Joining Trump at border, GOP congressman eyes path to power

Jun 30, 2021, 2:35 AM | Updated: 11:07 pm

WASHINGTON (AP) — At the invitation of Donald Trump, Indiana Rep. Jim Banks recently led a small group of House Republicans to the former president’s New Jersey golf club, where they dined on beef tenderloin, posed for photos and briefed him on strategy for the 2022 midterm elections.

Banks tweeted a picture of himself and Trump grinning widely while flashing a thumbs-up after the session in June. “It was entirely focused on the future of the Republican Party,” he said.

Whatever that future may hold, the 41-year-old Banks is working aggressively to play a prominent role in it. A politician with mountaintop ambition, he is rising in the ranks of the House Republicans — and in the estimation of the mercurial Trump.

Banks’ overnight trip to Trump’s Bedminster resort punctuated a political journey from a county council seat in small-town northeast Indiana to prominence in Congress in little more than a decade. It also served as a testament to the conversion Banks underwent from Trump critic to unapologetic supporter.

Recently selected to lead the Republican Study Committee, a powerful voting bloc that includes most members of the House Republican conference, Banks is now tasked with crafting a policy agenda that bridges mainstream, Reagan-era conservatism and Trump’s grievance-driven populism. If successful, it’s a project that could catapult Banks higher in the House leadership.

On Wednesday, Banks was invited to join Trump for a tour of the U.S.-Mexico border in Texas’ Rio Grande Valley, where the former president was expected to rail against illegal immigration.

“Jim understands there’s no future for the Republican Party without Trump supporters. But he also understands traditional movement conservative principles need to have a future,” said Luke Messer, a former Indiana congressman who retired in 2019 after a failed Senate run. “He is trying to work both halves of that equation and his colleagues recognize his talent.”

Like other Republican strivers, including New York Rep. Elise Stefanik, the No. 3 ranking member of the House GOP, his evolution was swift.

Banks supported special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation into the Trump campaign’s potential ties to Russia and once said that “America deserved better” after a video emerged of Trump discussing sexually grabbing women without their consent.

He now says Trump’s 2016 election was a “gift” that could make Republicans “a majority party for a long time to come.”

While Banks has proved politically adroit in dealing with Trump, his colleagues also say he grasps policy as well.

“There are some members of Congress who excel in the political arena and don’t do as much in the policy arena, and vice versa. But Jim is one of the rare people who do both,” said Rep. Mike Johnson, R-La., who served a previous term leading the group Banks now does.

Figures such as Banks have a long history in Congress. So long, in fact, that a 19th century nautical term has historically been applied to their ilk.

“He’s a trimmer,” said Ross Baker, a political science professor at Rutgers University, who studies congressional history. “It means a guy who trims his sails depending on which way the wind is blowing. In his case, he is a serial trimmer.”

Banks describes it differently.

“I was very skeptical,” Banks said of his early views of Trump. But, Banks said, “he won me over more and more every single day by doing what he said he was going to do.”

Banks’ critics use another term: political expedience.

“Everything Jim Banks does is based on how it will help him politically,” said Gary Snyder, a Republican-turned-Democrat who writes a politics newsletter in Indiana. The two were close earlier in Banks’ political career before a falling out when Snyder’s wife ran against Banks as a libertarian in 2016.

“He’s cunning and manipulative. But he plays the game very well,” Snyder said.

Banks’ beginnings trace to a trailer park in Columbia City, Indiana, near Fort Wayne. His father worked as an axle-maker for the Dana Corp., while his mother cooked in a nursing home. The family was largely apolitical, Banks has said, though his parents did vote for Democrats. Like much of Indiana, by the time Banks was elected to Congress on the same night Trump won the presidency, his father had become a convert.

“My dad could not have cared as much about (my election) as he did about Donald Trump becoming president,” Banks fondly recalls at GOP dinners in Indiana.

Banks, the first in his family to go to college, got his initial taste of politics when he joined the Indiana University College Republicans. That’s where he met his wife, Amanda. Afterward, he went to work for now-former Indiana Rep. John Hostettler, then honed his political instincts working on mostly unsuccessful campaigns in Ohio, Indiana and Colorado.

“You always learn more when you lose,” Banks said. He later got a “real job” working for a construction business before he and his wife had the first of their three daughters. His political ascent began when he became GOP chairman of Whitley County and later secured a spot on the county’s council.

He launched a bid for the Indiana state Senate two years later. Party insiders quickly took note.

A veteran state representative had signaled interest in the vacant seat, and Banks said he would only run if the legislator did not, the Fort Wayne Journal Gazette reported. Behind the scenes, however, Banks was working to outmaneuver the potential rival. Banks asked Snyder, then a blogger, to convey a message: stand down or face a tough primary.

“I basically went to the guy and said, ‘Jim wants you to step aside. He’ll help you run for state representative instead.’ And that’s basically what happened,” said Snyder.

Later in the race, Banks would tip Snyder off to the actions of another rival, asking Snyder to write negative blog posts about the candidate, according to emails provided to The Associated Press.

One email passed along a list of mocking instances in which Banks’ opponent used poor grammar. Another asked Snyder to write a critical post noting that the rival was sending campaign materials to people with government email addresses, giving the appearance of inappropriate co-mingling of political and official business.

Banks said the campaign was a “long time ago” but he did not deny the account. His former opponent, Tom Wall, said the two made amends long ago.

“I like the guy. I pray for him all the time,” said Wall. “Don’t tell him too much of this or his head will swell too much, but I am so proud of him when I see him on Fox News.”

Like many politicians with an eye on higher office, Banks also saw value in a military credential. In his early 30s, Banks was accepted into the Navy Supply Corps, a program focused on supply chain management. He was commissioned as a reserve officer in November 2012.

In 2014, after his third daughter was a born, Banks deployed to Afghanistan for eight months. Amanda Banks was appointed to fill his state Senate seat. During his deployment he tweeted photos of himself meeting Republican Sens. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina and Ben Sasse of Nebraska.

When Banks returned, a film crew was on hand to catch the family’s reunion. The footage was used in political ads after he formally began his campaign for Congress three weeks later. His combat boots were put on prominent display at his kickoff event.

“A lot of families go through that over and over again, a lot more than my family did,” said Banks, who disputed any suggestion that politics were a factor in his decision to join, calling it “offensive to anyone who has served.”

He won a tight primary race with the help of the conservative group Club for Growth, which spent more than $250,000 on ads. The hard-line House Freedom Caucus spent $100,000 supporting his bid, though he ultimately chose not join the group.

Nearly half of the campaign cash he has raised since has come from trade associations and corporate political actions committees, a source of money that winnowed after Banks’ voted against certifying Joe Biden’s presidential election victory on Jan. 6, when a mob of Trump supporters stormed the U.S. Capitol.

Banks says corporate money is no longer needed in the party of Trump.

“For most of my time in Republican Party politics, we’ve heard the mantra that Republicans are the party of Big Business,” he said. “That paradigm has shifted. Now Joe Biden and Democrats’ top donors are Wall Street and big tech companies and Republicans’ donors base are small-dollar working-class voters.”

Banks has cultivated a close relationship with House Republican leader Kevin McCarthy of California. And he played a prominent public role building the GOP’s case for ousting Rep. Liz Cheney, a Wyoming congresswoman who was booted from her No. 3 spot in the House leadership in May.

“The reason you and I are talking about Liz Cheney,” Banks told Fox News is “she has failed in her mission as the chief spokesperson of our party.”

But he’s also won over other influential members in the House Republican caucus.

“I’m a serious legislator and I appreciate other people who are serious legislators,” said Rep. Mike Rogers, of Alabama, the top Republican on the House Armed Services Committee. “We have some people in this town who all they want to do is chase TV cameras — and that’s not Jim.”

Banks’ rise echoes that of another Indiana congressman who parlayed his leadership of the Republican Study Committee to reach broader prominence: former Vice President Mike Pence.

“Jim Banks wants to be influential,” said Andy Downs, a professor of political science at Purdue University Fort Wayne. “If Jim Banks decides that his (House seat) is an office from which he wants to do things, he’s in a position to be influential for decades to come.”

__

This story has been corrected to fix the spelling of ‘Lindsey’ for Sen. Lindsey Graham.

Copyright © The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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Joining Trump at border, GOP congressman eyes path to power