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How the Rout Was Won: Careful Plans, Timely Wave

By GERALD F. SEIB And NAFTALI BENDAVID
WASHINGTON—In early 2009, Rep. Eric Cantor, the second-ranking Republican in the House, acquired a bottle of good wine and carried it to a retreat that House Republicans were holding at the Homestead resort in Virginia. There, he had his top deputies sign the bottle.

The signing was a pact: They wouldn't uncork the wine until they took control of the House.

The bottle represented a strange bit of optimism at a dark hour for Republicans, when President Barack Obama was soaring in popularity and many thought the GOP might be relegated to minority status for years. Although few realized it at the time, Mr. Cantor just days earlier had helped sow the seeds of a comeback—one that culminated Tuesday with the party recapturing the House.

It began in late January 2009, when Democratic House Speaker Nancy Pelosi held a quick vote on an economic-stimulus package and Mr. Cantor helped engineer a unanimous Republican "no" vote. Republicans felt Democrats had excluded them from crafting the bill, while Democrats said the GOP had refused to work with them. Either way, the unified vote signaled to previously rattled Republicans that they didn't have to go along with the big Democratic majority and the highly popular new president.

The bottle represented a strange bit of optimism at a dark hour for Republicans, when President Barack Obama was soaring in popularity and many thought the GOP might be relegated to minority status for years. Although few realized it at the time, Mr. Cantor just days earlier had helped sow the seeds of a comeback—one that culminated Tuesday with the party recapturing the House.
It began in late January 2009, when Democratic House Speaker Nancy Pelosi held a quick vote on an economic-stimulus package and Mr. Cantor helped engineer a unanimous Republican "no" vote. Republicans felt Democrats had excluded them from crafting the bill, while Democrats said the GOP had refused to work with them. Either way, the unified vote signaled to previously rattled Republicans that they didn't have to go along with the big Democratic majority and the highly popular new president.

The vote also set a pattern that would be repeated time and again over the next two years, with House Republicans solidly opposing one Democratic initiative after another. The strategy infuriated the White House and ran the risk Republicans would be damaged by the "party of no" label Democrats soon attached. But, crucially, it allowed Republicans to avoid a share of the blame when voters grew angry that Democratic policies failed to bring a quick economic turnaround.
Many of the woes Democrats suffered weren't a direct result of this Republican strategy, but rather the product of a wave of unhappiness with their ambitious agenda, intensified by a sour economy and stubbornly high unemployment.

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