationship,” as the NRCC puts it. In gatherings that range in mood from pep rally to postgraduate seminar, the Young Guns offer an exercise in continuing education. They give lawmakers the tools — the analysis and the argument — to take on the dreaded “liberal lifers,” as Cantor calls the opposition.
“When that new majority came in you had a lot of people who were like-minded and focused on things like debt and taxes,” said Griffin. He said that Ryan and other Young Gun leaders "are adamant about emphasizing facts — to talk in bold strokes but to put meat on the bones, particularly on (politically explosive) issues like Medicare. They routinely help us through educational sessions to better understand the specifics, as opposed to just saying, 'Why don’t you talk about this?' and 'Good luck.' ”
Cantor, McCarthy, and Ryan were christened as Young Guns on the cover of the Weekly Standard in September 2007 by a rightwing intelligentsia desperate for fresh blood to promote on Capitol Hill. It was the waning of George W. Bush’s presidency. The regime of Republican Speaker Dennis Hastert and Majority Leader Tom DeLay had collapsed in scandal, debt, and political ruin, giving the Democrats control of the House in the 2006 election.