Rising Stars Prove the GOP's Rebuilding Process Was Worth It

After a difficult couple of months that produced a government shutdown and cratered GOP approval ratings with voters, things appear to be looking up for Republicans.

A disastrous rollout of the Affordable Care Act, coupled with health insurance cancellations and a runaway National Security Agency have Democrats on the hot seat and looking for a way to escape a flailing White House. However, the GOP is still on a short leash -- they must regain voters' trust and prove they have a plan to govern or risk another downturn in their political fortunes.

Despite these challenges, the good news for Republicans nationwide is that their time in the political wilderness has produced a new generation of talent -- espousing the same basic principles of smaller government, fiscal responsibility and social conservatism yet bringing a fresh perspective and revamped message to the Grand Old Party.

Some new faces like Sen. Marco Rubio, Gov. Susanna Martinez and Rep. Paul Ryan have already stepped into the limelight; others are waiting in the wings. While there are many innovative and exciting lawmakers on the cusp, Rep. Cory Gardner of Colorado, Oklahoma Speaker of the House T.W. Shannon and Virginia state Sen. Bryce Reeves each have the combination of talent, charisma and fresh perspective that distinguish them as rising stars.

Rep. Cory Gardner – Colorado 4th Congressional District

Since his arrival in Congress in 2010 as part of the new Republican majority, Cory Gardner has quickly become a "go-to" member for Republican leadership for messaging on everything from their initial legislative priorities in the "Contract with America" to more recent controversies over the IRS targeting conservative groups and the Affordable Care Act.

Gardner's arrival on the scene came at a welcome time for Colorado Republicans, who endured losses in recent statewide campaigns and watched the state support President Obama in 2008 and 2012, despite spending millions to stem the tide.

In a recent conversation, Gardner pointed out that Colorado has "ebbs and flows" when it comes to its politics. Asked about how to get the party back on track, the congressman emphasized the importance of an effective majority. "People need to be assured that the GOP can govern. It's not about changing our principles but about making sure the family at the dinner table understands what we're trying to do for them".

In addition to catching the eye of House Republican leadership, Gardner has also won the support of leaders in his state. According to Bob Beauprez, a former Republican congressman and Colorado insider, "Cory is a very gifted communicator grounded in the best of American values. He knows who he is, what he believes and why, and has a comfortable way about him that immediately made him a star in the House."

Gardner points to energy issues as his policy area of choice, pointing out that Colorado is right in the middle of the new energy boom. He's already distinguished himself on the influential House Energy and Commerce Committee, where he's been able to work effectively with Democrats on issues such as energy efficiency, while speaking out on more partisan topics such as the need for streamlining the process for energy exploration and calling on the president to approve the Keystone Pipeline.

The congressman also made headlines recently when he disclosed that his own health coverage, purchased when he opted out of the congressional health care plan, had been cancelled due to the Affordable Care Act. Under questioning from Gardner, Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius erroneously disclosed that she wasn't eligible to enroll in the ACA -- an admission later proven false.

Gardner's roots in the Centennial State run deep -- his family has lived in Colorado since the 1880s and he lives in a house that once belonged to his great-grandparents out on the state's eastern plains. Gardner's success has already started whispers about his future, perhaps as a potential Speaker of the House or governor. While he has wisely remained coy, there's no question he's one to watch as Republicans attempt to recapture what was once a solidly red state.

Speaker T.W. Shannon – Oklahoma House of Representatives

As the GOP looks to a new generation of legislators to continue its rebuilding, they have high hopes for Tahrohon Wayne Shannon. In January, Shannon was chosen as the first African-American Speaker of the Oklahoma House, capping a rocket ride of a political career that began in 2006.

An interview with the smooth-talking Shannon provides a refreshing take on traditional conservative principles. As for the seeming disconnect between Republicans and younger voters, he explained, "It's all about message and messenger; that's where we have lost the battle as a party -- what we haven't done is gone and explained why [conservative principles] even matter to them. You have a whole generation of young people who don't think in those terms. You have to communicate that these principles lead to prosperity".

Shannon's ease on the stage and unique background (he's also a registered member of the Chickasaw Nation) has caught the eye of the Republican National Committee, which recently named him as one of its "rising stars." Shannon also served as a national advisor for GOPAC, the organization devoted to promoting up-and-coming Republican leaders.

The 35-year-old father of two describes his most passionate issue as "promoting strong families and the sanctity of life." Shannon's riff on what constitutes "pro-life" is a cool breeze on the traditionally hot rhetoric associated with the issue. "When you talk about pro-life, that doesn't mean just in the womb," Shannon said. "That's important. It goes beyond that though. We should be looking at pro-life issues from the cradle to grave. We as a party should own that."

Matt Pinnell, currently State Party Director for the RNC and former chairman of the Oklahoma GOP, had this to say of Shannon: "He's the real deal. In a state with many conservative stars, he's arguably at the top of the heap."

Shannon's continued ascension into the national conversation is dependent on having the opportunity. With Oklahoma Gov. Mary Fallin doing an impressive job in her first term, and senior Sen. James Inhofe having declared for re-election, Shannon's chance may come when Sen. Tom Coburn retires at the end of his current term. Interestingly, Shannon told the Tulsa World that he had no plans to be a career politician, a model consistent with his former boss and mentor, former Rep. J.C. Watts.

Regardless, the dynamic young Speaker will continue to play a role as the party seeks to expand its appeal to a wider audience. He appears up to the task.

"One of the challenges we have as conservatives is recognizing that people can disagree, but they can still be Republicans," said Shannon. "I think Republicans are more independent by nature; we don't fall into the 'group think' culture very well. There is room for people to disagree; our tent is big enough for that disagreement".

State Sen. Bryce Reeves – Virginia 17th State Senate District

In another battleground state, state Sen. Bryce Reeves is distinguishing himself even as Virginia Republicans face an uncertain future. Reeves boasts a resume straight out of Republican central casting. A former Army Ranger and police detective, Reeves eventually became a small business owner and worked his way up in the party before running for state Senate in 2010.

The 46-year-old sounds a familiar tune when discussing the future of the GOP: "Republicans must get better at discussing outcomes over process," Reeves said. "We have to better explain to voters what the results of our policies will be and learn to speak about how government becomes more effective with our policies and not just in budget and numbers."

He also points out the importance of finding areas of consensus. "Republicans must engage in a year-round conversation with voters beyond the base. We need to start that conversation with a focus on the area where we agree," he concluded.

Though his time in office has been short, Reeves has already begun moving toward the national stage. He cites several prominent Virginia Republicans, including House Majority Leader Eric Cantor and former Sen. John Warner, among his mentors and also served as co-chair for the GOPAC 2013 Emerging Leaders Summit.

Veteran GOP consultant Greg Mueller has been impressed with Reeves, saying, "Bryce is as down to earth and likeable person as they come. He is an up-and-coming, across-the-board conservative and incredibly savvy campaigner who resume blows away any field of competition. ... No doubt he is positioned for great things politically."

Virginia is another state that Republicans must recapture if they are to win nationally. Reeves will likely require a few more years under his belt in Richmond before he can run statewide, but with the state's one-term gubernatorial limit, it's reasonable to think he'll be in the conversation for the seat in the near future.

Joe Brettell is a former Capitol Hill aide and GOP strategist, and currently a political and public relations consultant. On Twitter @joebrettell

Opinions expressed in this column do not reflect the views of ABC News.

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