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.

At "that time he was just a couple of months back in from Iraq, and no one really knew who he was," Rayman, the campaign manager, said in an interview with ABC News. "But we had a couple thousand people at [the town halls] and that was the tipping point. ... I think that was the point at which people stopped talking about the primary and started more focusing on the general election."

In February 2010, Kinzinger, facing only token opposition in a five-way Republican primary, won a resounding 64 percent of the vote.

Wind at Kinzinger's Back

As Americans across the country slowly soured on Democrats, Kinzinger's momentum built.

Illinois' 11th Congressional District "really closely tracks the national vote," said Tari Renner, a professor of political science at Illinois Wesleyan University, which sits in the district.

Kinzinger was buoyed by Republican victories in November 2009 and by Sen. Scott Brown's game-changing win in Massachusetts in January 2010, even though voters had doubts about whether the GOP streak would last.

"Everybody would ask me, this looks like good momentum for conservatives, but it's not going to last. And I remember thinking, 'You know what? I think it is going to last,'" he said.

Kinzinger racked up three big endorsements from potential 2012 GOP presidential candidates in March and April: Former Govs. Sarah Palin and Mitt Romney, and Gov. Tim Pawlenty all threw their support behind him.

Kinzinger vs. Halvorson

But as much support as he got, the election was destined to be more about Rep. Debbie Halvorson than it was about Adam Kinzinger.

"Halvorson didn't connect very well with the district," said Renner, the Illinois Wesleyan University professor who was the Democratic nominee for Congress in Kinzinger's district in 2004.

According to Renner, Halvorson's voting record was an albatross. "Some of the things, particularly cap-and-trade and health care, were unusually unpopular here."

She was "the incumbent in a year where people are really scrutinizing D.C.," said Isaac Wood, House race editor at Sabato's Crystal Ball, part of the University of Virginia's Center for Politics. Since voters were "listening pretty closely, you have to really sway them, and she wasn't able to do that. If they've got another option that looks pretty appealing, they'd be willing to jump ship, and that's what happened in this race," he said.

In a political atmosphere crammed with policy debates -- health care, climate change, financial regulatory reform -- Halvorson seemed to have difficulty exuding expertise on the issues, analysts said.

"She never found a way to convince constituents that she actually understood matters of public policy, either their details or the nuances of the debates surrounding them," said Greg Shaw, another professor of political science at Illinois Wesleyan. "This severely limited [Halvorson's] ability to defend Democratic positions."

Halvorson had voted in favor of the health care bill, cap-and-trade and the stimulus. When voters went to the polls Nov. 2, she came away with 43 percent of the vote, against Kinzinger's 57 percent.

Rising Star

Back in the U.S. Capitol building, standing not far from where he'll cast his first vote in the House of Representatives early next year, Kinzinger's already a rising star. House Republican leadership chose him -- as one of four freshmen members -- to serve on the GOP Majority Transition Team. And on Wednesday, he went one-on-one with Bill Hemmer on Fox News.

Health Care, Jobs, Energy Policy -- GOP Must Come Up With Alternatives

Kinzinger toes the Republican Party line on most issues, but speaks less like a well-rehearsed politician and more like a 32-year-old newcomer.

On health care, one of the key issues on which he won his House seat -- he wants to repeal the law but insists that the GOP follow up with an alternative plan.

"As Republicans, we can't repeal a bill and say, 'Sweet, the bill's repealed, let's talk about something else.' If we're going to touch health care, and we're actually going to repeal it, we've got to follow it up with something that makes sense," he said. "I believe we lost this debate because in '04, '06, '07, we never admitted there was a problem. We had our head in the sand. And people are clamoring, saying, 'Health care costs too much!' And the Republican leadership is like, 'Yeah, whatever.'"

On new job creation, Kinzinger worries that the impending expiration of the Bush-era tax cuts will hurt small businesses trying to plan for the future. He wants companies to feel safe enough to take risks."You create an environment that allows for that to thrive. First off, we've got to take away the uncertainty. And I know this sounds like talking points ... but it's very true."

And on energy policy, he's a huge proponent of the use nuclear energy -- unsurprising, given his district has three nuclear power plants.

Even as a rising star with support from the leadership, though, Kinzinger has his fears

"My biggest fear is ... allowing this to consume your personal life. Because this is a very busy job. Your mind is on congressional politics 100 percent of the time. And you have to find a way to turn that off and maintain a personal life," he said. "So my biggest fear is being eaten up, swallowed up, and becoming this."

It's enough of a feat to beat an incumbent and be elected to Congress at the age of 32. But not getting consumed by Washington could be Kinzinger's greatest feat of all.