The PowerPoint slides presented to House Republicans in January 2009 seemed incongruously optimistic. “If the goal of the majority is to govern, what is the purpose of the minority?” one slide asked. “The purpose of the minority,” came the answer, “is to become the majority.”
The presentation was the product of a strategy session held 11 days before Obama’s inauguration, when top Republican leaders in the House of Representatives began devising an early blueprint for what they would accomplish in Tuesday’s election: their comeback.
How they did it is the story of one of the most remarkable Congressional campaigns in more than a half-century, characterised by careful plotting by Republicans, miscalculations by Democrats and a new political dynamic with forces out of both parties control.
The unpredictable Tea Party movement, the torrent of corporate money from outside interests and an electorate with deep discontent helped shift the balance of power in Washington.
The White House struggled to keep Democrats in line, with a misplaced confidence in the power of the coalition that propelled Obama into office. Republicans capitalised on backlash to the ambitious agenda Obama and his party pursued, which fueled unrestricted and often anonymous contributions to conservative groups, some advised by a nemesis Democrats thought they had shaken, Karl Rove.
That money strengthened the Republican assault across the country.
Most of all, Republican leaders had the foresight to imagine the possibility of winning again. Even now, they believe they could have taken back the Senate if they had just managed to block at least two Tea Party candidates who proved unelectable.
In their quest to reach a majority, the Republican leaders imposed tough party discipline, warning incumbents that the party would no longer act as a “welfare state” for those who were lax fund-raisers. And they were keenly aware of the anti-establishment mood, rarely engaging with Tea Party challengers, as Senate leaders did, fearful that any efforts to influence primary races could backfire.
“I remember people laughing at me back when they thought Republicans were a lot like dinosaurs,” Representative Pete Sessions, the Texan who leads the National Republican Congressional Committee, said in an interview. “Our mission statement was to retire Nancy Pelosi. That was the whole mission statement.”