Former Rep. Jim Ryun is an unlikely advocate for insurgent conservatives challenging Republican incumbents.
The one-time Olympic athlete and world record-breaking runner coasted for 10 years in Congress as a relatively low-profile conservative from a safely Republican district -- until he was defeated in 2006 by a Democrat, Nancy Boyda.
"I still feel we have the right values," Ryun told supporters in conceding the race.
But voters spurned Ryun again in 2008, this time in favor of now-Rep. Lynn Jenkins in a GOP primary.
“He always had a reputation as being a good conservative," one longtime Kansas Republican political operative said of Ryun. "But also, over time, a good conservative who had 'gone Washington.'”
Now, Ryun leads the Madison Project, an independent group focused on electing the most conservative candidates possible to Congress -- even if, in most cases, that means challenging sitting Republicans.
Ryun, 66, is on a path very similar to that of another former congressman who lost his re-election bid in 2006: Club for Growth President Chris Chocola, whose group also targets incumbent Republicans it views as insufficiently conservative. Ryun took the reins of the Madison Project from his son, Ned Ryun, in 2009, the same year Chocola was elected to lead the Club.
The Madison Project, which addresses supporters as "fellow conservative patriots," issues bullet-pointed newsletters it calls "intellectual ammunition" on issues like the temporary budget bill now before Congress or the Senate's green energy bill (“which unfortunately enjoys robust Republican support”).
“One thing that I have noticed amongst conservatives is this,” said Drew Ryun, formerly of the Republican National Committee, who runs the group alongside his father, “we have all this intellectual ammunition, but we hadn’t been able to compress it into actionable items.”
The Madison Project, which like other groups rates the purity of each lawmakers' conservatism, could easily be confused for ideological behemoths like the Club for Growth or Heritage Action — but with less than $200,000 on hand, it's more of a family business than a power player.
The Madison Project owes much of its limited notoriety to discovering Sen. Ted Cruz when Cruz was still an obscure candidate in the four-way Republican primary for Texas' open Senate seat. Drew Ryun spent two hours talking to Cruz at Angelo's Bar-B-Que in Fort Worth, then called his father and advised him to endorse Cruz, making the Madison Project the first outside group to do so.
“The importance of their endorsement in the early days was significant,” said John Drogin, Cruz’s campaign manager on that race. “When Senator Cruz was still a long shot, far behind in the polls, Madison Project stood with him because they knew he would stand for conservative principles.”
The Madison Project is trying to punch above its weight in the 2014 mid-term elections by targeting Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, whose race in Kentucky is among the most high-profile in the country. In the process, it hopes to raise its own profile.
Still, few conservatives have Ryun and the Madison Project on their radar.
“I made my bones in conservative grassroots politics working for Rand Paul, Ron Paul and the Campaign for Liberty, and I had never heard of them before,” said Jesse Benton, McConnell's campaign manager. “We respect their right to speak their mind, but we don't pay them much thought.”
Coincidentally, Ryun's Madison Project and McConnell have some shared blood: A top Senate adviser to McConnell, Dan Schneider, was once Ryun’s chief of staff. But relationships don't bind Ryun.
“My dad is a very gracious man,” said Drew Ryun. “But he is not a collegial man in the sense of, 'I can’t challenge them.'”
Rep. Mike Simpson, R-Idaho, remembers working with Ryun in Congress. Their relationship was friendly, if superficial. They occasionally golfed together.
So, Simpson was floored in early September when the Madison Project derided him as “out-of-touch with the values of east Idaho” and endorsed his Republican primary opponent.
“I just hope they spend a whole lot of money against me to help Idaho’s economy,” Simpson said with a grin. “That’s the kind of guy I am."
Jim Ryun said being rejected by voters didn't change his political approach or perspective.
“I'm the same person I was while serving in Congress, hopefully a little wiser for the wear,” he said in a brief interview via email.
Long before he was in Congress, Ryun gained international fame as an Olympic runner who as a high schooler broke the world record in the mile. Today, cross-country invitationals across America are named for him. In an interview with a runners' website, Ryun said about his historic high school race what might as easily be said about his political work now.
“One of the things that happens in a race like this,” he said, “is you’re so focused on trying to accomplish something that you really eliminate the thought of how you feel.”