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Rep. Jim Banks, R-Ind. had seen the recent poll: More Americans defined “woke” as meaning “to be informed, educated on, and aware of social injustices” than “overly politically correct.”
Banks, the leader of the House’s “Anti-Woke Caucus,” didn’t buy the result — not based on the energy politicians like himself, Ron DeSantis, and Donald Trump (he was careful to mention both) have seen from voters.
“It doesn’t take a poll to know my constituency,” he said.
Banks had his own definition for the broadly applied buzzword — a “left wing religion” as he put it — that conservatives have attached to everything from academia to Silicon Valley Bank.
“I believe wokeness is dividing Americans along racial lines,” Banks said. “It's divisive; it’s anti-American; it's a sharp departure from everything that Martin Luther King stood for, when he talked about equality, that we would not be judged by the color of our skin. And wokeness is using the power of the federal government to do just that.”
Banks contrasted it with an “American dream” message that emphasized how once-disadvantaged people of all kinds, including himself (he grew up in a trailer park), were able to get ahead in the country.
Semafor asked whether the “woke” label applies to government efforts to root out discrimination, like the Justice Department recently finding systematic mistreatment of Black residents by police in Louisville. He pivoted instead to his personal focus on federal “diversity, equity, and inclusion” initiatives, especially in the military, that he argues spur resentment and division.
“What is the cost-benefit analysis of a chief diversity officer at the National Institute of Health or the Pentagon or Department of Interior? What does that mean? What does that look like? I don't know,” he said.
His “anti-woke” caucus is backing a bill that would bar state and federal agencies from “intentionally discriminating against or granting preferential treatment” based on “race, color, or national origin” in hiring and contractor decisions. It would also ban similar criteria in admissions to schools that accept federal funds, effectively blocking race-based affirmative action. It’s essentially a direct counter to moves by the Biden administration and Democrats to boost diversity, like trying to raise the share of federal spending that goes to minority-owned businesses.
Banks, who sat down with Semafor last week for an interview, seems to be in the middle of just about everything going on in the Republican Party right now.
In addition to leading the House’s “anti-woke” crusade, he’s the former chair of the Republican Study Committee at a time when their proposals — like cutting entitlement spending — are under the political microscope in both parties. He ran unsuccessfully for House leadership at a time the GOP leadership's never been more in flux. And now he’s running for Senate with a formidable enough profile that potential rivals, including a former governor, stepped aside after exploring runs.
“The dude is basically a senator now,” is how one source described Banks to me.
“How is the senator?” Rep. Nick LaLota, R-N.Y. joked when I told him I had just left a meeting with Banks.
For his part, Banks said his overall top priority as a senator would mirror his current agenda in the House: “Restoring America's strength so that we can fight back against the agenda of the Chinese Communist Party.”
But being in the middle of the party’s action can also mean being pulled in competing directions. He’s running with backing from close ally Donald Trump, whose campaign he has so far held off on endorsing himself, and from Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, who Trump has excoriated on a daily basis, including using a racist nickname for his wife Elaine Chao.
“I enjoy the support from many wings of the Republican Party,” Banks said when asked if Trump was getting something wrong about McConnell.
Both President Biden and Trump have criticized Republican Study Committee budgets that called for raising the retirement age for federal benefits, among other changes. Banks, however, made no apologies for trying to find a “responsible answer” to projected funding shortfalls.
“The Republican Study Committee has stepped into this, and only those who are dishonest or manipulative will suggest that the Republican Study Committee wants to cut Social Security,” Banks said. “Let’s make reforms to it later to preserve those programs so they'll be around for me and for my kids, and then later generations.”
- Some Democrats tried to recruit former White House Chief of Staff Ron Klain to run against Banks, Politico reported this month. He declined, but some in the party are hoping former senator and current Vatican Ambassador Joe Donnelly gets in the race.