WASHINGTON -- Rep. Scott Rigell's (R-Va.) message for up-and-coming Republicans would have been considered political heresy just two years ago: You don't have to bow to Grover Norquist to win.
"My advice and counsel to 'Young Guns' would be to not sign the Americans for Tax Reform pledge," the Virginia Republican told The Huffington Post. The anti-tax oath authored by conservative activist Norquist had, until recently, been signed by almost every Republican in Congress or aspirant.
This election season is different. Rigell is one of dozens of GOP challengers and incumbents who have declined, so far, to take the Taxpayer Protection Pledge. Their objections range from personal to political. But underneath is the belief that being locked into a pledge to never support new revenues in a debt-reduction deal is unpalatable.
Just 45 of 83 of the Republican National Congressional Committee's current crop of so-called Young Guns have signed the no-tax pledge this election season, according to a Huffington Post analysis of pledge signatures. During the 2010 midterm elections, 81 of 92 of that Young Guns group signed the pledge. The Young Guns program was founded by GOP leaders to promote and finance up-and-coming congressional candidates.
The sentiment hasn't been shared across the party's ranks. As Norquist's group has pointed out, nearly 100 more politicians today -- candidates and incumbents -- have signed the pledge than two years ago. That's in part because more Republicans are in office. Moreover, campaign pressures can force a candidate's hand. Someone declining to sign the pledge today may think differently by November.
"You are interested in oranges. We are interested in apples," said John Kartch, a spokesman for Norquist's group. A total of 539 incumbent lawmakers and candidates have signed the pledge, Kartch said. That's more than the number of seats in Congress, as some races feature several candidates who all are pledge-takers. Since the Republican Party controls a healthy majority in the House, there is little risk that, come January 2013, there might be a rebellion on the group's pet issue.
"So many of the potentially GOP districts have already been won that any collection of ‘strong’ GOP candidates in 2012 would be less likely to win than the same group measured in 2010," Kartch said.
The eagerness of Rigell and others to downplay or ignore the pledge would have been anathema just two years ago.
Last month, Norquist hosted what he called an "educational meeting" on the Capitol Hill to remind incumbent lawmakers of their commitment to never vote for a tax increase. The Norquist huddle reportedly attracted 20 members of Congress, or 7 percent of the 279 federal legislators who have signed the pledge. Rep. Mick Mulvaney of South Carolina walked out early. (Mulvaney’s spokesman said the lawmaker is “already familiar with” the pledge and didn’t need a refresher course).
Although Norquist hasn't shared the names of attendees, Rigell was not there.
The Virginia Republican, who was given Young Gun status in May 2010, yanked his signature from the anti-tax pledge in January, saying he objects to the pledge's prohibition against eliminating corporate loopholes or government subsidies unless the change in the tax code is revenue-neutral.
"I have a voting record," Rigell said. "I've voted a thousand times. If they want to know what Scott Rigell's about, they can go to Open Congress or whatever."
Rigell said he's "certain" the Taxpayer Protection Pledge won't help correct the government's long-term fiscal problems. He told voters about his position five months before the primary, ignoring advisers' pleas to wait until he had secured the GOP nomination.
"If they want me with my convictions to represent them, that's wonderful. I'd be honored," Rigell said. "If they know I'm repudiating and distancing myself from the ATR pledge, and in their wisdom, if they want someone else to represent them, they need to have that opportunity."
Rigell is not the only GOP candidate who has publicly expressed concerns over the anti-tax pledge. Young Gun Richard Tisei’s (R-Mass.) campaign circulated a Salem News article last month declaring that the candidate is "bucking the trend" and will be "one of the lone dissidents" if elected to Congress.
Tisei, running against Rep. John Tierney (D-Mass.), said he has known Norquist since his college days, when Tisei was the chairman of College Republicans at American University and Norquist was the executive director of the national organization. Still, the former Massachusetts state senator insisted he wants to avoid getting "tied up in knots" if he's elected.
"I'm not signing any pledges," Tisei told The Huffington Post last week. "I'm just promising to use my best judgment as a congressman. And I think that's the problem in Washington right now. You have both Democrats and Republicans that are inflexible on certain issues."
Rep. Scott Perry (R-Pa.) also takes issue with the pledge's rigidity. The Young Gun easily won an April primary to replace retiring Rep. Todd Platts (R-Pa.) in which six opponents signed the pledge.
"To me, pledges, can be gimmicks," Perry told the York Dispatch in April. "It is easy to candidates to sign pledges and make promises. The proof is in my record."
Other Young Guns are still making up their minds. Businessman Joe Coors, who is trying to unseat Rep. Ed Perlmutter, the Democratic incumbent in Colorado's 7th Congressional District, has not yet taken the Norquist oath. Coors promised to support and co-sponsor an amendment to the U.S. Constitution limiting congressional terms. His signature is also on the Death Tax Repeal Pledge, which simply states a candidate "will support the permanent repeal of the federal estate and gift taxes."
In a statement, Coors spokeswoman Michelle Yi said the campaign is reviewing the Taxpayer Protection Pledge to determine whether it "helps keep the conversation on how to get the economy back on track."
Despite the headline-grabbing defections, one Young Gun said she sees no reason to withhold her signature, even though she has, in the past, backed tax hikes.
In one of the year's most closely watched legislative races, former Saratoga Springs, Utah, Mayor Mia Love aims to become the first black Republican woman in Congress. In a statement provided by her campaign, the Young Gun said would not speculate why fellow Republican office-seekers have not signed the pledge.
Love is no stranger to the dreaded T-word. She has drawn the wrath of local Tea Party groups for a 116 percent property tax increase she approved while mayor.
"As for myself, I signed the pledge for the very simple reason that I firmly believe the federal government has a spending problem, not a revenue problem," Love said in the statement. "As our national economy continues to struggle, we do not need further tax increases."
UPDATE: 10:15 a.m. -- Coors announced Thursday that he will not be signing the Taxpayer Protection Pledge, delivering a letter to Norquist explaining his rationale.
"In the battle we find ourselves in as a nation, I don't want to be viewed as an ideologue. That's not who I am," Coors wrote in the letter, which was provided to The Huffington Post by Yi.
Coors also wrote Norquist that House Republicans should not oppose tax increases because they have signed the pledge; they should oppose tax increases because they "harm the overall health of the economy."