What Northeast Republicans have to fear from Candidate Gingrich

Newt Gingrich. (newt.org)
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It’s no wonder that Newt Gingrich’s weekend visit to Staten Island, where he attended a forum organized by local Tea Party leaders, was preceded by hostile public comments from two prominent New York Republicans.

Guy Molinari, the former Staten Island congressman and borough president, called Gingrich “evil,” while Long Island Rep. Peter King described him as an undisciplined egotist who would drive away independent voters as the G.O.P.’s presidential nominee.    

There was some personal pique at work here. Molinari believes that Gingrich stole a plum committee slot from him when the two were in the House in the 1980s, and Gingrich was also central to the late-’90s demise of the once-promising political career of Molinari’s son-in-law, then-congressman Bill Paxon. But the sentiments both men expressed typify those of a certain breed of Republican: the ones who lived through the 1990s and know from painful personal experience the profound, lasting damage that Gingrich inflicted on their party in New York and throughout the Northeast.  

It’s hard to talk about the history of the G.O.P. in this region without pinpointing 1994, the year that Republicans won control of the U.S. House for the first time in 40 years and Gingrich found himself in line to become speaker, as a traumatic turning point. The center of power in the national party had been drifting to the South and toward the ideological right since the fateful year 1964, but it hadn’t dramatically affected the G.O.P.’s fortunes here. This was partly because the party’s most prominent national faces—Ronald Reagan, George H.W. Bush, Gerald Ford, and the pre-Watergate Richard Nixon—tended to be marketable to the white ethnics and suburbanites of the North, and also because statewide and congressional candidates often reflected Northeast G.O.P.’s more moderate tradition. As recently as the 1988 presidential election, Republicans carried all but two New England states, along with Pennsylvania, New Jersey and Delaware.  

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In effect, the pre-1994 Republican Party was pulling off a seemingly impossible feat, appealing to the Goldwater conservatives of the South while hanging on to more than a few Rockefeller Republicans in the North. But the “Republican Revolution” that turned Gingrich into an overnight star made this an untenable balancing act.  

In many ways, the results of the midterm—a gain for the G.O.P. of more than 50 House seats, eight Senate seats, and a host of governorships and state legislative seats—were preordained by the 1992 election, which had ended 12 years of divided government. Reagan and Bush 41 both had enough innate appeal to keep the party strong in the Northeast even as they were embraced by the party’s growing base of white Southern conservatives. In that period, voters in the Northeast continued to send a good number of moderate Republicans to Congress, while white conservatives in the South didn’t let their Reagan and Bush loyalties trickle down to the congressional level.  

But when Bill Clinton’s ’92 victory gave Democrats control of both the executive and legislative branches, the backlash in those Southern districts was fierce. It became impossible for the region’s Democratic candidates to separate themselves from their national party’s liberal image. In the ’94 election, many Southern districts that had been voting Republican at the White House level finally embraced the party in House races too.  

At the same time, Clinton’s overall unpopularity (his approval rating stood in the low 40s) and the basic “buyer’s remorse” nature of midterm elections made for a very strong electoral climate for the G.O.P. across the country. Swing voters in the Northeast were frustrated with Clinton too, and happily voted Republican. When the ’94 elections were over, the G.O.P. controlled governorships in four New England states along with New York, New Jersey, and Pennsylvania. Of the 94 House seats then contained in the region, 45 belonged to Republicans.  

But the ’94 outcome forced swing voters in the Northeast to confront the vast cultural and ideological gulf that had developed between the Republicans they’d been voting for and the Republicans who now controlled the national part—particularly the ones running Congress. The Northeast G.O.P. had been sustained by the illusion of the Big Tent, the idea that the national party contained its share of family-values conservatives and anti-government true-believers but that it was just as welcoming of the pro-choice Bill Welds and the pro-union Pete Kings. But the House leadership had a distinctly Southern, movementarian flavor, its ranks disproportionately composed of ideologues who were convinced their mission was to impose revolutionary conservative change.  

Maybe if these House Republicans had been led by a friendly, reassuring figure, this wouldn’t have been so jarring to voters in the Northeast. Instead, their leader was Gingrich, a one-time gadfly who had made it to the House on his third try in 1978 and had made a name for himself in the 1980s by launching vicious and often personal attacks on Democrats. From the standpoint of Northeast Republicanism, he was the absolute worst face for the Southernization of the G.O.P. that the ’94 election had formalized. It wasn’t just that he shared the revolutionaries’ ideological fervor, although he did. There was also his penchant for personal scandal, self-flattering grandiosity and pomposity, and needlessly inflammatory rhetoric.  

Within six weeks of the G.O.P.’s ’94 landslide, Gingrich had provoked a national uproar by suggesting that the children of mothers on welfare be sent to orphanages, argued that the drowning deaths of two South Carolina children at the hands of their mother showed “how sick the society is getting and how much we need to change things” and that “the only way you get change is to vote Republican,” savaged Bill and Hillary Clinton as “counter-culture McGoverniks,” and invited an ethics scandal by striking a $4.5 million book deal with a publishing house owned by Rupert Murdoch, whose media empire could certainly have used a powerful friend in Congress. All of this, mind you, came before Gingrich so much as picked up the speaker’s gavel.  

Once he was officially running the House, Gingrich pressed the true-believers’ agenda and set his chamber on a course for confrontation with Clinton. An early skirmish over the G.O.P.’s effort to take money spent on federal social-safety-net programs and send it to the states as block grants hurt the party’s image when critics focused on the harm it could do to school lunch programs. So did a campaign to roll back the assault-weapons ban. More significant damage to the G.O.P. label was done by the fall 1995 government shutdown, when Clinton deemed Republicans’ demands for $270 billion Medicare cuts extreme and refused to sign their budget.  

In all of these instances and others, Gingrich’s erratic posturing and tone deaf bloviating only compounded his party’s public relations problemsand reduced his own poll numbers to toxic levels. The most memorable image from the government shutdown saga was probably an illustration on the cover of the New York Daily News that depicted Gingrich, who had whined to the press about supposedly being ignored by Clinton on an Air Force One flight back from Yitzhak Rabin’s funeral, as a wailing toddler.  

All of this made it easy for Democrats to draw up a winning strategy for 1996: From Clinton on down, virtually every candidate at every level of the ballot sought to tie his or her Republican opponent to the reviled House speaker and his “extreme” agenda. This created a headaches for the G.O.P. across the country, but the problem was particularly acute in the Northeast, where Gingrich and the Congress were especially unpopular. In the presidential election, Republican nominee Bob Dole essentially wrote off the region, while nearly every Republican congressional candidate tried to ignore Gingrich. Some even spoke out against him. Long Island’s King was one of the most vocal, blasting the Speaker for exhibiting “a Southern, anti-union attitude that appeals to the mentality of hillbillies at revival meetings.”  

Other Northeast Republicans took aim too. George Pataki, elected governor in 1994, faulted “some of the rhetoric coming out of Congress talking about a revolution,” while then-Senator Al D’Amato called Gingrich and Dick Armey, the No. 2 Republican in the House, “philosophical ayatollahs” and said the Southern-style conservatism that was defining the party’s national agenda was “part of an exclusionary pattern” that ignored the concerns of Northeast voters.  

“We've had parents and friends who have benefited by trade unions,” D’Amato noted. “You can't just say we're going to try to destroy them."  

Clinton won the reelection with ease, beating Dole by eight points and racking up 379 electoral votes. His margin in the national popular vote jumped from 5.5 points in 1992 to 8.5 in 1996, but his improvement was far more substantial in the Northeast. In New Jersey, for instance, a two-point ’92 victory exploded into an 18-point rout in ’96; a 16-point New York win in ’92 became a 29-point landslide; in Massachusetts and Rhode Island, he cruised by more than 30 points.  

Gingrich-poisoning was evident down the ballot, too. Six Republican House incumbents in the Northeast lost their seats in the ’96 election, while others survived close calls. Weld, who’d been reelected governor of Massachusetts with 71 percent of the vote in ’94, only mustered 45 percent in his ’96 challenge to Sen. John Kerry. In New Jersey, Bob Torricelli rode the Gingrich backlash to a ten-point win for an open Senate seat over Representative Dick Zimmer, who embodied the moderate Republicanism that had played well in the Northeast for decades.  

The G.O.P.’s Northeast standing only continued to erode. With Republicans’ retaining the House with a reduced majority, Gingrich did further damage to the brand with another protracted ethics scandal, which ultimately resulted in a $300,000 fine assessed by his colleagues in early 1997. But even as King disparaged him as “roadkill on the highway of American politics,” Gingrich stayed on as Speaker. It would be impossible, he figured, for the G.O.P. not to gain seats in the 1998 election (history demonstrated that the White House’s party always took a hit in midterms) and the perception of a strong performance at the polls would surely boost his own standing.