How an obscure, weak committee captured Congress Gingrich turned GOPAC into a revolutionary force

THE BALTIMORE SUN

WASHINGTON -- They spoke to each other in the conspiratorial language of revolutionaries, aware, as one put it, that more mainstream Republicans might see their activities as "treason." Their vision was audacious: to gain control of the Congress, realign American politics and remake the Republican Party in the image of their leader, Newt Gingrich.

They were the vanguard of a revolution. And documents made public over the last few days through a Federal Election Commission lawsuit disclose in surprising detail how Mr. Gingrich and his political intimates began meticulously scripting their takeover of Congress more than five years ago.

Much of what is now familiar as the 1994 campaign, including the "Contract With America," was originally devised for the 1992 campaign by Mr. Gingrich and his team. But after receiving a cool reception from President Bush's reelection campaign, Mr. Gingrich and his political advisers had to delay their revolution for two more years.

The documents, which give new insights into last year's Republican victory, are drawn from the files of GOPAC, the political organization that supports party candidates and office holders, headed by Mr. Gingrich until this spring.

They include more than 5,000 pages of internal memorandums and transcripts that show Mr. Gingrich and friends brainstorming over how to break the nation's habit of keeping the Democrats in the House, even as it gave landslide victories to Republican presidents.

Mr. Gingrich's mind leaps from idea to idea, but his vision was unshakable. "I am interested in causing change as a consequence of which we will win control of the House and of the country," he told his GOPAC associates in a 1989 meeting.

His mission would turn the Republican Party on its head. In a series of rambling meetings in 1989 and 1990 at sites that ranged from a remote ski lodge in Colorado to luxurious hotels in Washington, Mr. Gingrich and his associates thrashed out the strategy that would prove victorious in 1994.

They came up with an idea for a legislative agenda that would be extensively tested in focus groups, endorsed by all Republican candidates and enacted in the first 100 days of the next Congress.

From the beginning, they stayed away from such divisive issues as abortion, turning instead to issues like vouchers for private schools, which the documents show they thought would mobilize a "center-right" coalition.

Mr. Gingrich recognized the potential of satellite television as a political tool, and in 1989 sketched out plans for a 90-minute Saturday morning program that had similarities to a televised college course he was teaching.

The Republican's historic failure to dislodge the House Democrats, Mr. Gingrich said in those early meetings, stemmed both from the Democrats' advantages of incumbency and from his own party's dearth of ideas and capable candidates. "The Republican Party is a bureaucracy," he said dismissively at one session.

To revitalize the party, GOPAC strategists framed what they called a "three-year plan" to take control of Congress in 1992. During that time, Mr. Gingrich said, GOPAC would recruit and train candidates "educated into our rhythm and style."

Mr. Bush declined to embrace GOPAC's central proposal: a national legislative agenda to be endorsed by all Republicans. In 1992, Mr. Bush was defeated, and the Democrats retained control of Congress as they had for nearly four decades.

Two years later, the Republicans captured the House and Senate -- by almost the same majorities as GOPAC projected they would in a June 1990 meeting. More than a third of the 73 new House Republicans had been trained by GOPAC.

The Federal Election Commission contends in its lawsuit, originally filed in the spring of 1994, that GOPAC's activities were illegal from 1989 to 1991. If a group is helping candidates for federal office it must register and be subject to full disclosure.

GOPAC did not register as a federal political committee until May 1991, after the Democrats complained to the commission. The agency released the GOPAC documents to show how it was deeply involved in federal campaigns, particularly that of Mr. Gingrich in Georgia.

GOPAC is fighting the case in court, arguing that it never went beyond its stated mission of developing local and state candidates who could some day run for Congress themselves.

But Mr. Gingrich acknowledged in an August 1989 meeting that while GOPAC normally focused on local races, it was devoting "a lot of our resources" to winning control of the House of Representatives.

GOPAC was founded in 1979 by Gov. Pierre S. "Pete" Du Pont IV of Delaware. It was a little-noticed political committee that concentrated exclusively on raising money for Republican candidates for state legislatures.

All that changed in 1986 when Mr. Gingrich, then a back-bench congressman, became the group's general chairman. In one of his first fund-raising letters that year, Mr. Gingrich wrote, "It is our job to help the party become competitive in the additional districts it will take to allow us to capture a majority in the U.S. House."

GOPAC remains one of the Republican Party's top political action committees. Now headed by Rep. John Shadegg of Arizona, it is federally registered but concentrates its efforts on state and local candidates. Since 1985 GOPAC has raised more than $10 million. After Democrats raised questions about GOPAC, the organization decided this year to voluntarily identify its donors.

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