One historical antecedent that could prove instructive is the midterm
election of 1978, which gave rise to an earlier conservative
insurgency, the New Right, that would eventually shape the modern
Republican Party. The magnitude of that shift was smaller than
Tuesday's, with the GOP winning 20 of 35 Senate seats and gaining 15
seats in the House, but the signs of change were there.
Hard-right conservatives like Gordon Humphrey, Roger Jepsen, and
William Armstrong replaced three of the most liberal senators.
Mississippi elected its first Republican senator since Reconstruction,
Thad Cochran. And at the state level, voters launched the tax revolt by
passing measures like California's Proposition 13, which cut property
Like this week's election, the nation's rightward shift in 1978 was
largely unanticipated. Just as President Obama's resounding victory two
years ago seemed to prefigure an enduring Democratic age, so, too, had
the Watergate scandal, which also produced a wave of Democratic
legislators. That may be one reason why so many of the day's leading
commentators misread the significance of what was occurring. David
Broder of The Washington Post called the 1978 midterms "a nothing
In fact, the New Right that emerged from them had great effect
nationwide, not only energizing activist conservatives to displace
entrenched liberals from Congress, but by redefining the nature of
conservatism as it was understood in Washington, and thereby shifting
the country to the right.
The star candidates of 1978 did not, in the end, become influential
figures; Humphrey, Jepsen, and Armstrong all were gone within two terms.
It was an anonymous House candidate elected that year from Georgia,
Newt Gingrich, who would eventually prove to be the most effective
member of the the Class of 1978.
But more than any candidate, it was the ethos of that election that
proved so enduring. Two years later, the New Right helped to elect
Ronald Reagan, and eventually challenged New Deal liberalism.
With the Tea Party ascendant, it is always conceivable that one of
its stars could follow a path similar to Reagan's. Paul and Rubio both
are believed to harbor presidential ambitions, and of course there's
always -- always! -- Sarah Palin. None of them, however, seems to possess
anything like the experience, polish and broad appeal that Reagan held --
at least not yet.
If this election proves to be another great inflection point, such a
shift seems far more likely to manifest in the form of a Republican
Party recommitted to pursuing, and not just talking about, the Tea Party
ideal of a smaller, more modest government. The perilous condition of
our economy would seem to provide all the necessary preconditions for
Whether that comes about, or whether the 2010 election comes to be
seen as merely the temporary frustrations of a nation in recession, will
depend on what the Tea Party achieves once it arrives here.
Joshua Green writes a weekly column for the Boston Globe.