History Offers Playbook for GOP Return to Power

Posted May 22, 2009 at 2:27pm

Correction Appended

A charismatic Democratic president is elected, winning the White House by about 6 points, sweeping into Washington with a national mandate, new energy and promises of change.

No, the year isn’t 2008. The year is 1992, and it provides a significant historical example for the Republican Party to consider if it wants to return to power from its minority status.

The media is quick to report the death of national political parties. However, American political history shows that the cycles of political party power are never permanent. Watershed midterm Congressional elections occurred in 1966, 1982, 1994 and 2006, and may very well happen again in 2010.

For national Republicans, the example of 1994 is particularly instructive. But the story does not begin and end with the famed “Contract With America.— In fact, the story began in 1993.

That year, the GOP understood that it had to turn the tide and start winning again to help generate positive momentum and excite donors and volunteers about the future.

This momentum started with Republican Kay Bailey Hutchison’s special election victory to fill the Senate seat vacated by Lloyd Bentsen (D), who had been nominated by President Bill Clinton to be Treasury secretary, and it continued with the GOP fielding strong candidates in the two off-year gubernatorial elections in Virginia and New Jersey.

In Virginia, the Republican Party ran George Allen, who had served in the Virginia House of Delegates, holding the same seat as Thomas Jefferson. Allen’s opponent, state Attorney General Mary Sue Terry (D), held an early 29-point lead in the polls and had a huge fundraising advantage. Allen overcame the huge deficit, connecting with voters by pledging to abolish parole to combat surging crime in the state, while Terry offered only gun control as a solution. Allen ran a smart, effective campaign and won with the largest margin (17.4 points) in the state since 1961.

In the New Jersey gubernatorial race, the Republicans ran a moderate candidate, Christie Todd Whitman. She had worked in the Nixon White House and at the Republican National Committee, was an elected official in Somerset County, and was president of the New Jersey Board of Public Utilities. She had run a surprisingly competitive race against then-Sen. Bill Bradley (D) in 1990 (earning 47 percent of the vote) and benefitted from her increased name identification in the 1993 campaign against the incumbent, Gov. James Florio (D).

As Whitman’s campaign for governor began, Florio had low approval ratings (20 percent) after increasing the state’s sales tax, raising income taxes by $2.8 billion and not adequately responding to the state’s worsening economic problems. Whitman, who was pro choice, advocated for major tax cuts to bring the state back from the economic brink. Whitman made her campaign about the unpopular incumbent and won a very narrow victory, by only 1 point (26,000 votes out of more than 2.48 million cast), becoming the first female governor in the state’s history.

Additionally, Republicans won back the mayor’s office in New York with the crime-fighting Rudy Giuliani. Those four victories gave the Republican Party confidence and momentum nationally.

But three successful statewide campaigns do not automatically result in a watershed midterm Congressional victory for the minority party.

Republicans were counting on Clinton to overreach politically, and he obliged. Clinton ran out two unsuccessful nominees for attorney general, pledged to overturn the prohibition on gays in the military and pushed for major reform of health care by instituting a single-payer national health care program, nicknamed “HillaryCare,— which a majority of Americans opposed. The last of these political missteps proved to be the most damaging, as conservatives, the American Medical Association, and the health insurance industry organized opposition to ultimately kill the proposal in Congress late in 1994.

Clinton’s weakened political position, coupled with the momentum generated by three important political campaign victories by Republicans, provided the ideal environment for the GOP to make their case to the voters.

Only six weeks before the 1994 midterm elections, Republicans released the “Contract With America,— a document that detailed the specific actions that they would take if they were given control of Congress. This plan was developed by Reps. Newt Gingrich (Ga.), Bill Paxon (N.Y.), Dick Armey (Texas), Robert Walker (Pa.), Tom DeLay (Texas), John Boehner (Ohio) and Jim Nussle (Iowa) and built on ideas first suggested by President Ronald Reagan in his 1985 State of the Union address. The contract included only “60 percent issues,— meaning policy positions that at least 60 percent of American voters agreed with. Specifically, this included shrinking the size of government, lowering taxes and regulation to stimulate private enterprise, passing anti-crime measures, and providing tort and welfare reform. The plan was signed by every nonincumbent GOP House and Senate candidate that year, except House challenger Sam Brownback (Kan.) and two Senate candidates.

The 1994 election took Democrats from an 82-seat majority in the House to a 28-seat minority, ushering in Gingrich as the new Republican Speaker.

The elements that were required for this political sea change were creating positive momentum for the GOP, policy overreach by the Democratic president and Congress, and a viable, clear policy alternative offered by Republicans.

Although Republicans may find themselves in a weaker position in 2009 than they did in 1993, many of these elements will likely exist for the 2010 midterms if the GOP learns the lessons of 1993 and 1994.

Matt Mackowiak is a political and communications consultant and former press secretary to two Republican Senators.

Correction: May 27, 2009

The opinion piece misstated the Republican candidates who did not sign the “Contract With America— in 1994. Sam Brownback (R), then running for a House seat in Kansas, joined two GOP Senate candidates in not signing it.