It's a late-February afternoon on Capitol Hill, and Dave Natonski, a scruffy young congressional aide with looks reminiscent of Jim on The Office, is losing his cool. He's trying to locate 27-year-old U.S. representative Aaron Schock, six months his junior and yet the man he calls boss. Unlike Natonski, who has worked on the Hill for six years, Schock has been there only since January, having been elected to represent Illinois' 18th Congressional District last November. It's no wonder, then, that Schock is often accompanied by a staffer as he goes about his day, to make sure he doesn't get lost like a grade-schooler on a field trip to the Smithsonian.
But today Schock has gotten separated from his babysitter and is late for an interview with a person no Republican politician keeps waiting: Fox News anchor Chris Wallace, whoalong with a camera crewis cooling his heels in Schock's office, which the crew has re-arranged for the shoot. Five minutes later, Schock finally arrives. "Oh my God, it looks completely different in here!" he says, then remembers to apologize for his tardiness.
One reason for Wallace's visit is that Schock is a curiositythe youngest serving congressman and the first Millennial elected to the House of Representatives. With his carefully mussed hair, pastel ties, and resemblance to Neil Patrick Harris, he looks more like a West Wing politician than a real-life onesomething Huffington Post readers recognized when they voted the kid from Peoria, Illinois, Congress' "Hottest Freshman." Wallace, however, doesn't seem as enamored of Doogie Howser, GOP. "I have two children older than you," Wallace says gruffly as the two make preinterview small talk.
The other reason Schock has drawn so much attention is what conservatives now refer to, in hushed, reverential tones, as "the Air Force One story." In February, when Barack Obama traveled to Peoria to stump for the stimulus bill, the president invited the congressman along for the trip, and lobbied himprivately, aboard Air Force One, and then publicly, during a rally at a Caterpillar plantto vote for the bill. Maybe Obama figured that the freshman congressman would be an easy sell. But the day after the trip, Schock voted against the stimulus package, denouncing it on the House floor as a "skunk." In doing so, Schock became a GOP folk heroa conservative Cool Hand Luke who looked Obama in the eye and didn't blink. "That was a true test of character," says John Shimkus, one of Schock's fellow Republican representatives from Illinois, "and Aaron passed it with flying colors."
By the time the interview winds downafter Schock has recounted the Air Force One story, addressed issues like Social Security reform, and commented on the bill he's introduced to mandate special elections for all U.S. Senate vacanciesWallace's countenance has warmed. When the sit-down airs in Fox News Sunday's "Power Player" segment, Wallace has added a coda: "What about Schock's future?" he asks. "Governor Schock?" Pause for effect. "President Schock?"
IF THAT SOUNDS LIKE A REACH, well, such is the state of the Republican Party circa 2009. What has GOP insiders truly worried is that the future might be even bleaker: According to a recent poll, 18-to-29-year-olds who identify as Democrats outnumber those who identify as Republicans by 14 percentage points. If young voters maintain those allegiances into their thirtieswhen political preferences tend to hardenthe Republicans could face trouble for decades. That's why party leaders are desperate to bring the conservative message to, as GOP chairman Michael Steele has put it, "urban-suburban hip-hop settings" and anywhere else the elusive youth vote might be hiding.