He had barely been in Congress four months, but already, Mike Gallagher was being discussed as presidential ticket material.
“The Republican ticket in 2020 will be: Trump-Pence, Pence-Haley, Kasich-Martinez, Sasse-Gallagher,” read a Twitter poll posted by prominent conservative Bill Kristol one morning last May.
It was a lighthearted survey and the Gallagher option, paired with Nebraska Sen. Ben Sasse, came in last. But it was an early sign that the freshman congressman was on the radar of high-profile Beltway Republicans.
Nearly one year later, Gallagher, of Wisconsin, has cemented his image as a rising star — one with an unusually independent reputation in today’s Republican Party.
In an era of intense political tribalism, Gallagher is the rare House member from a strongly pro-Trump district who has broken sharply with the White House over a range of issues, including the firing of ex-FBI Director James Comey and the Russia-related investigations.
Even more rare: he has done it—so far—without sparking crippling conservative backlash.
“All Americans should want the president to be successful, right? If he’s successful, the country’s successful,” Gallagher told McClatchy in an interview in his Capitol Hill office last month.
But, he said, “It’s not my job to just salute everything the White House does.”
“He’s done a very, very good job of navigating the Trump rapids,” said Kristol, the editor at large of the Weekly Standard and a Trump critic. “Of not picking unnecessary fights with Trump and Trump supporters, but not in any way bending over backwards, as so many other Republicans have, to give up principles or…be obsequious to Trump.”
Gallagher, 34, is a Princeton- and Georgetown-educated Marine veteran with a Ph.D., and an acolyte of former Trump National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster. He delights in policy wonkery, which offers some cover when he breaks with Trump: party leaders, referencing his resume, suggest that Gallagher has earned “the right to his own opinion.”
His Marine discipline shapes his personal life, too: Gallagher, one of Congress’s youngest members, sleeps in his office, works long hours and has health nut tendencies.
“Let’s get some vegetables and some protein!” he said one recent morning, unsatisfied with the National Republican Congressional Committee’s “heavily salted almond” offerings. “Let’s also install pull-up bars…if you have to endure the pain of raising money, at least you can knock out a set of pull-ups in frustration.”
Republican donors and operatives see the freshman workaholic as the next sterling-credentialed member with a maverick streak who could shape the future of their deeply divided party—if he can outlast the turbulence and tribalism of the moment.
FROM IRAQ TO THE SENATE
Gallagher was born in Green Bay to a family of doctors who owned the locally famous Gallagher’s Pizza. After his parents divorced, he divided his time between Wisconsin and California, graduating as valedictorian from Orange County’s Mater Dei High School where he was voted “most likely to succeed” and “everyone’s friend.”
At Princeton during the Iraq War, Gallagher was a rare conservative-inclined student, even though he wasn’t especially political.
“The way we…connected is that I was more conservative than most of the faculty,” said Michael Doran, a senior director in George W. Bush’s National Security Council who also had Gallagher in class and wrote him a letter of recommendation for the Marines. “Just certain attitudes about the United States and its role in the world…Mike was very patriotic.”
Gallagher studied Arabic and joined the Marines the day he graduated, finishing first in his officer basic training class and in two other specialty training courses, and deploying twice to Iraq’s Anbar province.
“Mike has been a thoughtful, educated, policy-oriented conservative ever since I met him,” said Matthew McKnight, who served in Iraq with Gallagher. “If you were to define someone you’d want to be leading thinking about the next generation of conservative policy-making… there’s nobody I’ve enjoyed talking to more about that.”
After his tours overseas as an intelligence officer, Gallagher was mulling business school when he got a cold call from McMaster, who was working with David Petraeus, the now-retired general, on a Middle East-focused initiative.
“He was like, ‘Hey Mike, hey brother,’” Gallagher said, his voice dropping into a raspy impersonation. “’I need you to get on a plane and fly to D.C. We’re doing this project for Gen. Petraeus.’”
“If he asked me to deploy to the Korean Peninsula tomorrow, I’d do it,” Gallagher said, a week before McMaster was replaced in the Trump administration, following days of speculation about his imperiled position.
After working under Petraeus and in other intelligence roles, Gallagher joined the Senate Foreign Relations Committee staff led by Sen. Bob Corker, another independent-minded Republican.
“We threw him right into the deep end of the pool,” said Lester Munson, then the committee’s staff director. “He started swimming laps around everybody.”
Along the way, Gallagher picked up multiple master’s degrees and a Georgetown Ph.D., writing his dissertation on presidential grand strategy.
DISTANCE FROM TRUMP
Gallagher headed home for the 2016 presidential contest to advise Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker on national security. The Walker campaign was quickly smothered by Trump, but during the race, Gallagher made connections with Republicans who soon became crucial to his own future—including Rep. Reid Ribble, then the congressman from Wisconsin’s Eighth District.
When Ribble announced plans for retirement, Gallagher pursued the seat as an underdog candidate with a national security-focused message. Boosted by his Walker-world network, he earned hefty fundraising hauls, campaigned energetically and won.
Gallagher voted for Trump, and his district helped put Trump over the top in a longtime blue state. But he maintained close ties to people on both sides of the GOP split over the polarizing nominee, a fraught dynamic in Wisconsin, previously a bastion of the Never Trump movement.
He also bonded with House Speaker Paul Ryan, a fellow fitness fanatic who campaigned with Gallagher in the general election.
“They’re in different spaces—Ryan is tax reform, budget—but both could be put in that category of wonk,” said a former Ryan aide familiar with their relationship. “The speaker always saw…Gallagher [as] somewhat like he was, just a different topic.”
In Washington, Gallagher has focused on congressional reform, championing veterans’ causes and cultivating his voice on defense and foreign policy.
At times, that has led him into conflict with Trump.
When the president fired Comey amid an investigation into Russian election meddling and possible Kremlin ties to the Trump campaign, Gallagher went on a tweetstorm, defending the Russia probes. And on the day that Trump’s former campaign chair was indicted by special counsel Robert Mueller, whose investigation into Russian interference Trump calls a “witch hunt,” Gallagher tweeted, “Russia is no friend to the United States and we must continue to pursue the truth in these investigations wherever it may lead.”
“Now, I don’t think there’s any evidence of collusion at all,” said Gallagher, who said he generally supports Trump’s agenda. “If you’re someone who doesn’t believe there’s collusion …you should be in favor of as much transparency as humanly possible.”
“I don’t understand this reflexive and ritualistic obeisance to, like, the president—under any party, right?” he said. “That represents the biggest perversion of our system… Congress has surrendered most of its powers to the executive branch.”
That’s a worldview Republicans shared in the Obama years, but it now puts Gallagher sharply at odds with many conservatives who have little appetite for Trump criticism.
“Trump certainly is beaten up enough by Democrats, media members,” said Mark Belling, a conservative radio host from Milwaukee. “He didn’t need Republican members of Congress, particularly new ones from a very pro-Trump district, to pile on…‘Look at me! I’m not a Trump Republican, I’m a thoughtful Republican.’ It's very condescending.”
Others in Washington and Wisconsin argue Gallagher should go further in splitting with Trump; he does not weigh in on every issue, including controversial ones, and he votes as the conservative Republican that he is.
But Gallagher’s selective approach has been key to his survival at home. “You don’t need to rush to the barricades on every Trump-related issue,” said Charlie Sykes, a Trump critic who was a longtime Wisconsin conservative radio host. “If you establish your own expertise, your own credibility, then you’ll be seen as someone who’s independent of the administration. That’s where Gallagher is right now.”
It’s that reputation that has shielded Gallagher from damaging backlash in his district so far.
“His expertise is foreign policy, he has a Ph.D. in it, what he says regarding foreign policy should be listened to,” said Marian Krumberger, the GOP chair of Green Bay-area Brown County. “Not everybody is going to agree with everything the president does… Mike Gallagher has the right to his own opinion.”
Gallagher is running for reelection against Democrat Beau Liegeois, a prosecutor and Wisconsin National Guardsman who is aiming to draw voters’ attention to Gallagher’s votes for tax reform and Obamacare repeal. The Democrat also has tried to tie Gallagher to Michael Flynn, Trump’s short-tenured national security adviser who resigned and ultimately pleaded guilty to lying to the FBI about contacts with the Russian ambassador. Flynn appeared at a June 2016 fundraiser for Gallagher.
“Lying to the FBI is a serious accusation, I don’t condone that at all,” Gallagher responded on conservative radio in December. He continued, “My stance on Russia gets me into trouble with folks from our own political party who say I need to keep quiet on pushing for this investigation to go forward, but I won’t do that.”
Despite those tensions on the right, and an energized progressive base on the left, Gallagher is heavily favored in the race.
ROUTE TO HIGHER OFFICE?
But he doesn’t want to stay in the House forever.
Gallagher, a term-limits champion, talks about teaching history, not taking another public office, a decade from now.
But he also didn't rule out higher office one day (even as the self-described "policy geek" called it "highly unlikely"). People who know him are quick to game out future possibilities, from statewide runs and committee chairmanships to the White House. Pressed to name one other public office that appealed, Gallagher eventually offered, "Secretary of the Navy!"
“I personally wouldn’t be surprised if we see Mike Gallagher as President of the United States,” said Doran, Gallagher’s professor, stressing that was his personal view (“No, no, I’m too boring,” Gallagher protested). “He’s intelligent, energetic, he’s very personable, I would say even charismatic. I just think the sky's the limit for someone like that.”
Ribble, the former congressman and a Gallagher fan, waved off the "future of the party" talk as premature for any freshman member. But, he added "I do believe Mike's passions are not necessarily in the House of Representatives, per se, but that his passions are still in national defense, foreign policy, America's grand standing in the world--those are big things that really trip Gallagher's trigger."
Gallagher presents as breezy and self-deprecating. But he is, clearly, intensely driven.
Rep. Seth Moulton, another Ivy League-educated Marine veteran who has traveled with Gallagher, called him “witty, fun, engaging,” but also “very intellectual, likes to read a lot, he tends to go to bed early, sometimes you have to work a little to get him to stay out.”
Like Gallagher, Moulton—a Democrat—is often mentioned as a future leader of his party.
“My deep hope is people like Seth and Mike…become the next generation of John Kerry and John McCain,” said McKnight, Gallagher’s friend from Iraq who also knows Moulton. “Does that mean he stays in the House for forever, becomes a senator, goes into the administration? Those people I referred to initially did all of those things.”
They also both ran for president.
“Everyone’s looking to see who the young rising stars of the party are and whether they will stick through the current turmoil and, if they do, whether they will survive and be successful,” said Jamil Jaffer, former chief counsel on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, where he became friends with Gallagher.
“The answer,” he said, “is absolutely yes.”