Want votes? First, candidates in Election 2010 must make a pledge.

Grass-roots groups, mostly on the right, insist that House and Senate candidates in Election 2010 make specific pledges, before giving their thumbs' up. Spending cuts and repeal of the federal health-care law are often on the pledge list.

J. Scott Applewhite/AP
House Minority Leader John Boehner of Ohio, holds up a copy of the GOP agenda, "A Pledge to America," on Sept. 23 at a lumber yard in Sterling, Va. The 45-page document is just one of many pledges taken in the run-up to the election.

Call Election 2010 the year of the pledge.

In 1994, House Republicans – challengers and nearly all incumbents – campaigned on a Contract With America that set out how Republicans would govern, if they took back the House. But in the 2010 midterm election, grass-roots groups, mainly on the right of the political spectrum, are demanding more of candidates: a pledge that, once elected, they will live up to their campaign promises, or be held accountable in 2012.

These pledges include repealing or defunding health-care reform, auditing the Federal Reserve, balancing the US budget, ending "earmarks," permanently extending the Bush tax cuts, and blocking future tax increases.

The demand for pledge-taking is born of distrust: Tea party and other conservative activists look back at the 12 years of GOP House control and see broken promises, rampant government spending, and a slew of lawmakers' “pork-barrel” projects. The pledges are also intended to define a mandate for new conservative lawmakers who may take control in the House or Senate.

“It’s a way for activists to try to pin down Republican candidates who they assume will betray them once they’re back in Washington,” says Julian Zelizer, a congressional historian at Princeton University in Princeton, N.J.

House Republicans released their own Pledge to America on Sept. 23 just before Congress broke for campaign season. The 45-page document sets out priorities and principles, including a plan to “repeal a government takeover of health care.” But many conservative activists say it didn’t go far enough.

If Congress votes to repeal health-care reform, President Obama is sure to veto it, says Heather Higgins, president and CEO of Independent Women’s Voices, which along with American Majority Action launched a pledge drive last month for incumbents and challengers to promise to do “everything they can to make repeal a reality.” If full repeal fails, sponsors want to see a commitment to defund the reform, step by step. To date, 65 Republican incumbents and challengers have signed the pledge.

“My concern is not just a symbolic repeal pledge but to do what you can do to defund it, deauthorize it,” says Ms. Higgins. "The pledge gives them a mandate to say: This election was not just about people being unhappy about the economy, it is about severe unhappiness about what was done on heath care.”

On another front, some 912 tea party groups have rallied around a Contract From America initiative, launched by Houston tea party activist Ryan Hecker in September 2009. It was subsequently debated and refined over the Internet. The pledge imposes a statutory cap limiting the annual growth in federal spending to the sum of inflation plus the percentage of population growth. It also puts a moratorium on all earmark until the US federal budget is balanced, and rolls back regulation on energy.

Americans for Tax Reform in 1986 launched the Taxpayer Protection Pledge to oppose all tax increases, and it has been a feature of every electoral cycle since. But this year marks “the most emphatic collection of pledge-takers ever,” says ATR President Grover Norquist.

To date, 205 House candidates and 36 Senate candidates have signed the pledge, along with 174 House Republicans and 34 GOP US senators. “The pledge this year is really about not spending more money,” says Mr. Norquist. “It is this time around an antispending as well as an antitax package.”

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