How 2014’s Outsiders Became 2020’s Insiders

The Republican senators whose elections were fueled by discontent with government will now campaign on their ability to manage it.

President Trump speaks before having lunch with Republican senators at the White House June 13, 2017. From left: Sens. Joni Ernst, Tom Cotton, and Cory Gardner.
AP Photo/Susan Walsh
Dec. 4, 2018, 8 p.m.

Joni Ernst won her seat in the Senate bragging about hog castration. To keep it, she’ll need to bring home the bacon.

Ernst is one of a number of first-term senators who ran for their current jobs in 2014 as political outsiders, capitalizing on dissatisfaction with the Obama administration to help Republicans control the Senate for the first time in a decade. To defend those same seats in 2020, the Republican conference’s most vulnerable members hope to capitalize on the influence they’ve attained in Washington.

Republicans last month unseated four Democratic senators while losing two seats of their own, bringing their majority to 53 even as Democrats took back control of the House of Representatives. Shortly after, Republicans elected Ernst to lead the caucus’s messaging. It will prove a crucial task as nearly two dozen of her colleagues’ terms expire in two short years.

What the newer members of the Senate lack in seniority they make up for in numbers. Nearly half of the Republican senators up for reelection came to the chamber just four years ago. That class, known colloquially as the “Bear Den,” remains a force on the Hill. Sen. Tom Cotton, a Republican who unseated Democratic Sen. Mark Pryor of Arkansas four years ago, emerged last month as a leading critic of bipartisan criminal-justice reform pending before the body.

“Leadership understands that we have to have buy-in, or a significant portion of buy-in, from other Bear Den members,” Ernst said in an interview in her office last week. “So we do have some muscle there that we can flex on occasion if needed.”

The group—which includes five former congressmen, state legislators, military veterans, and a Fortune 500 CEO—still regularly meet over breakfast, said Sen. Mike Rounds. The former South Dakota governor said those meetings give his colleagues a chance “to promote certain ideas, not so much to be in opposition to leadership but … so that the leadership knew that we wanted to make changes.”

Sen. Thom Tillis, a former speaker of the North Carolina House of Representatives who said he’ll seek a second term in 2020, said reforms of the Veterans Affairs Department and immigration, as well as “regulatory relief,” remain “priorities” for him and his class.

Ernst, who also said she “absolutely” plans to seek a second term, said there’s an “opportunity” to “market” accomplishments under unified Republican-controlled Washington, including federal tax overhaul.

“We have failed on a number of occasions to connect with our voters,” Ernst said.

Not all of the upper chamber’s newcomers have found a spotlight on their side of Pennsylvania Avenue. Republican Sen. David Perdue, who won his first election in Georgia four years ago, has appeared at the White House at least a dozen times since Trump took office. At one of the first, in March 2017, Perdue was the only member outside of named leadership to attend.

“We’re trying to fulfill the promises that he made in ‘16, the ones I made in ‘14,” Perdue said, “and that’s what we’re going to be building on. There’s a lot of work yet to be done.”

New Republicans push back on any indication they have become a part of the dreaded “establishment.” Ernst and Perdue for example pushed a joint select committee on budget reform to, among other proposals, stall recess and ban pay for member travel without a budget.

“Even though I’ve gone on to leadership, I’m still not a part of that old guard,” Ernst said. “Which is why I ran for leadership, is because I do think we have to have a fresh perspective.”

Ernst called it “unacceptable” that the committee failed to produce significant recommendations by last week’s deadline, blaming the impasse on “a number of members” who “are entirely comfortable with the way we do business.” Congress is expected to vote this week on a continuing resolution to push off debate on funding the Homeland Security Department and other agencies until after former President George H.W. Bush’s funeral.

Ernst isn’t alone in taking on key posts in the Republican caucus. Sen. Cory Gardner just wrapped up a term as chair of the National Republican Senatorial Committee, crisscrossing the country in a sometimes-successful effort to unseat his Democratic colleagues.

“It gave him access to a whole other side of donors,” said Ted Trimpa, a veteran Colorado Democratic strategist who credited Gardner and his “steady” team for “foundational work” to grow Republican ranks in the Senate.

But high-profile positions can have drawbacks. Ties to Republican leadership can hamper statewide politicians in states that has recently rejected their party. Democrats last month picked up two House seats in Ernst’s Iowa and swept statewide offices in Gardner’s Colorado.

“These Republican incumbents have all shown that they value Washington politics and abiding by Donald Trump more than the needs of their states,” said J.B. Poersch, the president of the Democratic-aligned Senate Majority PAC, “and that is true whether it be Susan Collins or Cory Gardner.”

Gardner, whose office did not respond to requests for comment, told The Colorado Sun that he and Democratic Sen. Michael Bennet “present a great example” of “common-ground” problem solving. As chair of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee in 2014, Bennet was tasked with preventing Gardner from joining the body.

Colorado ex-state Sen. Mike Johnston, a former gubernatorial candidate eyeing a bid for the nomination to challenge Gardner, said Gardner’s chairmanship of the NRSC was “emblematic of a shift significantly out of the mainstream.” He cited the controversy of Republican nominees like Sen. Cindy Hyde-Smith of Mississippi and “voter conspiracies” propagated by Republican leadership around result reporting in Arizona and Florida.

“I don’t think the role itself has to be damaging,” Johnston said, “but I think you have to still behave like a statesman.”

That work took Gardner across the country and to many D.C. fundraisers for potential colleagues. Colorado state Sen. Kerry Donovan said in an interview at a Washington meeting of moderate Democrats known as The NewDEAL that the constituents of her rural district complain about “his lack of presence in the state.”

“Any time you’re flying to California to pick up a check,” Donovan added, “you’re obviously not flying to Colorado.”

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