Joining Trump at border, GOP congressman eyes path to power

WASHINGTON (AP) — At the invitation of Donald Trump, Indiana Rep. Jim Banks recently led a small group of House Republicans out 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, saying the meeting was “entirely focused on the future of the Republican Party.”

Whatever that future may hold, Banks, 41, 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.

The 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, for Banks, who is now tasked with crafting a Trump-inspired policy agenda to help win Republicans back control of the House.

His vision is to bridge what was once mainstream, Reagan-era conservatism with Trump’s grievance-driven populism. Banks is drawing on his background as the son of a blue-collar union worker turned Trump voter, and his ideas are rooted in an effort to keep the conversation with Trump’s supporters going while charting the party’s future with or without Trump at the top of the ticket.

On Wednesday, Banks planned to join Trump for a tour of the U.S.-Mexico border in Texas’ Rio Grande Valley, where the former president is 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.

Like other Republican strivers, including New York Rep. Elise Stefanik, the No. 3 ranking member of the House GOP leadership, Banks’ evolution was swift. He was recently selected to lead the Republican Study Committee, a powerful voting bloc that includes most members of the House Republican conference

He initially 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.

Banks now says Trump’s election offered a “gift” that could make the Republican Party “a majority party for a long time to come.”

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.”

Banks describes it differently.

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

But are also those who say his effort is purely expedient.

“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.

Banks’ beginnings trace to a trailer park in Columbia City, Indiana, near Fort Wayne. His father worked as an axle-maker, 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.

Banks, the first in his family to go to college, got his initial taste of politics when he joined the Indiana University College Republicans, 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.

He 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 began a bid for 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 his potential rival. Banks asked Snyder 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.

Like many politicians with an eye on higher office, he 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. When Banks returned, a film crew was on hand to catch the family’s reunion. The footage was used in political ads after he started 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 … 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.”

Banks has also 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 House leadership in May.

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. “He’s in a position to be influential for decades to come.”

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