Into the Wild Blue Yonder: Adam Kinzinger's Flight From Air Force Pilot to Congressman

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Earlier this week, in the U.S. Capitol, surrounded by a ring of eager reporters, congressman-elect Adam Kinzinger, R-Ill., smiled widely as he answered a flurry of questions.

One journalist wanted to know how old Kinzinger was in 1994, the last time Republicans took the House of Representatives.

Kinzinger took a moment to do the math. "Sixteen," he replied.

The story of how Adam Kinzinger, a 32-year-old Air Force pilot, beat a Democratic incumbent in Illinois' 11th Congressional District, who had won by a wide margin in 2008, illuminates the broader trend that swept Republicans into power in the House of Representatives Nov. 2.

And it started above the skies of Iraq.

Crossing the 'Rubicon'

"I remember flying one day, and I was talking to my co-pilot and we had about a five-hour mission and you know, just chatting about what's wrong with the country and a 'kids nowadays' kind of discussion," Kinzinger said in interview with ABC News. "I remember thinking if I'm willing to fight and die for my country on the outside, I've got to be willing to fight for it on the inside. So that's when I really ... cross[ed] that mental Rubicon of saying, you know what, yeah, I think this is something I can do."

Kinzinger was 31 then and didn't have the easiest time making his case to Republican Party leaders. But he announced his candidacy and hired a campaign manager, traveling frequently to the U.S. capital to press his case.

"I began to come to Washington, D.C., and introduce myself to people, and sometimes people would look at me like, 'Why are you out here already?' because it's so early. But that's what I knew I needed to do," he said. "I needed to build momentum. I needed to talk about the fact that my district was winnable."

Kinzinger, who has served five tours in Iraq and Afghanistan, believed that his Democratic opponent in Illinois' 11th District, first-time Rep. Debbie Halvorson, was politically vulnerable.

In 2008, "we [Republicans] lost it 58 percent to 34 percent, so when I told people I was running for U.S. Congress against my opponent, a lot of times folks wouldn't take me seriously, like, 'She just won by 24 percent! Are you kidding me?'"

His campaign manager, Erik Rayman, saw the politics of the district as favoring Kinzinger. "Our philosophy was, from talking to Republican type folks … was that 2008 was an anomaly for the district and 2010 was looking at bringing the district back to what it was," said Rayman.

The Town Hall Boost

As the debate over the health care bill stewed in Washington in the summer of 2009, Kinzinger campaigned in relative obscurity.

He had served on a local county board but was not widely known in his district, which encompasses exurban and rural areas southwest of Chicago.

And then a stroke of luck hit for the young Republican: As Congress took its August recess, representatives held town halls all around the country to hear their constituents views on health care. Halvorson, the incumbent Democrat, held her own town halls -- but by phone.

"I just decided that if she's not going to throw the town hall meetings, then we'll do it," Kinzinger said to Politico at the time.

Kinzinger arranged a few forums where people in his district could air their views on health care. They became a watershed moment for the campaign.

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