The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

GOP prospects narrow in House as Democrats overperform in early contests

Democrat Pat Ryan, left, holds his son Theo, 3, after a rally Aug. 13 in Kingston, N.Y. This week, he outperformed President Biden's 2020 margin to win a special election in New York's 19th Congressional District. (Cindy Schultz for The Washington Post)

Republicans are facing dimming prospects for an overwhelming sweep in the House this fall, according to independent analysts and strategists across parties, as Democrats defy a long-predicted red wave in early contests by capitalizing on abortion’s rise as a campaign issue and a renewed focus on former president Donald Trump.

Democratic candidates now have outperformed President Biden’s 2020 margins in four special elections held since the Supreme Court overturned the nationwide right to abortion enshrined in Roe v. Wade. The starkest example came Tuesday in New York’s 19th Congressional District, where Democrat Pat Ryan — who made abortion access central to his campaign — defeated Republican Marc Molinaro by just over two percentage points. Biden won the district by little more than one percentage point in 2020.

The nonpartisan Cook Political Report on Wednesday revised its projections for GOP gains in the House, with editor Dave Wasserman saying on Twitter that it is “not out of the question” for Democrats to maintain control of the chamber. The group, which once predicted Republicans would pick up 20 to 35 seats, is now projecting a more modest increase of 10 to 20 seats. And Republicans say they have dialed back their expectations even as they remain confident they will retake the House.

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Rep. Tom Cole (R-Okla.) said the special-election results should be a “wake-up call” to Republicans who have overestimated the party’s chances. In an interview, he urged lawmakers in safe seats to put more money toward the National Republican Congressional Committee (NRCC) and other candidates.

“Our people ought to take a look at this and look in the mirror,” he said, “and if you haven’t done everything you’re supposed to do — to not only help yourself, but help the team — then you’ve got to do more.”

Cole, a former NRCC chairman, was optimistic the GOP still has the resources to “play very deep” into Democratic territory, and the GOP has set its sights on districts that Biden once won handily.

But another ex-chairman of the NRCC, Tom Davis, said Republicans may want to pull resources back from their most ambitious pickup prospects to focus more on swing districts.

“If you’re Democrats, there are some signs of life out there,” Davis said. “And for Republicans whose expectation is this is going to be a cakewalk, they’ve got a lot of work to do between now and November.”

Democrats’ stronger-than-anticipated showings in special elections — along with high turnout in recent Democratic primaries and, earlier this month, a Kansas popular vote on abortion access — have underscored to many analysts that rollbacks in abortion access have handed Democrats a powerful campaign message, even as Republicans bet Americans will vote on other issues such as inflation and crime. The outcomes also bolster Democratic hopes that their candidates can outrun Biden and his low approval ratings, as Republicans seek to tie their opponents to the president.

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The shifting House prospects come as uncertainty grows among top Republicans about taking control of the evenly divided Senate, with GOP candidates trailing in key swing-state races. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (Ky.) recently acknowledged the House is likelier than the Senate to flip, saying that races in his chamber are “different” and that “candidate quality has a lot to do with the outcome.”

Republicans only need a net pickup of five seats in the House to regain the majority. They are eyeing nine Democratic seats where Trump won by more than five percentage points, and another seven where he won by a margin in the low single digits. Strategists and analysts urged caution about drawing broad conclusions from recent special elections, because they expect higher turnout among Republicans and independents in the fall. The special-election turnout also may have skewed toward college-educated voters more receptive to Democrats’ message.

GOP strategists emphasized that the political landscape could shift again before Election Day, based on the state of the economy and other unknowns.

“I’d still rather be us than them,” Cole said, comparing Republicans’ and Democrats’ outlooks for the fall.

Still, the special-election results have caught strategists’ attention. A Democratic candidate also outperformed Biden in a special election for New York’s 23rd Congressional District on Tuesday, trailing by 6.6 percentage points in a place that Trump once won by 11.

Blue-leaning counties in New York’s 19th District saw high turnout, as did Tuesday’s Democratic primary in Florida — potential signs of Democratic energy. Analysts noted that turnout in Florida matched 2018, when higher-profile races were on the ballot.

And nationally, abortion appears to have risen as a priority for voters in recent months, with 56 percent of registered voters calling the issue very important to their decision-making in congressional races in a Pew Research poll released this week. That’s up from 43 percent in March, before the Supreme Court’s ruling on abortion rights. Polling shows that voters trust Democrats more on the issue.

Democratic operatives and organizers celebrated the special-election results as one more indication that their focus on abortion is resonating with voters. Helen Kalla, a spokesperson for the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, hailed a “clear and decisive signal that the red wave Republicans have been predicting is not bearing out so far.”

National Republican Congressional Committee spokesman Michael McAdams said in a statement that “Majorities are won in November, not August.”

“We look forward to prosecuting the case against Democrats’ failed one party rule that’s left American families worse off,” he said.

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Democrats have new talking points thanks to their recent passage of a long-stalled bill to combat climate change and lower health-care costs while raising taxes on some companies. Meanwhile, the fallout over an FBI search of Trump’s residence to retrieve classified documents has brought a renewed focus on the polarizing former president, with GOP leaders widely rallying around Trump and joining in his unsubstantiated accusations that the probe is politically motivated.

Whit Ayres, a prominent Republican pollster, said legislative victories, Trump’s prominence and easing inflation have all probably helped Democrats on the margins. But he mostly attributed their shifting fortunes to the end of Roe v. Wade.

The New York special election in particular, he said, “is an indicator that things are going to be a lot closer than we might have thought.”

Kyle Kondik, the managing editor of Sabato’s Crystal Ball, a nonpartisan election-forecasting newsletter, noted that the GOP has also lost its early advantage in polling that pits a generic Democrat against a generic Republican. The parties are now neck and neck on that metric — though strategists noted an evenly split generic ballot generally translates into more GOP seats.

“There’s an accumulating amount of evidence that suggests that the environment is not as bad for Democrats as it seemed like it might be,” he said. But he agreed that there were reasons for Democrats to temper their optimism.

The 23rd Congressional District in New York, for instance, includes Ithaca, a city with a large population of college students and other young voters. Special elections earlier this summer in Nebraska and Minnesota also saw high turnout in hubs for college-educated voters, analysts note. And Republicans and independent analysts said Wednesday that Democrats got a boost from turnout for intraparty contests, noting that New York’s closed-primary system means independents cannot participate.

“We knew this was an uphill battle when Democrats scheduled this special election on the same day as two Democratic Primaries with five candidates pushing their turnout,” Molinaro said Wednesday in a statement conceding his race.

A court order had delayed the June primaries until Aug. 23, but it was New York’s Democratic governor who scheduled the special election for the same day.

For months, officials at the NRCC have tried to tamp down overheated projections that likened the current political environment to the 1994 and 2010 midterm elections, when Republicans claimed the House majority by netting massive gains of 54 and 63 seats, respectively.

Those years, Republicans started with fewer than 180 seats and had lots of room to grow. After their successful 2020 performance, Republicans started last year with 213 seats, just five seats short of the majority. The redistricting process, controlled largely by Republicans or Democrats in state capitals, shrank the number of truly competitive seats.

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Ryan, the Democratic candidate in New York’s 19th District and executive of Ulster County, prevailed in the race to replace Antonio Delgado, who left Congress this year to become lieutenant governor of New York. Ryan, who ran in the crowded 2018 primary for the seat, was less well-known than his Republican opponent, Molinaro, the Dutchess County executive — and a mid-June poll conducted for Molinaro’s campaign put the GOP nominee up by more than 13 points.

Days after the release of that poll, the Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade, which Ryan saw as a turning point in the race. Molinaro had announced his own House run in September; Ryan, who launched in May, quickly matched him in fundraising and personally approved new lawn signs that read “Choice is on the ballot.”

Molinaro, one of the national GOP’s top swing-seat recruits, tried to defuse the abortion issue. Personally antiabortion, he said he would oppose any federal legislation to limit it. In TV ads, he linked Ryan to unpopular national Democrats and warned that Ryan would join them to vote for spending that made the country poorer and weaker.

New York Gov. Kathy Hochul (D), who campaigned with Ryan on Monday, said at a Wednesday news conference that the Democrat’s victory was part of “a national trend” of Democrats focusing on “abortion rights and protecting people from gun violence.” Doing so, she said, could defeat Republicans who were stuck with unpopular positions on both issues. “That’s how you get winners,” she said.

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