The "Republican Revolution" was a name given to the success of the Republican Party during the 1994 Midterm Elections. The success was most noticeable in the House of Representatives, but also included success in the Senate, gubernatorial races, and amongst state legislatures.
I was fifteen at the time, and while I had many things on my mind (as will be discussed below), I did take some notice of the "Republican Revolution", and at the time it seemed counter-intuitive to me. In 1992, Oregon politics had its first bruising introduction into the so-called culture wars, with a ballot measure about homosexuality being defeated in a contest that brought many urban and suburban voters into a state of annoyance or disgust with the rural, fundamentalist wing of the Republican party. It might seem odd for me to be talking about this local issue in a discussion of national politics, but all will be explained. The basic story is, that as I was entering my adolescence in earnest, the overall trend around me seemed to be towards a more "liberal" attitude. And yet, here was a gigantic news story about a great resurgence of conservatism in American culture. What was really going on? During my research for the 1996 Election, which ended up as an electoral landslide for the Democratic Party, I ended up researching how 2 years after a "Republican Revolution", Bill Clinton did so well.
The party in power often loses ground during a midterm election. Turnout in a midterm election is generally lower, so if one party makes a strong Get Out the Vote effort with their supporters, they can make a much more impressive showing than they would otherwise. And a party that pays attention to demographic shifts, and uses their resources wisely, can pick up seats by getting a bare minimum in some districts while not even contesting others. All of which was the case in the 1994 midterms. The election was run with great tactical skill by the Republican Party. They realized that Democratic representatives in the rust belt, the suburbs and the South were straddling a line between the leaders of their party and their more rural constituents. Some of this was an inevitable demographic shift: the few Democratic representatives from areas like North Carolina, Tennessee, Oklahoma and Kansas were probably going to be carried away by demographic shifts sooner or later. Some of the other districts were carried by skilled campaigning, such as the historic upset defeat of Speaker of the House Tom Foley from his Spokane centered district, which probably owed a lot to the Republicans being able to understand and exploit the growing urban/rural divide in American politics.
All of this is already established. Sometime in 1993, a group of Republican strategists sat around a table, and realized that while they couldn't challenge Democratic strongholds in urban areas, they could run a tactical campaign that would give them a majority of seats by getting slim margins of disaffected rural and suburban voters. This would be especially easy in an off-year election, with discontent against the ruling party, and a strong get-out-the-vote effort. All of this is good tactical politics. After the election, the attempt to paint the narrative as a spontaneous uprising of good, traditional Americans against an entrenched power elite was also good politics.
But then the Republicans did something very stupid: they ate their own dogfood. The combined popular vote for House Republicans was 47.8%, against the Democrats 44%. A 3.8% margin, and a plurality does not a "revolution" make. The same Republican leadership that must have very carefully planned out how to work around their demographic weaknesses to eke out a tactical victory, actually believed that they had just followed the natural will of the American people. While unseating the Speaker of the House was a historic achievement, it was not the result of a vast anger against him by the common people: it was the result of a well-executed campaign where he got defeated by 4000 votes in an off-year election.
The Republican Party was deceived by looking at maps, as I think they have been many times. Controlling vast tracks of land across the country makes an impressive looking map, but the urban districts of Chicago, Los Angeles, New York and even Houston, too small to see on most maps of electoral districts, are densely packed enough to easily counteract the vast yet sparsely populated prairies and mountains. The 1994 election, while it did tap into much popular discontent, didn't overcome the Republican party's strategic problems. It in fact, it probably made them worse. In the 1996 election, the Republican Party's narrative of being the party of traditional, conservative people would be turned against it by turning it into the party of old grumpy white men.
This turns me back to where I was in the summer and fall of 1994, a personal reminiscence that is not unrelated to such weighty matters. It may have just been that I was finally becoming a teenager, but the world and the culture around me seemed to be much more diverse, challenging and edgy than in the previous years. In the fall of 1994, I remember listening to Soundgarden, Nirvana and Nine Inch Nails. Popular films were Interview with the Vampire and Pulp Fiction. The teenagers I grew up with, the children of educated, middle class parents, seemed to be awash in new ideas, combined with a skepticism (bordering on hatred) towards many traditional institutions. Of course, the news that teenagers were rebellious is hardly something shocking. But beyond just the normal adolescent rebellion, I feel that the cohort that I grew up with did have a very different take on the world, and fairly or unfairly, associated the Republican Party with the old days. The real revolution that was going on was the new and different ways that the youth were looking at the world, something that would be greatly accelerated by the arrival of the internet. In my view, the tactical victory scored by the Republican Party in the 1994 election was a minor ripple against this current.
In general, although politicians like to make---and sometimes believe--- narratives about how their political positions are the true orientation of the silent majority, the real American electorate is a shifting body of differing beliefs and allegiances. Of course, if the American electorate did have a "fundamental bent", we would have dispensed with elections a while ago. Since 1984, neither party has ever managed to get a true landslide in the political vote, either in a Presidential or a Congressional election. Parties or factions that believe that they have captured the "heart of America" are probably doomed to failure sooner or later. To contradict the writeup above mine, the "Republican Revolution" was not a revolution: it was a well thought out electoral upset, channeling people's discontent, but not expressing a gigantic shift in the views of the American electorate.