The 1890 midterm election offers hope to both parties in 2022


When Congress faces voters on Nov. 8, it won’t be the first midterm election when a party with tight control touts policy achievements while battling a headwind of steep price hikes. A Golden Age election with this dynamic offers hope for Democrats and Republicans alike in 2022.

At the start of the 1890 elections, Republicans held a slim majority in both houses of Congress. Then they entered the story midway through – the wrong way. After an electoral meltdown, Republicans found themselves with just 86 of 332 seats. No House majority has ever come back with a smaller percentage of seats in the next Congress.

The story of how this happened illustrates the political drama of the rise and fall of the Gilded Age.

In 1888, the Republicans gained unified control of the government without winning a majority of votes for the presidency or Congress. Republican presidential candidate Benjamin Harrison capitalized on narrow victories in Indiana and New York to win the Electoral College despite losing the popular vote, while Republicans retained a Senate majority by winning half the Senate seats (then appointed by state legislatures) and held a 168-161 majority in the House despite receiving fewer overall votes for the House nationally.

Despite their narrow margins, Republicans had an ambitious agenda. They could not pass it without procedural changes in the House, where the filibuster long permitted by the rules would make it nearly impossible to pass legislation with such a small majority.

And President Thomas Brackett Reed wasn’t about to let the minority thwart his agenda. He revolutionized House procedure by refusing to recognize stalling tactics and insisting on governance by majority rule. Although the term did not occur to Reed’s contemporaries, Reed’s exercise of what in the 21st century has become known as the “nuclear option” allowed House Republicans to create the institutional foundation of the Majority Chamber which remains in place in 2022.

These rule changes and the unity of Reed members resulted in historic productivity. Republicans enacted the McKinley Tariff increase, the first regulation of monopolies with the Sherman Anti-Trust Act, the granting of statehood to the Republican-leaning territories of Wyoming and Idaho, and a milestone in the welfare state in the Dependent Pension Act which extended pensions to soldiers and their families when war service did not directly cause disability or death.

While Republicans saw it as fulfilling their promises to voters, Democrats denounced Reed as a bully who flouted minority rights by changing the rules along the way. They believed that the electorate would bring its reward.

The midterm campaign of 1890 was short and intense. It started in earnest after Congress adjourned on October 1. Since President Harrison only hit the stump for a week of nonpolitical speeches, usually at military rallies, the Republican campaign was led by Reed, who had already won his own re-election in elections in early September in Maine. . While touring the country, Reed argued that Republicans had ushered in a new era of “party accountability” because House procedure now allowed a majority to govern instead of being crippled by filibuster. He documented how the party’s legislative output was a fulfillment of its 1888 platform.

For their part, Democrats focused their criticism on the Republican tariff increase, which Harrison had signed into law on October 1, 1890. Democrats argued that the law was a gift to wealthy industrialists — a law that would cost consumers more when they were going to do their shopping.

When the votes were counted, the election turned out to be a disaster for House Republicans. The median change in the share of the vote received by the 103 House Republicans who faced voters in 1888 and 1890 was a 4% drop, for example from 60 to 56%. Fifty of the 103 lost, including future President Joseph Cannon and future President William McKinley.

In the aftermath, Democrats made sweeping claims about what the outcome said about democracy. They claimed voters rejected Reed’s rebalancing between majority rule and minority rights. There is little evidence, however, that voters were unhappy that the new set of rules allowed Congress to act. Instead, voters were likely unhappy with what Congress did with his new ability to act.

Specifically, voters blamed Republicans for price increases that had been imposed in anticipation of the higher cost of future imports. The Baltimore Sun foreshadowed this Democratic advantage in its Oct. 10 report that stores are “filled with people grumbling and grumbling” as they “begin to feel the effects of the new tariff law in materially increasing prices. all along the line”. In his own way, Reed came to the same conclusion. Asked about the loss, Reed said, “The women did it.” Since the only women who voted were in the Republican state of Wyoming, her remark needed clarification. Writing in the North American Review of January 1895, Reed explained the result of the 1890 election: “Every woman who went into a store and tried to buy went home to complain, and a wild commotion filled the mind of the public. What is amazing is that we did not get any votes.

History then suggests that inflation will give Republicans a major electoral advantage in 2022. Democrats, however, have an interest in defending relatively few fringe constituencies. While 68% of the 168 House Republicans who turned the House in February 1890 had been elected with less than 55% of the vote, only 18% of the House Democratic caucus won with less than 55% of the vote in 2020. This stark difference between the eras likely means the record of electoral futility held by House Republicans in 1890 won’t be broken anytime soon, but their plight reminds Democrats in 2022 of the peril of price increases for the party at the power.

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