Republicans have admitted the GOP needs to change the perception of being a party of “stuffy old men,” and this year’s crop of congressional candidates could help with that makeover – from a Minnesotan whose hair has earned him the nickname "The Republican Brad Pitt" to a former female fighter pilot.
Here’s a look at five of the most interesting Republican Congressional candidates this fall.
|The Gay, Pro-Choice Republican: Carl DeMaio|
No openly gay Republican candidate has ever been voted into Congress. That a Republican could be the first is one of the most intriguing prospects of the 2014 elections at a time when the GOP talks about inclusiveness.
Carl DeMaio is running for the seat in the 52nd district of California, a liberal hotbed where social politics are typically far more left-leaning than most of the country. That’s given DeMaio a chance to pitch himself as a brick-and-mortar Republican more interested in government spending than his sexual orientation and pro-choice stance.
When DeMaio was a teenager, his mother died, and his father abandoned his family. He was taken in by a Jesuit boarding school in Maryland thereafter. In campaign speeches, he often notes how he showed up to his first day at Georgetown University years later with a duffel bag and $36, then transitioned to the private sector post-college and founded the Performance Institute, a government reform think tank.
As part of the San Diego City Council, DeMaio flexed his bipartisan muscle in seeking fiscal sustainability in city government, which he hopes to do again in Washington as part of a highly dysfunctional governing body.
Yet as much interest as there is in DeMaio’s biography, his race against the Democratic incumbent Rep. Scott Peters is a toss up, according to the Cook Political Report. Earlier this month, Peters released the first major attack ad against DeMaio in which he accused DeMaio of pandering to Tea Party voters, showing clips of him appealing to the right-wing faithful. Whether he’s viewed as an extreme or progressive conservative might be up to DeMaio himself.
|The GOP’s Top Gun: Martha McSally|
Martha McSally was recently labeled “the House GOP’s top recruit,” but a better title might be the GOP's Top Gun; McSally was the first female Air Force fighter pilot to fly in combat. She boasts a long list of military accomplishments: before retiring as a colonel in 2010, she commanded a combat aviation unit, helped lead the Combined Air Operations Center, and was awarded a bronze star after flying over 225 hours during increased combat. McSally has an equally strong academic background as a distinguished graduate of the U.S. Air Force who went on to earn a Master’s in Public Policy from the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard. She even did a stint as a professor of National Security Studies at the George C. Marshall Center in Germany.
McSally, 48, finds herself in a repeat of 2012, when she lost in a narrow race against Rep. Ron Barber to represent Arizona’s 2nd congressional district. This year, she has outraised Barber four straight quarters, and she only needs to get by a few weak candidates in the August 26 GOP primary to go head to head with Barber in November.
McSally may have the centrist mettle that could help her in the contest against Barber. She continually resists embracing Tea Party credo, instead telling voters, “I need you to be pragmatic,” as Politico reported. She also isn’t afraid to play dirty: her campaign released secret footage of Barber speaking at an event claiming he knew about the recent Veterans Affairs crisis for seven years before it came to a head this year. McSally knows that to win in a swing district, anything counts.
The Arizona race is part of ABC News' 14 for 14 coverage. Click here for a snapshot of the race.
|The Republican 'Brad Pitt': Stewart Mills|
Stewart Mills, a 42-year-old Republican candidate for Congress in Minnesota’s 8th Congressional District, seems like your typical, homey Midwest politician: pictures of him with his family show them in front of their cozy, cabin-like home in Brainerd, Minnesota, and his business résumé balances his earthiness with white-collar credentials. As vice president of Mills Fleet Farm, he oversees the operations of an expansive Midwestern farm, fishing, and sporting goods outlet that has two versions of its own theme song, “We Love It!”—a country and a rock-and-roll rendition.
But Mills’ biggest claim to fame so far as a candidate centers on his hair, a luxurious mane that’s earned him the nickname “The Brad Pitt of the Republican Party.”
“I look in the mirror and this is me. I’m comfortable with it,” he told Politico about the hair, saying he’s kept it at jaw-length or longer for more than a decade, sometimes pairing it with a bandana. “I’m very active, I do things, so it’s just nice to be able to pull it back, get it out of the way.”
His hair’s not the only thing getting attention. Last year, The Minnesota paper City Pages circulated now-deleted shots of Mills proudly taking a hit from a beer bong in 2009. Despite the embarrassment, Mills is adamant about his seriousness as a candidate as he faces one of the most competitive races in the country.
Aside from the litany of Republican causes such as repealing Obamacare, defending gun rights and cutting spending, Mills has focused on a more localized platform, calling for legislation that allows Minnesotans to “fully capitalize on our mineral and timber resources…our ability to extract natural resources.” He refers to his candidacy as being founded on the “Hunting Camp Doctrine,” the notion that “if you complain about the food...you have to be the cook.”
His opponent, the Democratic incumbent Rick Nolan, promises to be a difficult one. Nolan is a deeply-embedded figure in Minnesota politics, having served two different terms as Congressman in the 1970s, 1980s, and now again today. This is a classic newcomer vs. establishment showdown, with plenty of hair to go around.
|The Republican Party’s Freshest Face: Elise Stefanik|
At the age of 30, Elise Stefanik is vying to become the youngest congresswoman ever as she runs in a toss-up race against 65 year-old Democrat Bill Owens in New York’s 21st Congressional District.
Stefanik boasts strong establishment ties, having worked in President George W. Bush’s administration on the Domestic Policy Council and overseen economic and domestic policy in the chief of staff’s office. She also served as director of debate preparation during Rep. Paul Ryan’s vice presidential campaign, and helped author the Republican National Committee’s platform in 2012. But after years in Washington, D.C., Stefanik has worked hard to ingratiate herself among locals in her upstate New York district: she moved into her family’s vacation home in Lake Champlain in 2012, and she started work in marketing and management for Premium Plywood Products, a family-owned company, which allowed her more face time with her district’s residents.
The issues she’s most outspoken about are the traditional national causes she studied in the Bush White House, including tax reform. But what stands out is her attention to agriculture and the environment, which she admits are essential in appealing to Upstate farmers and Adirondack Mountains enthusiasts. The balance between local and national is much like her own career.
|The Sightless State Senator Who’s Never Lost An Election: Torrey Westrom|
In 2012, Minnesota state senator Torrey Westrom was inducted into the National Wrestling Hall of Fame—decades after losing his vision in a farming accident.
His success as a high school wrestler came after he decided to give up basketball, and at all of age 23, he was elected to the Minnesota House of Representatives. Since that first election in 1996, he’s never lost a campaign, and he still has a chance to defeat the Democratic incumbent Rep. Collin Peterson in Minnesota’s 7th congressional district race this November.
Westrom’s campaign website touts his transcending his disability as the defining characteristic of his politics—he believes he has a “can do attitude” that will defend Minnesotans in Congress. And Westrom has learned to make light of his loss of vision, often joking, “I can always say I walk softly and carry a big stick,” referencing his walking stick.
Westrom, 41, still may have to defend himself against recent disclosures of his financial records, which revealed immense credit card and student loan debt.
His opponent, Peterson, has endorsements from the Minnesota Farmers Union, the Business-Industry Political Action Committee, and the National Federation of Independent Business, and was one of the Democrats who voted no on the Affordable Care Act in 2010, meaning he has appeal on both sides, and the favorable predictions for him affirm that.