“He won.”

Those two words are not the sound of surrender, but a reflection of Rep. Adam Kinzinger’s current reality.  The first chapters in the Kinzinger vs. Trump feud are written and they end with the congressman preparing to leave Washington, D.C. at the end of this term and the former president under siege but not out of the arena.

“Yeah, he won in the short term at least,” Kinzinger said. “There’s no use in pretending somehow I scored some major victory and saved the party.”

Kinzinger met with WGN News’ Ben Bradley in a hanger at the Morris, Illinois airport where he keeps the small plane he still uses to fly himself around his largely rural congressional district. Kinzinger’s plane, like his political career, has been temporarily grounded (supply chain issues have led to a long wait for a replacement part). But to carry the analogy forward, his political wings are by no means permanently clipped. And that could mean a run for President of the United States one day.

“If people wake-up there may be an opportunity to come back. If they don’t I know I’ve done what I can do,” Kinzinger said.

In a wide-ranging interview, he voiced no regrets about standing-up to the former president’s election lies.

Kinzinger’s political career once seemed as high flying as his time in the Air Force conducting missions over Iraq. But these days his ongoing military service, a solid conservative voting record and a wickedly biting presence on social media aren’t enough to keep voters – or party leaders – happy.

“The party is like ‘Invasion of the Body Snatchers,’” Kinzinger said. “It’s not the party I ever joined. It’s around a person and it’s kind of creepy to be honest with you.”

THE SKY WAS THE LIMIT

Kinzinger’s political career started early. 

While a 20-year-old sophomore at Illinois State University, he ran for and won a seat on the McLean County, Illinois Board. He ran for Congress at the age of 30 and was quickly travelling around the country at the request of fellow republicans who wanted to be seen with – and raise money alongside – a rising star. 

Photo courtesy: Rep Adam Kinzinger

Then came Donald J. Trump. Kinzinger refused to vote for his party’s nominee in 2016.  Some might be surprised to learn that he actually did vote for Trump in 2020. Today, he calls it a “cowardice move” made to give him cover with Trump-loving voters in his district. 

“It’s a regret.  If I could go back in time, I certainly wouldn’t do that,” he said. 

THE FINAL STRAW

Kinzinger was a rare republican critic of Trump during his time in the White House. He says the final fracture, his breaking point, came on Election Night 2020 when Trump called for an early end to the vote count while he was ahead.   

“We talk about democracy – Republicans love to talk about the Constitution – and yet we’re openly violating it now,” he said.

(ALMOST) ALL BY HIMSELF

The congressman concedes there was a bit of a political calculation in being first to so forcefully turn on Trump.

“In the beginning I thought, ‘There is no way this is going to last – no way it’s just going to just be me.'”

The back-up never arrived. Kinzinger and Rep. Liz Cheney (R-Wyoming) are the only two Republicans on the January 6th Committee. Despite the evidence the panel has presented about the attack on the Capitol and members of Trump’s inner-circle acknowledging he lost the election, other Republicans have remained either loyal or silent. 

“I thought people that got into this business all had some ‘red line,’ something they wouldn’t cross… I’ve now learned nobody has a ‘red line,’” Kinzinger said.  

He always knew there may not be a tidal wave of GOP opposition to Trump’s tales; but he didn’t think he’d be virtually alone. 

DEMOCRATS DON’T HELP

While many Democrats have praised Kinzinger’s independence he feels they too have shown they put politics over patriotism. Nationally, democrats have funded attack ads against more moderate Republicans aimed at elevating Trump-backed candidates (some of whom are election deniers) on the theory they’ll be easier to beat in the general election.  

“When they’re spending donor money to promote these candidates that don’t believe in democracy and then come and tell me ‘Where have all the good Republicans gone?’ That does get a little frustrating,” Kinzinger said. In fact, it was Illinois Democrats who drew him out of his own congressional district which helped fuel his decision to not seek re-election.

Trump’s biggest critic in Kinzinger’s home state, Gov. JB Pritzker (D-Illinois), spent $24 million on ads supporting a Republican candidate for governor who ultimately received the former president’s endorsement and won the primary. 

ANY REGRETS?

The first question asked of Kinzinger was the simplest: “Has there ever been a moment in the process where you’re like: ‘Holy crap! What did I do?’” His answer came quickly and with a big laugh:  “Every day!”

While Kinzinger may have thought his Republican colleagues would have jumped off the damaged Trump-ship by now, he has no regrets about being the first to walk the plank.  

“I just had a kid and I know one thing: Regardless of what happens, when he reads about this time, he’s going to be proud of his last name,” Kinzinger said as his voice broke. “I know at some point he’s going to be proud he’s a Kinzinger. I have a lot of colleagues that can’t say the same and I wouldn’t want to be in their position.”