Tom Graves was a man ahead of his time.
Long before Ted Cruz was orchestrating 21-hour homilies on the Senate floor, Graves, a Republican congressman from Georgia, was waging a lonely — and largely anonymous — campaign to defund the Affordable Care Act.
Graves won a June 2010 special election that brought him to Washington amid a dead legislative summer leading up to midterm elections. It was then that the former Georgia state representative saw an opportunity to influence the debate over President Obama's recently passed health care law. And those efforts forever changed his path in Congress.
Having run in the months immediately following Obamacare's passage, Graves felt a unique connection to the electorate and its disapproval of the new law. But he saw no Republican proposal to stop the government from paying for it. Intent on filling this legislative "vacuum," Graves in July 2010 introduced the Defund Obamacare Act — the very first bill he authored in Congress, and one he would introduce in each new session.
Three years later, as Republicans grappled with a stalled appropriations process and ongoing anxiety over financing the law, the phone rang in Graves's congressional office. It was a staffer in Cruz's office. Cruz wanted to become the Senate cosponsor of Graves's defund bill, the staffer said. Would the Georgia congressman be interested in teaming with the senator from Texas?
The rest, as they say, is history.
Graves helped rally House Republicans, including the leadership, around a strategy of defunding and delaying Obamacare in exchange for funding the rest of the federal government. This strategy ultimately failed, as evidenced by a 16-day government shutdown that diverted attention away from Obamacare's disastrous rollout and left congressional Republicans guilty in the court of public opinion.
But for Graves, the anti-Obamacare push had another unintended consequence. It elevated him to an authoritative position within the House GOP that, less than a year earlier, appeared utterly improbable.
"When we began hearing about "˜The Graves Plan' and "˜The Graves Bill' "¦ that's when I started recognizing that individuals were looking to me to provide what little leadership I could," he said in a recent interview.
It's not that Graves isn't comfortable in this starring role; it's that he had already auditioned for the part and thought he had won it, only to have it unceremoniously snatched away.
Graves spent his first full term as the right-hand man to his friend, Rep. Jim Jordan of Ohio, who was then chairman of the Republican Study Committee. Graves, who years earlier had attended an RSC meeting as a guest and grew wide-eyed watching his "heroes" deliberate, had immediately joined the group after being elected. After the midterm elections ushered in a GOP majority, Graves dug into the RSC trenches, convinced that conservatives should hold leadership accountable to execute the "Pledge to America" they made in 2010.
RSC officials soon viewed Graves as heir apparent to Jordan, and they eventually asked him to pursue the position. Graves obliged, and when the time came for candidates to interview, the young Georgian dazzled the "founders," a panel of former RSC chairmen tasked with endorsing a candidate. That group also met with another impressive contender, Rep. Steve Scalise, R-La., before announcing a unanimous endorsement of Graves.
But Scalise — and House GOP leadership, according to many sources familiar with the situation — had different ideas. Scalise said he possessed a more achievable vision for the RSC, and he began circulating a petition to force a runoff election. Leadership encouraged this challenge, and, after a series of clashes with Jordan during the 112th Congress, it feared that Graves's ideological purity would encourage continued conflict.
When the dust settled, Scalise scored a narrow victory over Graves. Allies of the Georgia lawmaker were incensed, convinced that leadership had "fixed" the election to ensure a less combative chairman would lead the caucus of 170-some Republicans. Graves, for his part, was stung by the loss. Speaker John Boehner's team had drafted him to help write the Pledge to America just a few years earlier. Now, Graves felt he was being punished for pushing them to follow through.
"I don't know their motives," Graves said, reflecting on leadership's role in the RSC race. With a shrug, he added: "I'm one that pushes pretty hard. So perhaps they didn't want somebody in that role who pushes so hard."
For a time, Graves struggled with the defeat. Then his phone rang. It was outgoing Rep. Mike Pence, the former RSC chairman and newly elected governor of Indiana who had been lobbying on Graves's behalf.
"Tom, I know you're feeling a sting," Pence said. "But I want you to know that regardless of what your title is in Washington, D.C., you are still a conservative voice, and you will still be a conservative leader. Always remember that."
Graves rebounded in a hurry. He called Scalise and offered his services "without getting in the way" of the new chairman. Before long, Graves, a House Appropriations Committee member, had carved out an important new role in the RSC: unofficial liaison between conservatives and leadership on Appropriations.
The role was unglamorous but essential. Graves began working closely with Appropriations Committee Chairman Hal Rogers, R-Ky., an old-school ally of Boehner's, to iron out ideological wrinkles that had often slowed the process. Graves would brief RSC meetings on developments from the committee and bring specific ideas and concerns to Rogers, allowing the "unlikely duo" to address potential sticking points early and keep Republicans on the same page.
"Tom was a critical part of the appropriations process," said one senior GOP aide. "Conservatives saw him as their go-to guy."
Graves's proximity to Appropriations made him indispensable to conservatives; it also made him aware that GOP efforts to defund Obamacare through "regular order" were failing. The Appropriations Committee had passed only four of 12 bills as of July, and Graves, looking at the calendar, knew that something drastic was needed if Republicans were to avoid paying for Obamacare in a short-term funding measure. His solution: Delay and defund Obamacare for one year, while funding the rest of the government for that same period of time.
When Cruz called in July, then, it was a no-brainer. Graves reintroduced his legislation in concert with Cruz, and over the next several months, thanks to the Texan's grassroots army, Graves became a conservative cult hero, reemerging into the spotlight he had surrendered after losing the RSC race.
When House Republicans went home in August, constituents pelted them with concerns about Obamacare, and questions about how to defeat it. They had no coordinated answer; GOP leadership had only talked about delaying the individual mandate. Once again, there was a vacuum. And once again, Graves attempted to fill it. As August wore on, Graves coordinated with scores of colleagues via email and conference calls, and by month's end Republicans were explaining the "Graves Plan" to their constituents.
House Republicans didn't know what leadership's strategy would be when they returned to Washington. But they knew this much: If it didn't meet the Graves threshold, they would hold out for something that did.
Ultimately, conservatives lost the battle to defund Obamacare. But the war rages on for Graves, who swears in his Southern drawl that the fight has just begun.
Beyond defunding Obamacare, though, it's unclear what comes next for Graves. The lawmaker who in the span of one year emerged, receded, then reemerged as a conservative leader is conspicuously coy about what vacuum he'll fill next.
"We'll just have to wait and see," Graves said, a slow smile creeping across his face. "My plan is just to be available when a cause arises."