Ron Lewis, the Contract and a Republican Dream Come True
Welfare, lawsuit and education reform. Personal rate, capital gains and death tax relief. Strengthening our military and foreign policies.
As 1994 began, even the most optimistic House Republican only dreamed of having this long-held agenda become reality.
After 40 years of being minority players in a Democrat-dominated body, there wasn’t a single House GOP Member who had served when our party last controlled Congress in 1954.
Early in 1994 while planning for my wedding with fellow Rep. Susan Molinari (R-N.Y.), I reflected a deeply ingrained minority mind-set. In spite of serving as National Republican Congressional Committee chairman, responsible for electing House Republican candidates, we scheduled our delayed honeymoon for immediately after the November election. We figured the election results would once again leave us in the minority with no new responsibilities.
Then, along came Ron Lewis of Kentucky, and everything changed.
His victory on May 24, 1994, in a special election provided a glimmer of hope because that seat had never been held by a Republican.
Other signs had been emerging.
Every week, men and women heretofore uninvolved in politics would call or come to the NRCC to tell us they were running for the House. First, a trickle, then a torrent of small-business owners, doctors, veterinarians, civic activists, local TV personalities and others determined to run previously impossible-to-win races.
They were joined by others with political experience, including state and local lawmakers, who sensed an opportunity to win seats long out of reach.
President Bill Clinton’s early missteps on myriad issues from health care to guns helped fuel these candidates and supporters.
But, rather than just running against the Democrats, House Republicans took the bold step of running for the “Contract with America,” a specific, positive and sweeping agenda that enthused the newly empowered citizenry looking for change in Washington.
Incumbent House Republicans also provided dramatic evidence of a changed attitude during that pivotal election cycle.
Prior to 1994, Republicans in Congress were not part of the NRCC. Early in ’94 the NRCC was on the verge of bankruptcy. As the year progressed, the Members took control and created a campaign structure that gave them a fighting chance to win.
For the first time ever, Members wrote checks from their campaign committees, they organized fundraisers back home to benefit the NRCC, they traveled across the country assisting the fledgling candidates, and in many cases they filled the roles previously filled by paid staffers and consultants, most of whom were laid off to keep the creditors from the NRCC’s doors.
Despite the obstacles, the ingrained assumptions, and four decades of history, change was about to occur.
On election night, I flew to Washington from Buffalo and when I arrived at 7 p.m., NRCC Executive Director Maria Cino reported that Republicans Mark Souder in Indiana and Ed Whitfield in Kentucky had just been declared winners in two key races. “We’re in for a landslide” were her words, but, even then, it seemed difficult to grasp.
At midnight, it did finally sink in when an old friend from my New York Legislature days called.
In a stunning upset, George Pataki (R) had just defeated Mario Cuomo (D) for governor, but his first words that night were about the election of the first House GOP majority in 40 years: “I never thought I’d live to see Republicans in control!”
The year 1994 was truly historic, as have been the continuing string of House Republican majorities, now in their second decade.
But, the impact is far greater than electoral results.
House Republicans have changed the policy landscape of America.
The terms of debate have shifted significantly to the right.
The words and phrases of both parties reflect those of the Contract with America.
Even governors and state legislators pursue initiatives first set forth by House Republicans.
And, today, a majority of Senate Republicans are “graduates” of the House of Representatives, carrying to that body an enthusiasm for action on the reform agenda.
After a decade in power, a partial list of accomplishments that has resulted is quite impressive:
• GOP budgetary and tax relief policies ignited the economic growth of the 1990s and the strong economy of recent years;
• welfare reform moved millions of Americans from government dependency to work and independence;
• reforms were enacted in the areas of energy, telecommunications, education, litigation, Medicare, financial services and criminal justice;
• Congressional reform quickly passed, most notably requiring term limits on committee and subcommittee chairmen; and
• Republicans worked with President Bush to respond to the unprecedented challenges of Sept. 11, 2001, including the most sweeping reorganization of federal agencies since World War II; carrying out the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq; rebuilding our military and intelligence capabilities, which were significantly diminished during the Clinton presidency.
When I first arrived in Washington after the 1988 election, like many others, I hung a picture of Ronald Reagan in my office.
His philosophical strength and visionary leadership helped our party capture the hearts and minds of the American people, erasing the Watergate cloud hanging over the GOP and starting our march to the majority.
Then, the election of 1994 allowed House Republicans to begin implementing our conservative agenda, which in turn helped pave the way for the election of Bush, still more legislative success, and a fundamental change in the way America will function for a generation or more.
And it all began with Lewis and a special election in Kentucky in May 1994.
Former Rep. Bill Paxon (R-N.Y.) is a senior adviser at Akin Gump Strauss Hauer & Feld.