In the mid-1970s, Republicans appeared to be in serious trouble. Despite winning the presidency in 1968 and 1972—the latter in a landslide—they had failed to make much headway in voter identification. After the disgrace and resignation of Richard Nixon, Republicans had been decimated in the 1974 midterm elections and had lost the 1976 presidential election to Jimmy Carter, albeit narrowly. Some talked of abandoning the party and forming a new party to supplant it. While the actual situation was probably not that desperate, the GOP had, at the very least, hit a very rough patch after a promising turnaround.
The 1978 elections changed much of that picture and put Republicans back on the road to long term success. More specifically, they set the stage for the ascent of Ronald Reagan to the presidency.
The campaign saw a number of new features. The National Conservative Political Action Committee (NCPAC) became active, targeting a number of liberal Democratic incumbents with hard-hitting independent expenditures. Under the leadership of Bill Brock, the Republican National Committee began investing heavily in state legislative races, both to build a “farm team” for future races and to begin positioning Republicans for the post-1980 redistricting wars.
Several issues were prominent during the campaign, but three stood out. One was tax cuts. Republicans broadly embraced the notion of across-the-board income tax cuts, an idea the Carter White House strongly resisted. Democrats who were up for election, however, were carried along. Weeks before election day, both the House and the Senate passed a version of the Kemp-Roth tax cut, only to see the White House force it out in conference committee with a veto threat. At roughly the same time, under electoral pressure, Congress passed and Carter signed the Steiger Amendment cutting capital gains taxes significantly. In specific races, Bill Bradley faced unexpectedly stiff opposition for a Senate seat from New Jersey by a candidate (Jeffrey Bell) who embraced Kemp-Roth and forced Bradley to adopt his own $25 billion tax cut proposal.
Another key issue was government spending. With inflation moving toward a gallop, Republicans called for government frugality and many Democrats followed suit.
Finally, foreign policy gained more attention than in recent elections. In particular, Republicans gained traction by calling for a tougher line vis-à-vis the Soviet Union. Jimmy Carter himself ultimately agreed to a modest defense spending increase.
On election day, Republicans gained 15 House seats and three Senate seats. By historical standards, these were relatively small gains. However, a fixation on numbers is deceptive. In the Senate, five prominent liberal Democrats were defeated for reelection, including Dick Clark of Iowa, Floyd Haskell of Colorado, and Thomas McIntyre of New Hampshire, who had been expected to serve as the administration’s point man in the Senate whenever SALT II proceeded to the ratification debate. Ten new Senators were deemed more conservative than their predecessors; only four were more liberal than their predecessors. In the House, nearly all of the 77 freshmen across party lines were committed to tax and spending cuts.
At the state level, Brock’s attention paid off. Republicans gained six governorships—including those in Texas and Pennsylvania—and about 300 state legislative seats. Through statewide initiatives, the tax revolt gained tremendous momentum; the example set by California voters when they passed Proposition 13 in June 1978 was followed by the success of twelve out of sixteen tax and spending limits on the ballot in November.
Although GOP congressional gains were modest, the campaign and election shifted the national agenda in important ways. Newsweek noted at the time that “[t]he real message of the election returns was the ratification of a new and no longer partisan agenda for the nation—a consensus on inflation as the primary villain… [the Republicans’] real triumph was philosophic and often vicarious—the pride of authorship in a new politics in which Democrats talk like Republicans to survive.”
All in all, the 1978 election dramatically raised the profile of the tax-and-spending issue, drove (as it was driven by) a new and more conservative policy climate, and highlighted the vulnerability of liberal Democratic Senators from not-so-liberal states, a phenomenon that would cost Democrats control of the Senate two years later. In many respects, 1978 can be considered the opening of the Reagan revolution, in the same way that 1910 anticipated Wilson and 1930 anticipated FDR.
Andrew E. Busch is a Professor of Government at Claremont McKenna College and an Adjunct Fellow of the Ashbrook Center.