The "Republican Revolution" is a general reference to the November 1994 elections in the United States, in which for the first time in 42 years, the Republican Party captured the majority in the House of Representatives with a 42-seat gain, awarding them a 230-204 seat majority. In the same election, the Republicans also gained control of the Senate, taking eight seats and adding a ninth due to the party switch of Richard Shelby (AL).
Seeds of Change (1981-1993)
The first seeds of the Republican Revolution were planted in November 1980 when the American people elected Ronald Reagan to be their 40th president by a fairly wide margin. At the time, Jimmy Carter presided over a nation with a stagnant economy and crippling inflation along with a lack of oil availabilty. Add to that a burgeoning crisis with Iran hostages, and the American people were ready to elect someone like Reagan, who had charisma, a strong speaking ability, and seemingly boundless optimism about the potential for America.
Reagan's charm won him many followers, and he won re-election in a landslide in 1984 over Democratic Party candidate Walter Mondale; it was seen that the Reagan mandate also won in 1988, in which Reagan's vice president George Bush defeated Democrat Michael Dukakis.
What made Reagan so popular in America? People will debate about this for centuries to come, but I think it was due to the fact that he was the first truly charismatic president since John F. Kennedy (think of the presidents between Kennedy and Reagan) and that he seemed to always carry a boundless optimism about the state of and the future of the nation.
Reagan's conservative policies turned around a stagnant economy in some ways. Through a series of policy changes collectively known as Reaganomics, by the end of the 1980s both unemployment and inflation were down, per-capita income was up, and interest rates were lower, and the creation of new wealth led to an explosion in venture capitalism, which indirectly led to the boom ecomony of the 1990s. On the other hand, the gap between low and high income was higher than ever before, meaning the new wealth created went largely into the hands of those who already had capital. For a much better discussion of Reaganomics and their long term repercussions, see that node, particularly N3Bruce's stellar writeup.
Bill Clinton's election to the presidency in 1992, however, created a situation in which both houses of Congress and the White House were controlled by Democrats. The Democratic philosophy of the time was that of providing as many services as possible to the nation, exemplified by Clinton's proposal of a national health care plan, and now was their time to act on it.
The Revolution (1994)
Seeing that the Democrats were making little progress in their social agenda, and also observing that the economy was remaining relatively stagnant and living standards weren't improving, the Republicans banked hard on the 1994 legislative election. Rather than addressing specific local elections as had been done in the past, the Republicans campaigned on a united national scale, and used Newt Gingrich, a Republican representative from Georgia, as their point man.
Gingrich presented a vision of a set of conservative policies, which he set forth as clearly as possible to the American people in a document he called the "Contract with America." In it, the Republican party pledged that, within 100 days of taking majority control of Congress, they would enact a series of referendums that were clearly stated in the contract.
America agreed, and it was a landslide. The Republican Party captured the majority in the House of Representatives with a 42-seat gain, and also gained control of the Senate with a nine seat gain.
The Aftermath (1995-1998)
The Republicans lived up to their end of the contract, introducing every single bill discussed in the contract within the first 100 days of the legislative session. Newt Gingrich was elected the Speaker of the House, and the Republicans believed that they would easily unseat Bill Clinton in 1996.
Unfortunately, when 1996 rolled around, several things began to shift in America that allowed Bill Clinton to easily win re-election. The first was the selection of the seemingly uncharismatic Bob Dole as the Republican Party's candidate for President. The second was the shift in the economy; the large amount of venture capitalism made possible by Reaganomics was starting to pay off, and the economy was in the early growth stages of what would be a superheated economy throughout the late 1990s. These factors (among others), led to not only Clinton's re-election, but the picking up of ten additional Democratic seats in the House of Representatives.
Why did this happen? The root of the problem comes from a fundamental misunderstanding by the Republicans of why the "Revolution" happened in 1994. The American people saw that government wasn't working and that their standard of living wasn't getting any better, and thus they "fired" the Democrats in control; it was not a vote in support of the Republican mandate. The Republicans erred in believing that it was indeed a widespread support among the people for their mandate, and thus when the Republicans passed a large number of bills that would support a Reagan-like economic and social agenda, the Americans rejected that, too.
What Americans wanted wasn't a Republican or Democratic agenda; they wanted a better standard of living, and they would vote against the party in power if their living standards didn't improve.
In 1998, again, the Democrats made up some ground, picking up five additional seats. After the failure of the 1998 election, Newt Gingrich stepped down as House speaker.
The Long-Term Impact (1999-2004)
The seeds had been planted, however, to create the neoconservativism that overtook the country in 2000. Most people are familiar with what happened then: George W. Bush defeated Al Gore in one of the tightest presidential elections in history, then proceeded to create a very conservative cabinet.
The elected political landscape of 2004 is Republican dominated; both houses of Congress and the White House are both Republican-dominated, and the aftermath of September 11, 2001 allowed the widespread legal adoption of a large number of conservative policies.
The Republican Revolution really was a revolution, after all.
Klinker, Philip. Midterm: The Elections of 1994 in Context. Boulder, CO: HarperCollins, 1996.
Rae, Nicol. Conservative Reformers. New York: M.E. Sharpe Armonk, 1998.