As the congressional midterm elections draw closer, pundits are predicting that the incumbent party can expect to lose seats. Political scientists note that is a regular pattern. It usually happens because the incumbent president has carried with him members of his own party, who get elected in marginal districts that the opposition recaptures two years later. Those changes are considered routine blips. But occasionally there’s a political earthquake, and midterm voters change the landscape.
That’s what happened in 1994. Newt Gingrich led the Republicans in a successful nationalizing of the Congressional elections. The party gained control of the House of Representatives for the first time since 1952. The Republicans gained 54 seats and won a majority, placing the firebrand Gingrich into the Speaker’s chair. As political science scholars Randall Strahan and Daniel J. Palazzolo point out, it was an historic victory which few had predicted. These midterms occurred just two years after Democrat Bill Clinton had captured the presidency, with his mix of liberal ideas and appeal to conservative southern voters.
Most House speakers, before and since, focus on ensuring that the institution functions well enough so that the majority can enact legislation. Gingrich had a much wider agenda.
“I want to shift the entire planet,” he told one interviewer in his typical grandiose style. Within a few months as Speaker, Gingrich had successfully asked for national television time to address the nation, a privilege previously extended only to presidents. Former Democratic Senator Eugene McCarthy commented that Gingrich had made the Speaker’s position into that of a quasi-prime minister representing the majority party in Congress.
Gingrich achieved that power by successfully overturning conventional political wisdom. The axiom that all politics is local had been applied to congressional races. Successful candidates appealed to their districts’ interests. By contrast, Gingrich nationalized the election with his “Contract with America,” an issue-based promise to the voters to reform Congress, enact welfare reform and tax cuts, among other items. Political scientists Jeffrey M. Stonecash and Mack D. Mariani argue that the “Contract with America” appealed to wealthier Americans, particularly in its opposition to Clinton’s proposed health care plan and for tax cuts.
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That issues-based appeal was combined with a successful pitch to culture war voters. These voters had opposed Clinton’s efforts to to pass “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” and the continued government funding of controversial arts projects such as Andres Serrano’s “Piss Christ.”
Election analysts Norman J. Ornstein and Amy L. Schenkenberg note that the first 100 days of the New Congress were unprecedented. The Republicans reset the national agenda with bills pushing a tax cut and welfare reform and began nibbling at entitlement programs such as Medicare and Medicaid in the name of fiscal solvency. The Republican majority passed a bill placing constraints on the federal government’s ability to force localities to pay for unfunded mandates, promoting the power of the states, an issue long dear to conservative Republicans.
Eventually, in 1999, Gingrich left Congress under an ethics cloud. The Speaker’s chair went to J. Dennis Hastert, a far less-bellicose and more traditional Republican.
But Gingrich’s victory and the “Contract with America” had at least one lasting political impact. As many historians see it, he successfully polarized the electorate. Self-described conservatives, who in 1990 voted 63 percent for Republicans, voted for them by an 81 percent margin in 1994. Self-described liberals voted 18 percent for the Republicans. The parties, once seen as complex webs of mediating forces, had become more ideological. The conservative Democrat and the liberal Republican became an endangered species as the differences between the two major parties became more stark.