As the Republicans take command of both the House and the Senate next week for the first time in nearly a decade, a substantial freshman class will be poised to take their seats and join in the cacophonous national debate.
Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky will realize his life-long dream of becoming Senate Majority Leader thanks largely to the nine GOP challengers who captured Democratic-held seats. The Republicans will now hold a 54-to-46 seat advantage over the Democrats.
And House Speaker John Boehner of Ohio has much to cheer over the 13 seats his party picked up in the Nov. 4 mid-term election, which enlarged the GOP’s majority to 247 to 188.
The heroes of the hour will be a politically potent group of fairly seasoned Republicans who bowled over their Democratic foes in convincing fashion – many of them experienced House members or state and local elected officials. Many of them are certain to be granted important committee assignments and touted by the leadership as evidence of vastly improving GOP fortunes.
While many of these newcomers will make a splash on Capitol Hill in the days and weeks to come, here are five freshmen senators and House members worth keeping an eye on:
Sen. Tom Cotton (R-AR)
The one-term Republican House member appears destined for big things in the Senate. Cotton is a sixth-generation Arkansan with a Harvard Law degree and distinguished service in the military. As an infantry officer in the Army, he completed two combat tours in Iraq and Afghanistan and earned a Bronze Star, among other commendations. He is among the first Iraq War veterans to win election to the Senate, and at age 37, he will become the youngest U.S. senator.
Cotton is a fiscal conservative who was part of the “vote no” caucus in the House that opposed “out of control” federal spending. He voted against the farm bill and disaster relief funding — a risky thing for a lawmaker from a farm state to do — and he also opposed funding for a program to prevent pandemics. He served on the House Financial Services and Foreign Affairs Committees.
With all that experience, Cotton almost certainly will assume a highly visible role in the upcoming debates over the war against ISIS and other defense and foreign policy issues.
Sen. Joni Ernst (R-IA)
As the first woman ever to win election to Congress from Iowa, Ernst will bring real star power to the Senate Republican conference. The former county auditor and state legislator served in the U.S. Army Reserves and the Iowa National Guard for 21 years, and in 2003 did a stint as company commander during Operation Iraqi Freedom.
As just about everybody knows by now, the 44-year-old Ernst broke through a crowded GOP primary field with a March campaign ad in which she boasted of her rural roots and declared that her experience castrating hogs on her family farm would serve her well in cutting pork in Washington. That ad, and her solid primary performance in rallying her Tea Party supporters, helped her overtake Rep. Bruce Braley (D-IA) in the general election race to succeed retiring Democratic Sen. Tom Harkin. Her image as a pistol-packing motorcyclist contrasted sharply with Braley’s more aloof and arrogant image.
Ernst embraces “Iowa values,” meaning self-reliance and limits on federal intervention in local and state matters – especially in education: She campaigned vowing to scale back or totally eliminate the Department of Education, and she believes in redirecting many federal agency roles to state and local government.
Sen. Gary Peters (D-MI)
Peters’ biggest claim to fame is that he is the only Democrat to have won an open or highly contested Senate seat as the Republicans swept to victory in the mid-terms. A wonky House member and veteran of Michigan politics, Peters was dubbed “the Congressman from Chrysler” because of his unflinching defense of the auto industry, according to the Almanac of American Politics.
The fifth-generation Oakland County native holds a law degree and master’s in philosophy, and scored early successes in the investment world with Paine Webber and Merrill Lynch. He launched his political career in the early 1990s, beginning with elections to a city council and later to the state Senate. There he pressed for tax cuts for the middle class and improved access to children’s health care. He won his first term in the House in 2008.
When veteran Sen. Carl Levin announced in early 2013 that he wouldn't run for a seventh term this year, Peters emerged among the Democrats as the most logical successor. Peters went on to beat former Michigan Secretary of State Terri Lynn Land in what proved to be most expensive Senate race in state history.
Peters, 56, has been a loyal Democrat and union backer throughout his two terms in the House, but he has frequently shown a willingness to reach across the aisle – a practice he plans to continue in the Senate to try to break partisan gridlock.
Rep. Mia Love (R-UT)
Republicans are still clinking celebratory glasses over Love’s victory in the race to succeed retiring Democratic Rep. Jim Matheson. By almost any measure it was an historic victory — one that made her the first black female Republican and the first Haitian American ever elected to Congress.
For a party long derided as hostile terrain for blacks, Hispanics and other minorities, Love’s come-from-behind victory over Democrat Doug Owens was sweet vindication for the GOP. It was also a golden opportunity for its leaders to try to change their party’s narrative heading into the 2016 presidential campaign.
A former city council member and mayor of tiny Saratoga, Utah, the 39-year-old Love boasts a unique life story. She came from humble beginnings as the Brooklyn-born daughter of Haitian immigrants. After living for a while in Connecticut, she moved to Utah where she met and married her husband, converted to the Mormon faith, and launched her political career in local government.
Her nationally televised speech to the Republican National Convention in August 2012 in Tampa – an opportunity similar to the one the Democratic National Convention granted to Barack Obama in 2008 — brought her widespread attention.
"My parents immigrated to the U.S. with $10 in their pocket, believing that the America they had heard about really did exist," Love said during her address. "When times got tough they didn't look to Washington, they looked within ... So the America I came to know was centered in personal responsibility and filled with the American dream."
She is a strong champion of the Tea Party and a severe critic of the Obama administration.
Rep. Gwen Graham (D-FL)
Graham, the scion of a prominent Florida political family, provided House Democrats with one of their few shining moments in the Nov. 4 election debacle. While the GOP was expanding its majority, Graham unseated two-term Republican Rep. Steve Southerland – marking the first time a woman ever won Florida’s 2nd Congressional District seat.
Graham, 51 an attorney and school administrator, is the daughter of Democrat Bob Graham, the former Florida governor and U.S. senator who was often by her side throughout the hard-fought and costly campaign. In her first outing as a political candidate, Gwen Graham sought to portray Southerland as out of touch with North Florida voters. She repeatedly hammered away at his staunchly conservative voting record.
Graham promoted an economic plan aimed at bolstering agriculture and tourism-based industries, vocational training through established community colleges, veteran workforce training and tax breaks for small businesses, according to the Tallahassee Democrat. She also vowed to bring a bipartisan approach to what she denounced as “this messed-up Congress.”
"The only reason I ran in this race is so that I could provide the people of the 2nd Congressional District the kind of representation that you deserve," Graham said during her victory speech. “I'm going to build and forge relationships. I'm going to make sure that Congress is not dysfunctional but is willing to work together."
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