Founded in the Northern states in 1854 by anti-slavery activists, modernizers, ex-Whigs and ex-Free Soilers, the Republican Party quickly became the principal opposition to the dominant Democratic Party and the briefly popular Know Nothing Party. The main cause was opposition to the Kansas–Nebraska Act, which repealed the Missouri Compromise by which slavery was kept out of Kansas. The Northern Republicans saw the expansion of slavery as a great evil. The first public meeting of the general anti-Nebraska movement where the name Republican was suggested for a new anti-slavery party was held on March 20, 1854 in a schoolhouse in Ripon, Wisconsin. The name was partly chosen to pay homage to Thomas Jefferson's Republican Party.
The first official party convention was held on July 6, 1854 in Jackson, Michigan. By 1858, the Republicans dominated nearly all Northern states. The Republican Party first came to power in the elections of 1860 when it won control of both houses of Congress and its candidate, Abraham Lincoln, was elected President. It oversaw the preserving of the Union, the end of slavery and the provision of equal rights to all men in the American Civil War and Reconstruction (1861–1877).
The Republicans' initial base was in the Northeast and the upper Midwest. With the realignment of parties and voters in the Third Party System, the strong run of John C. Frémont in the 1856 United States Presidential Election demonstrated it dominated most Northern states.
Early Republican ideology was reflected in the 1856 slogan "free labor, free land, free men", which had been coined by Salmon P. Chase, a Senator from Ohio (and future Secretary of the Treasury and Chief Justice of the United States). "Free labor" referred to the Republican opposition to slave labor and belief in independent artisans and businessmen. "Free land" referred to Republican opposition to the plantation system whereby slave owners could buy up all the good farmland, leaving the yeoman independent farmers the leftovers. The party strove to contain the expansion of slavery, which would cause the collapse of the slave power and the expansion of freedom.
Representing the fast-growing Western states, Lincoln won the Republican nomination in 1860 and subsequently won the presidency. The party took on the mission of preserving the Union and destroying slavery during the American Civil War and over Reconstruction. In the election of 1864, it united with War Democrats to nominate Lincoln on the National Union Party ticket.
The party's success created factionalism within the party in the 1870s. Those who felt that Reconstruction had been accomplished and was continued mostly to promote the large-scale corruption tolerated by President Ulysses S. Grant ran Horace Greeley for the presidency. The Stalwarts defended Grant and the spoils system whereas the Half-Breeds led by Chester A. Arthur pushed for reform of the civil service in 1883.
The Republican Party supported business generally, hard money (i.e. the gold standard), high tariffs to promote economic growth, high wages and high profits, generous pensions for Union veterans and (after 1893) the annexation of Hawaii. The Republicans have strong support from pietistic Protestants, but they resisted demands for Prohibition. As the Northern post-bellum economy boomed with heavy and light industry, railroads, mines, fast-growing cities and prosperous agriculture, the Republicans took credit and promoted policies to sustain the fast growth.
The GOP was usually dominant over the Democrats during the Third Party System (1850s–1890s). However, by 1890 the Republicans had agreed to the Sherman Antitrust Act and the Interstate Commerce Commission in response to complaints from owners of small businesses and farmers. The high McKinley Tariff of 1890 hurt the party and the Democrats swept to a landslide in the off-year elections, even defeating McKinley himself. The Democrats elected Grover Cleveland in 1884 and 1892. The election of William McKinley in 1896 was marked by a resurgence of Republican dominance that lasted (except for 1912 and 1916) until 1932. McKinley promised that high tariffs would end the severe hardship caused by the Panic of 1893 and that Republicans would guarantee a sort of pluralism in which all groups would benefit.
The Republican Civil War era program included free homestead farms, a federally subsidized transcontinental railroad, a national banking system, a large national debt, land grants for higher education, a new national banking system, a wartime income tax and permanent high tariffs to promote industrial growth and high wages. By the 1870s, they had adopted as well a hard money system based on the gold standard and fought off efforts to promote inflation through Free Silver. They created the foundations of the modern welfare state through an extensive program of pensions for Union veterans. Foreign-policy issues were rarely a matter of partisan dispute, but briefly in the 1893–1904 period the GOP supported imperialistic expansion regarding Hawaii, the Philippines and the Panama Canal.
The 1896 realignment cemented the Republicans as the party of big business while Theodore Roosevelt added more small business support by his embrace of trust busting. He handpicked his successor William Howard Taft in 1908, but they became enemies as the party split down the middle. Taft defeated Roosevelt for the 1912 nomination and Roosevelt ran on the ticket of his new Progressive ("Bull Moose") Party. He called for social reforms, many of which were later championed by New Deal Democrats in the 1930s. He lost and when most of his supporters returned to the GOP they found they did not agree with the new conservative economic thinking, leading to an ideological shift to the right in the Republican Party. The Republicans returned to the White House throughout the 1920s, running on platforms of normalcy, business-oriented efficiency and high tariffs. The national party avoided the prohibition issue after it became law in 1920.
Warren G. Harding, Calvin Coolidge and Herbert Hoover were resoundingly elected in 1920, 1924 and 1928 respectively. The Teapot Dome scandal threatened to hurt the party but Harding died and Coolidge blamed everything on him as the opposition splintered in 1924. The pro-business policies of the decade seemed to produce an unprecedented prosperity until the Wall Street Crash of 1929 heralded the Great Depression.
New Deal era
The New Deal coalition of Democrat Franklin D. Roosevelt controlled American politics for most of the next three decades, excepting the two-term presidency of Republican Dwight D. Eisenhower. Blacks moved into the Democratic Party during the New Deal era as they could vote in the North, but not in the South. After Roosevelt took office in 1933, New Deal legislation sailed through Congress and the economy moved sharply upward from its nadir in early 1933. However, long-term unemployment remained a drag until 1940. In the 1934 midterm elections, 10 Republican senators went down to defeat, leaving them with only 25 against 71 Democrats. The House of Representatives likewise had overwhelming Democratic majorities.
The Republican Party split into a majority "Old Right" (based in the Midwest) and a liberal wing based in the Northeast that supported much of the New Deal. The Old Right sharply attacked the "Second New Deal" and said it represented class warfare and socialism. Roosevelt was reelected in a landslide in 1936, but as his second term began the economy declined, strikes soared and he failed to take control of the Supreme Court or to purge the Southern conservatives in the Democratic Party. Republicans made a major comeback in the 1938 elections and had new rising stars such as Robert A. Taft of Ohio on the right and Thomas E. Dewey of New York on the left. Southern conservatives joined with most Republicans to form the conservative coalition, which dominated domestic issues in Congress until 1964. Both parties split on foreign policy issues, with the anti-war isolationists dominant in the Republican Party and the interventionists who wanted to stop Adolf Hitler dominant in the Democratic Party. Roosevelt won a third and fourth term in 1940 and 1944. Conservatives abolished most of the New Deal during the war, but they did not attempt to reverse Social Security or the agencies that regulated business.
Historian George H. Nash argues:
Unlike the "moderate", internationalist, largely eastern bloc of Republicans who accepted (or at least acquiesced in) some of the "Roosevelt Revolution" and the essential premises of President Truman's foreign policy, the Republican Right at heart was counterrevolutionary, anti-collectivist, anti-Communist, anti-New Deal, passionately committed to limited government, free market economics, and congressional (as opposed to executive) prerogatives, the G.O.P. conservatives were obliged from the start to wage a constant two-front war: against liberal Democrats from without and "me-too" Republicans from within.
The Democrats elected majorities to Congress almost continuously after 1932 (the GOP won only in 1946 and 1952), but the conservative coalition blocked practically all major liberal proposals in domestic policy. After 1945, the internationalist wing of the GOP cooperated with Harry S. Truman's Cold War foreign policy, funded the Marshall Plan and supported NATO, despite the continued isolationism of the Old Right.
The second half of the 20th century saw election or succession of Republican presidents Dwight D. Eisenhower, Richard Nixon, Gerald Ford, Ronald Reagan and George H. W. Bush. Eisenhower had defeated conservative leader Senator Robert A. Taft for the 1952 nomination, but conservatives dominated the domestic policies of the Eisenhower administration. Voters liked Eisenhower much more than they liked the GOP and he proved unable to shift the party to a more moderate position. After 1970, the liberal wing began to fade away.
Ever since he left office in 1989, Reagan has been the iconic conservative Republican and Republican presidential candidates frequently claim to share his views and aim to establish themselves and their policies as the more appropriate heir to his legacy.
In 1994, the party, led by House Minority Whip Newt Gingrich campaigning on the "Contract with America", was elected to majorities in both Houses of Congress during the Republican Revolution. However, Gingrich was unable to deliver on most of its promises and after the impeachment and acquittal of President Bill Clinton in 1998 and 1999 and subsequent Republican losses in the House, he resigned. Since Reagan's day, presidential elections have been close. However, the Republican presidential candidate won a majority of the popular vote only in 2004 while coming in second in 1992, 1996, 2000, 2008, 2012 and 2016.
The Senate majority lasted until 2001 when the Senate became split evenly, but it was regained in the 2002 elections. Both Republican majorities in the House and Senate were held until the Democrats regained control in the mid-term elections of 2006. The Republican Party has since been defined by social conservatism, a preemptive war foreign policy intended to defeat terrorism and promote global democracy, a more powerful executive branch, supply side economics, support for gun ownership and deregulation.
In the presidential election of 2008, the party's nominees were Senator John McCain of Arizona for President and Alaska Governor Sarah Palin for Vice President. They were defeated by Senator Barack Obama of Illinois and Senator Joe Biden of Delaware. In 2009, Republicans Chris Christie and Bob McDonnell were elected to the governorships of New Jersey and Virginia.
2010 was a year of electoral success for the Republicans, starting with the upset win of Scott Brown in the Massachusetts special Senate election for the seat held for many decades by the Democratic Kennedy brothers. In the November elections, Republicans recaptured control of the House, increased their number of seats in the Senate and gained a majority of governorships.
In the presidential election of 2012, the Republican nominees were former Governor Mitt Romney of Massachusetts for President and Representative Paul Ryan of Wisconsin for Vice President. The Democrats nominated incumbents Barack Obama and Joe Biden. The campaign focused largely on the Affordable Care Act and President Obama's stewardship of the economy, with the country facing high unemployment numbers and a rising national debt four years after his first election. Romney and Ryan were defeated by Obama and Biden. In addition, while Republicans lost 7 seats in the House in the November congressional elections, they still retained control. However, Republicans were not able to gain control of the Senate, continuing their minority status with a net loss of 2 seats.
After the 2014 midterm elections, the Republican Party took control of the Senate by gaining nine seats. With a final total of 247 seats (57%) in the House and 54 seats in the Senate, the Republicans ultimately achieved their largest majority in the Congress since the 71st Congress in 1929.
, 45th and current President of the United States (2017–present)
After the 2016 elections, Republicans maintained a majority in the Senate, House, Governorships and elected Donald Trump as President. The Republican Party controls 69 of 99 state legislative chambers in 2017, the most it has held in history; and at least 33 governorships, the most it has held since 1922. The party has total control of government (legislative chambers and governorship) in 25 states, the most since 1952; while the opposing Democratic Party has full control in five states.
For most of the post-World War II era, Republicans had little presence at the state legislative level. This trend began to reverse in the late 1990s, with Republicans increasing their state legislative presence and taking control of state legislatures in the south, which had begun to vote for Republican presidential candidates decades earlier, but had retained Democrats in the legislatures. From 2004 to 2014, the Republican State Leadership Committee (RSLC) raised over $140 million targeted to state legislature races while the Democratic Legislative Campaign Committee (DLSC) raised less than half that during that time period. Following the 2014 midterm elections, Republicans control 68 of 98 partisan state legislative houses, the most in the party's history and have control of both the governorship and state legislatures in 24 states as opposed to only 7 states with Democratic governors and state legislatures. According to a January 2015 poll by the Pew Research Center, 41% of Americans view the Republicans favorably while 46% view the Democrats favorably.
With the inauguration of Republican George W. Bush as President, the Republican Party remained fairly cohesive for much of the 2000s as both strong economic libertarians and social conservatives opposed the Democrats, whom they saw as the party of bloated and more secular, liberal government. The Bush-era rise of what were known as "pro-government conservatives", a core part of the President's base, meant that a considerable group of the Republicans advocated for increased government spending and greater regulations covering both the economy and people's personal lives as well as for an activist, interventionist foreign policy. Survey groups such as the Pew Research Center found that social conservatives and free market advocates remained the other two main groups within the party's coalition of support, with all three being roughly of the same number.
However, libertarians and libertarian-leaning conservatives increasingly found fault with what they saw as Republicans' restricting of vital civil liberties while corporate welfare and the national debt hiked considerably under Bush's tenure. For example, Doug Bandow, former Special Assistant to President Ronald Reagan, criticized in The American Conservative how many Republican defenders of Bush thought that opposition to any Bush "decision is treason" as well as how many Bush defenders charged "critics with a lack of patriotism". In contrast, some social conservatives expressed dissatisfaction with the party's support for economic policies that they saw as sometimes in conflict with their moral values.
In March 2013, National Committee Chairman Reince Priebus gave a stinging report on the party's failures in 2012, calling on Republicans to reinvent themselves and officially endorse immigration reform. He said: "There's no one reason we lost. Our message was weak; our ground game was insufficient; we weren't inclusive; we were behind in both data and digital, and our primary and debate process needed improvement". He proposed 219 reforms that included a $10 million marketing campaign to reach women, minorities and gays as well as setting a shorter, more controlled primary season and creating better data collection facilities.
With a majority of Republicans and Republican-leaning independents under the age of 49 supporting legal recognition of same-sex marriages versus the opposition remaining from those over 50, the issue remains a particular divide within the party. Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich has remarked that the "[p]arty is going to be torn on this issue" with some constituents "going to flake off". A Reuters/Ipsos survey from April 2015 found that 68% of Americans overall would attend the same-sex wedding of a loved one, with 56% of Republicans agreeing. Reuters journalist Jeff Mason remarked that "Republicans who stake out strong opposition to gay marriage could be on shaky political ground if their ultimate goal is to win the White House" given the divide between the social conservative stalwarts and the rest of the United States that opposes them.
The Republican candidate for President in 2012, Mitt Romney, lost to incumbent President Barack Obama, the fifth time in six elections the Republican candidate received fewer votes than his Democratic counterpart. In the aftermath of the loss, some prominent Republicans spoke out against their own party. For example, 1996 Republican Presidential candidate and longtime former Senator Bob Dole said that "today's GOP members are too conservative and overly partisan. They ought to put a sign on the National Committee doors that says closed for repairs". Former Senator Olympia Snowe of Maine stated as well that she was in agreement with Dole. Former Chairman of the Joint Chiefs (under George H.W. Bush) and former Secretary of State (under George W. Bush) Colin Powell remarked that the GOP has "a dark vein of intolerance in some parts of the party", commenting about the birther movement "[w]hy do senior Republican leaders tolerate this kind of discussion within the party?" and "I think the party has to take a look at itself". The College Republican National Committee (CRNC) released a report in June 2013 that was highly critical of the party, being titled "Grand Old Party for a Brand New Generation".