Rep. Jim Jordan, the former college wrestling champion who represents the staunchly Republican Fourth Congressional District of Ohio, chairs the House Freedom Caucus.
If Republicans retain control of the House on Election Day as expected, the caucus will exert significant influence on the direction of next Congress. Some caucus members have even questioned the job security of Speaker Paul Ryan, whom Jordan declines to commit to backing for two more years in the House's top job.
Jordan sat down last week with CNBC chief Washington correspondent John Harwood at Allen County Republican headquarters in western Ohio to discuss the election and the future of the GOP. What follows is a condensed, edited transcript of their conversation.
HARWOOD: Assume Hillary Clinton wins the presidency, Democrats barely win the Senate, you guys still have the House. What message is the country sending?
JORDAN: Well, I don't think that is going to be the result. Donald Trump is trending up, she is trending down. I think he wins Ohio, and you know the old adage — you win Ohio, you've got a great chance at being president,
You have to think broader. I had a chance to sit down with [pollster] Pat Caddell a few months back. He said remember three numbers: 70, 60, 80. Seventy percent of the country thinks we are on the wrong track, 60 percent say I am better off than my parents but our children are likely to be worse off than me, and 80 percent think Washington is rigged against them.
The reason they think that is because it is true. We have to change that: dealing with this debt problem, not spending more than we take in. None of these families here get to do that. Why should Washington? Obamacare, getting rid of that — it's a complete disaster.
That is the message that is getting sent. We'd better take that to heart. That's why we started the Freedom Caucus.
HARWOOD: What you hear anti-Trump Republicans saying is that we need to follow the autopsy of 2012. We've got a party that is too insular, that is speaking to too few people and is not reaching out to African-Americans, Hispanics. It is it not adapting to the way the culture is changing on issues like gay marriage.
JORDAN: I disagree. I was at a Trump event just last week. You saw all kinds of folks there — African-Americans, Hispanics-Americans, 8,000 people crammed into this fairground arena.
HARWOOD: If you look at the polls, he is doing very poorly among African-Americans.
JORDAN: I'm telling you what I saw there. You saw people in camo[uflage]. You don't always see people in camo at a Republican event. When we opened this headquarters, a gentleman I hadn't seen before says, "I'm a union pipe-fitter voting for Donald Trump and I don't care what my union leadership says." I said, "Good for you dude, you sound like my Dad." My Dad was a union worker for General Motors. In 1980 he said "the heck with this, I'm voting for Ronald Reagan." You're seeing this dynamic. So I think we are bringing some new people into the party. That's a good thing.
HARWOOD: But not women, African-Americans, Hispanics.
JORDAN: Again, at the events you go to, you see all kinds of African-Americans, all kinds of women, all kinds of working-class people, middle-class people showing up.
HARWOOD: Does the Republican Party not have to adapt and change its message?
JORDAN: The Republican Party needs to stand for the things we believe in. Stand for limited government, stand for protecting personal liberties like your religious liberty rights under the First Amendment, like your right to freedom of speech under the First Amendment. Defend those rights when this current administration attacked them with the IRS, defend equal treatment under the law when this administration's Justice Department is much more focused on politics than they are on justice. Defend the sanctity of human life, and defend working-class people, middle-class people who are tired of folks going to Washington and not fighting for them.
Think about the guy who works a second shift at the local plant here, who's working his tail off. There are folks getting his tax dollars who are able to work, but don't work. We need to have a welfare system that says we're going to help you, but if you are able-bodied in order to get that help, you have to do some kind of work.
HARWOOD: What do you make of the idea that millennial voters think the Republican Party and its way of thinking, especially on cultural issues, is just stuck in the past?
JORDAN: Folks in the House Freedom Caucus understand civil liberties need to be protected from the government. That is the way we can appeal to millennials. We have some people in the House Freedom Caucus who have been champions of defending your Fourth Amendment rights, defending your First Amendment liberties, defending your Second Amendment. That is where you can connect as well.
HARWOOD: Gay marriage?
JORDAN: Well, I'm just on the other side of that. I think marriage should be what it has always been. I think it serves Western culture well.
But that doesn't mean we can't connect with all voters when we talk about your fundamental liberties, your right under the First Amendment to speak out in a political nature and not be harassed by the IRS. I think that should apply to conservatives, I think it should also apply to liberals. They shouldn't be harassed by anyone for speaking out about their liberal policies and their liberal ideas, just like tea party groups and conservative groups should not have been harassed and targeted by the Internal Revenue Service like they were.
HARWOOD: I talked the other day to Evan McMullin, a former staffer for House Republicans and now running for president. He's competitive in Utah. He thinks we may need a new party because there is a large contingent — not a majority, but a significant-enough contingent — that is now a white-nationalist, populist movement that does not believe all Americans are created equal. He's pointing to racism.
JORDAN: That's just dead wrong. Of course we believe all are created equal. "We hold these truths to be self evident, all are created equal." I believe that. That is the truth. The folks who started this great country understood this fundamental principle, and everything is built off that.
Right now we have an administration that says, "Oh, certain rights can be infringed-on based on your political belief, like the IRS did. Some people aren't going to be treated equally under the law because they're politically connected." We are totally for equal treatment under the law and protecting people's fundamental liberties.
Our party needs to have a populist tone because middle-class families are getting the shaft right now. A populist tone rooted in the principles of the Constitution, rooted in the principles of the Bill of Rights, rooted in respect for everyone regardless of color, regardless of anything.
HARWOOD: When you hear people say that what has activated Trump's support — not entirely, but in a significant way — is antipathy toward Latinos, African-Americans, women, what do you say?
JORDAN: What's activated his support is common sense. Securing the border makes sense; Hillary Clinton says we needs a borderless hemisphere. One of the things that defines you as a nation is you have boundaries, for goodness sake.
One of the things that makes common sense is to say look, you can't have Obamacare driving up everyone's premiums. You can't have wages stagnate for the last eight to 10 years because our economy is only growing at 1.5 percent. Those are the things people care about. And they care about them whether they're African-American, Hispanic-American, whether they're male whether they're female. That's what he's tapping into.
HARWOOD: Steve Bannon, who is now running Trump's campaign, gave an interview the other day saying this campaign is just the first inning of a worldwide populist movement that we are seeing reflected in Europe and elsewhere. Do you feel this way?
JORDAN: I do feel like there is an elite class out of touch with normal people. The American people are fed up with Washington, and they have every right to be. If we keep doing what we're doing, in 10 years there will still be a United States, but there may not be an America.
Now think about that one word, America, and everything that we associate with that word: liberty, freedom, setting goals, working hard, accomplishing things, your kids have life better than you did. Everything that we associate with it, that's what's at stake. Americans, I think, are figuring that out. Maybe the elite in Washington haven't, but they're going to figure it out ... Tuesday when Donald Trump is elected the next president.