Meet the GOP freshmen taking on the ‘Squad’

Melanie Zanona, Ally Mutnick and Sarah Ferris

On the first day of Congress’ freshman orientation, four incoming GOP members realized they shared a special connection: All had first- or second-hand experience living in communist or socialist countries.

The crew quipped that their family histories with brutal dictatorships and their aversion to Big Government basically made them the opposite of the liberal “Squad” that has surged to political stardom in the House.

Taking a page from their social media savvy rivals, they took to Twitter to share the name of their own counterrevolution. And the Republican “Force” was born.

“It was a natural alliance that formed. … We understand what it’s like in other countries. We understand how truly special this nation is,” Rep.-elect Nicole Malliotakis (R-N.Y.), whose mother was born in Cuba, recalled in an interview. “And we look forward to working together to push back on anyone who tries to bring a socialist agenda to America.”

The quartet — which includes Malliotakis and Reps.-elect Carlos Gimenez and Maria Elvira Salazar of Florida, and Victoria Spartz of Indiana — is positioning itself as a conservative counterweight to the Squad. And they are recruiting others in their class to join them.

Stuck in the House minority, the Force is unlikely to have much influence on next year’s legislative agenda. But their message is already proving politically potent. Democrats are still reeling from House losses in November, when lawmakers on both sides of the aisle say the anti-socialist attacks helped take down a dozen incumbents, including in South Florida.

Beyond the initial four members in the Force, there’s also California GOP Reps.-elect Young Kim and Michelle Steel, Korean immigrants who have been friends for decades and speak on the trail. Steel frequently points to the suffering their families endured under communist regimes.

They all belong to a high-profile freshman class that includes a record-breaking number of women and minorities for the House GOP. And with their diverse backgrounds and already-impressive Twitter followings, the Force could have an outsize impact as Republicans look to take back the House in 2022 — particularly as some are itching to do battle directly with the Squad.

Some incoming lawmakers already have star power in the GOP; Kim and Steel were tapped to campaign in the Georgia Senate runoff races, where they hope to appeal to the rapidly diversifying communities in the Atlanta suburbs that have begun trending toward Democrats.

“I want to be different. I don’t want it to be the same old, same old. This is a new Republican Party,” said Rep.-elect Nancy Mace of South Carolina, the first woman to graduate from The Citadel. “We have to be different if we want to survive and be successful in the long-term.”

As members of the Force build up their political and social media brands, they’re taking cues from an unlikely, but familiar, source: Squad leader Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez.

The New York Democrat has offered up a blueprint for how freshmen, who typically hold little powerful in the halls of Congress, can still exert influence by leveraging their loyal grassroots base. The Squad also includes Reps. Ayanna Pressley of Massachusetts, Ilhan Omar of Minnesota and Rashida Tlaib of Michigan.

Many members of the GOP Force — who, like the Squad, are mostly young and female — have even adopted Ocasio-Cortez’s pull-back-the-curtain style of politics. Ocasio-Cortez is known to post videos as she preps meals while casually discussing legislation coming to the floor.

Mace recently documented her journey through freshman orientation, which included getting lost in the Capitol building and racing across the campus. Salazar, who is credited with coining the Force moniker, posted a picture of the female group members with the caption: “We’re all working moms & we’re a true FORCE to be reckoned with!”

And earlier this summer, Salazar, a former broadcast journalist for Telemundo, got nearly 600,000 views on a Twitter video in which she recorded herself in the Goya aisle of a grocery store blasting Ocasio-Cortez for pushing a boycott on the company for its leadership’s support for Trump.

“Like a lot of things with branding, it just started sticking,” Rep.-elect Ashley Hinson (R-Iowa) said of the group’s nickname. “I think the entire class is the Freedom Force.”

Asked about the GOP’s incorporation of some of her own messaging tactics, Ocasio-Cortez said, “Imitation is a high form of flattery, right? So, I’m glad they think that way of me.”

Aside from Ocasio-Cortez and a few other congressional Democrats, the vast majority of the party reject any notion that they back socialism in any form. President-elect Joe Biden likes to regularly remind audiences he defeated a slew of more left-wing candidates to win the nomination.

But the incoming Republicans say they want to put a personal face on their ideological fight. Steel talks about how her parents escaped Korea and relocated to Japan and said she sees how it is easy to take freedom for granted in the U.S. Malliotakis — who defeated Army veteran Max Rose in a hard-fought Staten Island race — said in an interview that she wants to warn the younger generation of the perils of socialism and that she plans to take her message to college campuses.

“We want to make sure, particularly young people, understand that socialism is not something grand,” she said.

The election last month offered vindication for what some GOP operatives had long suspected in the Trump era: Women and diverse candidates can help bring the suburbs back into the Republican fold by appealing to moderate voters wary of Trump. Thirteen Republican candidates flipped seats on Nov. 3 — and only one was a white man.

That shift has the full backing of party leaders. When Hinson walked into the lobby of the National Republican Congressional Committee, she noticed that every portrait hanging on the wall was of a man. As NRCC Chairman Tom Emmer realized that Hinson was gazing at the all-male lineup, he said to her: “These need to go.”

Republican leaders across Washington recognize that the future of their party — which has long been dominated by white men — rests with their new class of women and minorities. Elevating their voices will be a critical part of the GOP’s strategy to win back the House in 2022.

That includes Steel and Kim, who will be two of the first three Korean American women ever elected to the House, and Rep.-elect Yvette Herrell of New Mexico, the GOP’s first Native American woman to serve in Congress.

“I’m excited about everybody we’ve got coming in, but particularly because we’ve got women,” House GOP Conference Chair Liz Cheney of Wyoming, the highest-ranking Republican woman, said in an interview. “The Democrats have tried to make it an issue for so long, that somehow the Republican Party doesn’t have a voice with women or that we haven’t been effective.”

But some of the incoming congresswomen might bring some unwanted attention.

Rep.-elect Marjorie Taylor Greene of Georgia, one of the party’s most controversial new members who has embraced QAnon conspiracy theories, kicked off orientation by confronting the Capitol physician about mask requirements, according to several people who attended. She has also argued that she shouldn’t have to wear a face covering because it’s “my body, my choice.”

And conservative Rep.-elect Lauren Boebert of Colorado, the pistol-packing owner of a restaurant named Shooters Grill, has demanded to know whether she could carry her firearm into the Capitol — prompting top Democrats to look into changing House rules to prohibit it.

Their antics have already made some of their future colleagues uncomfortable, though few have been willing to criticize them publicly.

Still, Mace, who contracted coronavirus on the campaign trail, did strike a notable, public contrast with Greene on Tuesday, tweeting: “My body. My choice. And I choose to wear a mask.”

For the most part, though, the incoming GOP women are a tight-knit crew. They are already discussing plans to recruit more female candidates ahead of 2022, a midterm election that could propel Republicans back into the majority. Earlier this month, a group of sitting GOP congresswomen held a call with the new class to share advice and urge them to pass it on and give other women the push they need to run.

Meanwhile, Rep.-elect Stephanie Bice of Oklahoma, who’s also considered part of the GOP Force, was elected by her colleagues to be freshman class president.

And the new crop of lawmakers is staying in touch. There’s a group text for all the incoming freshmen and a Signal chat just for the women members.

“We really clicked. I love Maria. I love Nicole. I love Yvette. I love Carlos Gimenez. Oh my god I love Burgess Owens,” Steel gushed of her colleagues. “I’m not the type really going out and making friends. When you were born in Korea and raised in Japan, you are kind of a little timid. And my character has been changed a lot.”