The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

The 1890 midterm election offers hope for both parties in 2022

Republicans used narrow majorities to pass big legislation before getting crushed in the 1890 midterms by rising prices

Rep. Tim Ryan greets supporters at a campaign stop in Chillicothe, Ohio, on Saturday. Ryan, a Democrat, is campaigning for Ohio’s Senate seat, against J.D. Vance, a Republican. (Andrew Spear for The Washington Post)
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When Congress faces voters on Nov. 8, it won’t be the first midterm election when a party holding narrow control touted policy achievements while battling a head wind of broad price increases. A Gilded Age election with this dynamic offers hope for both Democrats and Republicans in 2022.

Going into the 1890 election, Republicans held a narrow majority in both houses of Congress. Then they made history in the midterms — in a bad way. After an electoral meltdown, Republicans were left with a mere 86 seats out of 332. No House majority has ever returned with a smaller percentage of seats in the next Congress.

The story of how that happened exemplifies the boom and bust political drama of the Gilded Age.

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

Despite their narrow margins, Republicans had an ambitious agenda. They couldn’t pass it without procedural changes in the House, where filibustering long allowed by the rules would make it nearly impossible to enact legislation with such a small majority.

And Speaker Thomas Brackett Reed wasn’t about to let the minority thwart his agenda. He revolutionized House procedure by refusing to recognize dilatory tactics and insisting on governance through majority rule. Although the term would not have occurred to Reed’s contemporaries, Reed’s exercise of what in the 21st century became known as the “nuclear option” enabled House Republicans to create the institutional foundation of the majoritarian House that remains in place in 2022.

These rule changes and the unity of Reed’s 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 welfare state milestone in the Dependent Pension Act that extended pensions to soldiers and their families when war service had not directly caused disability or death.

While Republicans saw this as fulfilling their promises to voters, Democrats denounced Reed as a tyrant who trampled minority rights by changing the rules midstream. They believed that the electorate would deliver his comeuppance.

The 1890 midterm campaign was short and intense. It began in earnest after Congress adjourned on Oct. 1. Since President Harrison hit the stump only for a week of nonpolitical speeches typically at military gatherings, the Republican campaign was led by Reed, who had already won his own reelection in Maine’s early September elections. Touring the nation, Reed argued that Republicans had inaugurated a new era of “party responsibility” because House procedure now enabled a majority to govern instead of being hamstrung by filibustering. He documented how the party’s legislative output was a fulfillment of its 1888 platform.

For their part, Democrats focused criticism on the Republican tariff increase, which Harrison had signed into law on Oct. 1, 1890. Democrats argued that the law was a giveaway to rich industrialists — one that would cost consumers more when they went shopping.

When the votes were counted, the election proved catastrophic 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 four percent decline, such as from 60 to 56 percent. Fifty of the 103 lost, including future Speaker Joseph Cannon and future president William McKinley.

In the aftermath, Democrats made broad assertions about what the result said about democracy. They claimed that voters had repudiated Reed’s rebalancing of majority rule and minority rights. There is little evidence, however, that voters were angry that the new set of rules had allowed Congress to act. Instead, voters were probably upset at what Congress did with its newfound ability to act.

Specifically, voters blamed Republicans for the 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 shops are “crowded with persons growling and grumbling” as they “are beginning to feel the effects of the new tariff law in the material increase in prices all along the line.” In his own way, Reed reached the same conclusion. Asked about the defeat, Reed said, “The women did it.” Given that the only women who voted were in the Republican state of Wyoming, his remark required elaboration. Writing in the January 1895 North American Review, Reed explained the 1890 election outcome: “Every woman who went to a store and tried to buy went home to complain, and a wild unrest filled the public mind. The wonder is that we got any votes at all.”

History suggests then that inflation will give Republicans a major electoral advantage in 2022. Democrats, however, benefit from defending comparatively few marginal districts. While 68 percent of the 168 House Republicans who transformed the House in February 1890 had been elected with less than 55 percent of the vote, just 18 percent of the House Democratic caucus won with less than 55 percent of the vote in 2020. This stark difference between eras probably means that the record for electoral futility held by the House Republicans in 1890 won’t be broken anytime soon, but their fate is a reminder to Democrats in 2022 of the peril of price increases for the party in power.