In 1980, the conservative Ronald Reagan, a former supporter of Barry Goldwater, regained the presidency for the Republicans and reversed long-standing political trends by instituting a supply-side economic program of budget and tax cuts. He also advocated increased military spending and presided over the largest military buildup during peacetime in American history. The Iran-contra affair, which broke in late 1986, marred the last years of his tenure, though his vice president, George H. W. Bush, was nonetheless able to defeat the Democratic nominee, Michael Dukakis, in the 1988 election. The Reagan years were marked by the increasing influence of social conservatives in the party, a trend that continued into the 21st cent.
Bush was generally recognized as strong on foreign policy. He was widely lauded for his role in orchestrating the coalition of forces against Iraq in the Persian Gulf War. He also largely continued Reagan's policy toward the Soviet Union. On the domestic side, however, Bush's administration was perceived as being slow to respond to such problems as stagnant economic growth, rising unemployment, and the unaffordability of health care for many Americans. Bush's high popularity after the Persian Gulf War dropped rapidly, and he lost the 1992 presidential election to the Democrat, Arkansas's Governor Bill Clinton.
In the 1994 congressional and state elections, however, the Republican party scored major victories and increased its hold in the South. Republicans unseated long-time Democratic incumbents, winning control of both houses of Congress (for the first time since the 1950s) and claiming several governorships. Newt Gingrich, who spearheaded the Republicans' congressional election campaign with his conservative "Contract with America" program, became speaker of the House. While bills were passed on the key program components, many items were thwarted or defeated in Congress or by the president.
The 1996 elections saw incumbents generally retain their offices. Former Senate majority leader Bob Dole won the Republican nomination for the presidency, but he and his running mate, Jack Kemp, were never able to reduce significantly President Clinton's substantial lead. In the House and Senate, Republicans retained their majorities, slightly diminished in the former and slightly increased in the latter. The 1998 mid-term elections saw the Republican margin in the House reduced, despite expectations that they would benefit from the effects of the Lewinsky scandal; the results led to Gingrich's resignation from office.
In the 2000 elections, the party's presidential nominee, George W. Bush appeared generally to lead in the polls in what ultimately became a popular-vote loss to Democrat Al Gore. Despite not winning the popular vote. Bush secured the presidency with a victory in the electoral college when he won Florida by an extremely narrow margin and outlasted Gore's unsuccessful court challenge of the Florida vote-counting process. The party did not fair as well in other races for national office, and the Democrats made gains in Congress, although the Republicans retained control there.
The party lost control of the Senate as a result of a defection in mid-2001, but regained it after the Nov., 2002, elections. In 2004, Bush was renominated without opposition, and he subsequently soundly defeated the Democratic nominee, John Kerry. The Republicans also increased their majorities in both houses of Congress, as retiring Senate Democrats from the South were replaced by Republicans. Public discontent with congressional scandals and the war in Iraq led to reversals in the congressional elections of 2006, however, and the party lost control of both houses of Congress, albeit narrowly in the Senate.
Those losses were amplified in 2008 when Democrat Barack Obama, aided by a national economic crisis, defeated Republican presidential hopeful John McCain and led the Democrats to their largest national victory since 1976. Continuing economic uncertainty and a lackluster recovery led to significant Republican gains in the 2010 midterm elections that reversed many previous Democrat gains. The party won control of the House of Representative as well as additional U.S. Senate seats and governorships. At the same time, however, the rise of the conservative movement known as the Tea Party, which had a significant influence on many Republican primary races and contributed subsequently to many general election victories, led to some tensions and splits with the party. In the 2012 elections the Republican presidential and vice-presidential candidates, Mitt Romney and running-mate Paul Ryan, lost to incumbents Obama and Biden, although more narrowly than the national ticket did in 2008; in other elections, Republicans retained control of the House but lost seats in the Senate and did not make significant gains at the state level.
The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright © 2012, Columbia University Press. All rights reserved.