How the 1994 'Contract With America' Led to a Republican Revolution - HISTORY

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The 1994 Midterms: When Newt Gingrich Helped Republicans Win Big

A strategy to give congressional campaigns a unified, national message under the "Contract With America" led to a Republican sweep.
Newt Gingrich

American politician Newt Gingrich, who served as the Republican Speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives from 1995 to 1999.

A balanced budget amendment. Tax cuts. Welfare reform. Those were just three of the 10 points of the Contract with America, Newt Gingrich's conservative plan, signed by 300-plus Republican candidates and presented at a press conference just six weeks before the 1994 midterm elections.

The proposal by Gingrich, then Speaker of the House, has been credited with the "Republican Revolution" that ensued at the polls, with the GOP easily taking control of the U.S. House and Senate, gaining 12 governorships and regaining control in 20 state legislatures.

Republicans had long been in the minority in Congress and the key to the Republican sweep, says Paul Teske, dean of the School of Public Affairs at the University of Colorado, Denver, was in making the campaigns national.

"The Democrats controlled the House for 40 straight years prior to 1994, with an interesting coalition of northeast/midwest liberals and southern Democrats, who by today have all become Republicans," he says, adding that Democrats had held the House for 58 of the prior 62 years and the Senate for 34 of 40 years prior to 1994. “So, Republicans were not used to having congressional power. Their thought was that by nationalizing the election, it could be a way to get power back."

Newt Gingrich Contract With America

Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich (R-GA), holding up a copy of the Republican party's 'Contract With America' during a rally to celebrate the first 50 days of the Republican majority in Congress in February, 1995. 

President Clinton and Hillary Clinton were campaign targets.

Teske adds that Republicans had some easy "targets to attack," from the unpopular, early years of President Bill Clinton, to the Hillary Clinton-led health care proposal to individual corruption cases in Congress.

The overarching goal of the contract involved cutting taxes, reducing the size of government and reducing government regulations, taking aim at Congress, itself, to be more transparent, less corrupt and more open with the public.

"Essentially, it claimed that it would 'drain the swamp'—though they didn’t use that term, in terms of what Donald Trump would later articulate," Teske says. "If successful, the contract specified 10 bills they would bring up for votes in the first 100 days, including a balanced budget amendment, term limits, social security reform and others."

What was not included? Details on how these bills would be executed and what they would cost.

"It probably did not matter that it was vague on costs, and that was even an advantage," Teske says. "The goals were big picture, and ones that many voters could understand, without getting into—and bogged down by—the details of budget costs, specific programs that might go away, etc."

Democrats lost a long hold on Congress.

Democrats, meanwhile, characterized the plan as calling for radical changes and solutions that would make America worse off.

"They highlighted some of the more extreme elements and tried to show the damage it could cause to policies and institutions that had been in place for decades," Teske says. "Some mocked it as the 'Contract on America'—not 'with'—as with a 'hit job'” on the American people."

And while Republicans won big at the ballot box that year, Teske says it was going to be a tough year for Democrats anyway, considering Clinton's unpopularity, a weak economy and the history of midterms favoring the party not held by the president.

"But, the contract did show a coherent opposition plan that probably helped re-capture many of these seats," he notes. "At the same time, pendulums do swing in American politics and after 60 years of pretty dominant Democratic control of both houses of Congress, there was probably going to be a change. But, it is probably fair to say that Gingrich’s contract was in the right place, at the right time, for the Republican party."

The midterms introduced extreme, divisive politics.

As for the contract's lasting impact? Most of its ideas and proposals did not pass Congress, or were vetoed by Clinton, and, according to Teske, the ones that did pass were not radical departures and instead relatively minor in scope. But it did put Republicans back in power in Congress, which they've largely held onto in the years since.

"The Gingrich approach of extreme right ideas, combined with a scorched-earth personal level of politics in attacking opponents—later seen in Clinton’s investigations and impeachment—has also had a major impact on American politics" he says. "It helped bring a much more 'win at all costs' mentality, and a divisiveness that persists today."

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