Saying boosterish things about the Republican party is part of Virginia congressman Eric Cantor’s job description. On the verge of what could be a historic midterm sweep, though, the top Republican leader strikes a self-effacing note: “None of us are under any illusions that this election is turning on the fact that people are pining for Republicans. It’s all against the other side.”
Cantor and his colleagues Paul Ryan and Kevin McCarthy will be three of the most powerful members of the House if Republicans take the majority. They have been dubbed “The Young Guns” and have published a new eponymous book. For them, the prospect of impending victory is tinged with the memory of failure and defeat four short years ago. They are chastened rebels, delighted at a shot at running the House again, aware of all that could go wrong should they get it.
“We just want to make sure we don’t screw this thing up again,” says Ryan, the Wisconsin Republican who will run the Budget Committee if Republicans win in November. Of the former Republican majority that had a grand entrance in 1994 and an unlamented exit in 2006, he says, “We atrophied, lost our moorings, lost our way.”
“Starting with the spending,” adds Cantor, the House minority whip, “but the corruption bit was as bad or worse. The confidence that was placed in us was blown. In hindsight, you don’t blame the voters for firing us.”
The firing continues to this day. The tea-party movement is as much a revolt against the Republican establishment that blew it as it is against the policies of the Democratic establishment that controls Washington now. The unlikely tea-party victor in Delaware’s GOP primary, Christine O’Donnell, gained strength from the party’s attacks against her. When the National Republican Senatorial Committee said the night of her win that it wouldn’t fund her, it might as well have written her an oversized, Ed McMahon–style check. Within 36 hours, she had raised almost a million dollars online in a gigantic rude gesture toward Washington.
Cantor, Ryan, and McCarthy run a recruitment program designed to find candidates who are infused with the attitudes and passions of the tea party. As the Republican majority reached its senility and looked for candidates, according to Ryan, “we ended up recruiting the next-best vote-getter in the district. The guy who was the county executive, or the state senator, or the whatever, who was looking to have a career in politics. We brought a lot of people who aren’t cause people. The purpose of this program is to find people for a cause, not for the career.”
In general, the National Republican Congressional Committee has avoided the bruising fights with the grassroots that have engulfed its Senate counterpart. It has emphasized nontraditional politicians. Forty of its top candidates have held no elective office. Overall, there are Republican candidates in 430 districts, a high-water mark for either party since Watergate.
Dozens of newcomers will be coming to Washington, shaped and motivated by the urgency of the moment. According to McCarthy, a California congressman who is Cantor’s deputy, “These are people saying: ‘I’m running because I saw the country change before my eyes. How do I tell my children I did nothing?’”
They will arrive inside the Beltway as strangers in a strange land long ruled by the barons of the Appropriations Committee and other entrenched interests. Expect some creative disruption. “I think this freshman class is going to rock a lot of people,” says McCarthy. “They could care less about seniority.” With the leverage of the new members, Ryan predicts, “we’ll do well with the appropriators for the next couple of years.”
If, that is, they actually win in November. McCarthy emphasizes that picking up 39 net seats is an enormous task; Democrats needed only about half as many for the majority in 2006. He and his colleagues feel two imperatives: First, bring home the majority. Then, don’t blow it.
— Rich Lowry is editor of National Review. He can be reached via e-mail, firstname.lastname@example.org. This column is available exclusively through King Features Syndicate. For permission to reprint or excerpt this copyrighted material, please write email@example.com, or phone 800-708-7311, ext 246. © 2010 by King Features Syndicate.