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House Republicans Look Back to 1994
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House Republicans Look Back to 1994

House GOP leaders are invoking parts of Newt Gingrich’s 1994 campaign playbook ahead of this year’s midterms.

PONTE VEDRA, Fla.—Former House GOP Speaker Newt Gingrich approached the 1994 midterms with a clear campaign strategy—give his members a concrete legislative agenda to campaign on and make the case to voters that Democrats had tried and failed to govern effectively despite controlling both the White House and Congress. 

His strategy paid massive electoral dividends. That year, Republicans netted 54 seats in the House, eight in the Senate, and retook both chambers for the first time in four decades. 

Nearly 30 years later, Gingrich is playing a behind-the-scenes role ahead of the 2022 midterms, having addressed the House GOP conference during a closed-door session last Wednesday at this year’s three-day issues retreat in Ponte Vedra, Florida. 

House Republican leaders made clear to reporters at this year’s conference that they are keeping Gingrich’s 1994 playbook in their back pocket: running on a concrete legislative agenda while keeping the central focus on Democratic failures in Washington. It likely also means using media much the same way as Gingrich, with fiery floor speeches and combative, made-for-TV congressional hearings.  

House GOP leaders spent Wednesday through Friday camped out in Ponte Vedra’s ritziest resort to hammer out the details of the party’s “Commitment to America,” a rhetorical spinoff of Gingrich’s “Contract With America” that Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy says he plans to unveil by the end of the summer. 

At least when it comes to policy, for now McCarthy’s yet-to-be-released agenda isn’t shaping up to look anything like Gingrich’s 1994 legislative playbook, which focused mostly on un-flashy policy issues like welfare reform, a balanced budget, and tax policy.

Instead, House GOP leaders say that this year they are zeroing in on a sprawling slate of domestic policy issues, from promoting American energy independence and parental control of K-12 education, to fighting Big Tech and rising crime at the Southern border and beyond. Republicans have also vowed to adopt a hawkish foreign policy posture toward China and eliminate proxy voting, House Democrats’ pandemic-era policy that allows members to vote on legislation remotely. McCarthy has appointed leaders of seven task forces to hammer out the fine print.

The driving focus of House GOP leaders’ midterm strategy is inflation. “I’m a believer that the American people are smart,” House GOP conference chair Elise Stefanik told reporters Wednesday evening at the retreat. “They know they cannot afford Democrats’ far-left socialist agenda any longer.” 

It’s a pocketbook pitch that Republican leaders hope will resonate with middle-class voters at a time when year-over-year inflation has hit a 40-year-high of 7.9 percent and the national average gas price is $4.24 for regular unleaded. 

McCarthy’s decision to unveil his “Commitment to America” is a departure from the strategy of  Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, who has said he has no plans to release a legislative agenda before Senate Republicans retake the majority. 

That’s not a foregone conclusion among all his colleagues. “That’s the big debate on our side right now is the answer to that question,” South Carolina GOP Sen. Tim Scott told The Dispatch earlier this month after Florida Sen. Rick Scott—who is also chairman of the National Senatorial Campaign Committee—unveiled an 11-point agenda ahead of the midterms in a split from McConnell.

But Republican leaders in the House seem united on their calculus. “We can’t just be the anti-Democrat Party,” GOP Rep. Don Bacon—co-chairman of the Problem Solvers Caucus who is running for reelection in a district President Joe Biden won in 2020—said in an interview on Thursday. “You gotta stand for something.”

Still, there will be plenty of criticism of the Biden administration. 

“A lot of this election is gonna be about how bad they are,” GOP Rep. Jim Jordan, ranking Republican member of the House Judiciary Committee, said last week. That message came with a promise: “You can’t do what you said if you haven’t said what you’ll do.”

With a House majority,  Republicans are likely to haul in a series of executive department officials—including Dr. Anthony Fauci, the White House’s chief medical adviser—to face harsh questioning from lawmakers.

“A lot of it’s gonna be oversight—to show some of the bad things that I think some people in the executive branch are doing,” GOP Rep. William Timmons said in a Thursday interview with The Dispatch. Expect those hearings to get combative.

And that too goes back to Gingrich, who capitalized on soundbite messaging and the combativeness of televised hearings so characteristic now of American politics. Ironically kicking off his congressional career the same year C-SPAN began broadcasting from the House and Senate floors, 1979, he quickly learned how to play the cameras to his advantage. It was characteristic of Gingrich to deliver long tirades on the House as reporters watched and cameras recorded.

Uniting behind a concrete policy agenda both before and after the midterms will require House GOP leaders to keep obstructionist members on message, particularly members of the House Freedom Caucus, who don’t shy away from bucking the party line. 

Publicly, GOP leaders maintain confidence in McCarthy, who is poised to become speaker in the likely scenario that Republicans retake the majority. “There are a lot of different cats you have to herd, different factions,” GOP Rep. Mike McCaul, the ranking Republican member of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, told The Dispatch on Thursday. “He’s got a very really amazing ability to bring all the factions together.”

It’s a challenge they are confident they can meet considering House Democrats are retiring en masse and President Joe Biden’s approval rating hovers around 42 percent. “If we’re successful and we win 18 seats, that’s the same as the 1994 revolution,” McCarthy told reporters on Wednesday.

Even if Republicans manage to flip both chambers, the GOP will still need bipartisan cooperation from Senate Democrats to advance any bill passed the filibuster’s 60-vote threshold. On top of that, Biden will still have veto power. 

House Republican leaders are trying to project optimism about the prospect of White House cooperation. “If you have the same dynamic that you had when Newt Gingrich got the majority back in the 90s, Bill Clinton moderated his views—he came to the table,” said Johnson said in a Thursday interview, even though most of Gingrich’s “Contract With America” was stifled by Democratic opposition and never became law. “Boy, we hope that President Biden will do the same. I’m a little skeptical that he will, but that is our hope.”

Audrey is a former reporter for The Dispatch.