A contested race for House Minority Leader placed Gerald Ford on a path that landed him in the White House, but largely forgotten in that story was that Ford’s running mate, Peter Frelinghuysen (R-Harding), lost his bid for Minority Whip.
After Republicans lost 36 House seats in the 1964 Lyndon Johnson landslide against Barry Goldwater, a group of moderates who called themselves the “Young Turks” decided to mount a challenge to the incumbent House GOP leadership.
Charles Halleck, a sixteen-term Indiana congressman, had served as House Majority Leader twice and had been Minority Leader for six years.
Ford beat Halleck, 73-67.
New Jersey Republicans lost four House seats in the LBJ landslide and was now down to four seats. All four – William Cahill (R-Collingswood), Florence Dwyer (R-Elizabeth), William Widnall (R-Ridgewood) and Frelinghuysen – reportedly voted for Ford.
Frelinghuysen, then a 48-year-old six-term congressman and the Ranking Minority Member of the House Education and Labor Committee, became a last-minute candidate for House Republican Conference Chairman. Frelinghuysen was a member of a group of liberal Republicans called the “Wednesday Club,” coined after their meeting time.
Ford had been Conference Chairman before running for Minority Leader.
He faced Melvin Laird, a Wisconsin Republican who later served as Richard Nixon’s U.S. Secretary of Defense. Laird was also a Ford ally but had angered liberal and moderate Republicans after pushing a pro-Goldwater agenda as chairman of the Platform Committee at the 1964 Republican National Convention.
Laird, also a Ford ally, defeated Frelinghuysen by 13 votes, 75-62.
The race was considered a victory for Frelinghuysen. Laird has been in the race for several weeks with only minor opposition and Frelinghuysen came relatively close to winning.
A week later, Ford endorsed Frelinghuysen to run for House Minority Whip – the number two House Republican leadership position – against incumbent Leslie Arends. Ford picked Frelinghuysen over Reps. Robert Stafford (R-Vermont) and Charles Goodell (R-New York), both of whom would eventually serve in the United States Senate.
Arends, 69, had been a congressman from Illinois since 1935 and had been the Republican Whip for 21 years – including time as Majority Whip from 1947 to 1949 and again from 1953 to 1955. He had endorsed Goldwater early in the 1964 presidential race.
In what was viewed as a setback to Ford’s fledgling leadership role, Arends beat Frelinghuysen by 11 votes, 70-59.
The chief strategist for the Frelinghuysen campaign was another Illinois congressman, Donald Rumsfeld. Among the miscalculations was that Arends had developed his own independent relationships that prevented Ford from transferring his own support to Frelinghuysen.
After the election, Frelinghuysen gave up his ranking post on Education and Labor.
The consensus among historians is that Ford would not have become Richard Nixon’s pick for Vice President after Spiro Agnew resigned in 1973 had he lost the Minority Leader race nine years earlier.
Had the Ford coalition held for Frelinghuysen, it’s possible that the Morris County Republican would have become House Minority Leader after Ford became Vice President.
Frelinghuysen did not seek re-election to a 12th term in Congress in 1974, choosing to walk away at age 58 and as the number two Republican on the House Foreign Affairs Committee.