The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

House Democrats appear poised to keep the House but fall drastically behind expectations

Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) celebrated retaining a Democratic majority in the House on Nov. 3, saying, "Our race this time was all about health care." (Video: The Washington Post)
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Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) and House Democrats appeared on track Tuesday to secure another two years in the majority. But as votes were being tallied late into the night, the party looked set to fall drastically short of its bullish predictions that it would cut deep into Trump country to grow its majority.

Instead, several Democratic incumbents the party believed were secure found themselves suddenly out of a job. And many GOP districts that Democratic leaders had been eyeing for months landed solidly in Republican control.

Those results come despite the party raising more than $300 million due to the vast energy on the left. Many political handicappers had predicted that the Democrats would pick up three to 15 seats, growing their 232-to-197 majority. By Wednesday morning, that prediction proved faulty, with Democrats down about a half-dozen incumbents and many of their top candidates trailing GOP opponents.

The lackluster performance — at least compared with expectations — could have consequences for the presidency: If neither President Trump nor former vice president Joe Biden wins 270 electoral college votes, the House has the ability under the Constitution to pick the next president when it convenes in January. Each state delegation is awarded one vote, and whoever wins the backing of 26 delegations wins.

Before Election Day, Republicans — despite being in the minority — controlled 26, while Democrats controlled 22. Two delegations are evenly split between both parties.

In recent weeks, as Trump has increased his attacks on absentee voting and suggested that he might turn to the House to give him a second term, Pelosi has sought to flip delegations into her party’s control, either to swing the election for Biden or to at least stop Trump from being declared the winner in the House.

That’s why Democrats had so intently focused on picking up new territory in Pennsylvania and Michigan, the two delegations that are tied. They also turned their sights on Florida, as well as Montana and even Alaska — both single-district states that have remained in GOP control for decades.

By midnight Tuesday, however, Democrats had not flipped any delegations and had moved in the opposite direction in Florida, with two incumbents trailing in seats that had been projected to stay in their control. And the early results signaled a strategy miscalculation on their part, as they focused so intently on expanding their majority that they lost some of their own territory.

The damper on expectations came despite an early victory lap Tuesday. Even before polls started closing on the East Coast, Pelosi and Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee Chairwoman Cheri Bustos (Ill.) were expressing confidence that they had secured the reelections of their most vulnerable members and were in a prime position to flip conservative suburban strongholds long held by Republicans.

“Tonight, House Democrats are poised to further strengthen our majority — the biggest, most diverse, most dynamic, women-led House majority in history,” Pelosi said.

“We’re well positioned to have a good night,” Bustos agreed.

The warning signs for Democrats started early in South Florida, when two first-term Democratic incumbents who were projected to win reelection, Reps. Debbie Mucarsel-Powell and Donna Shalala, trailed Republican challengers. There, Biden’s underperformance among Latinos and Republicans’ repeated attacks on the Democratic Party as “socialist” appeared to undercut both women.

Shalala — an influential Democrat who served as health and human services secretary under President Bill Clinton and was rated as “likely” to win — lost to a Cuban American journalist she had bested by six percentage points in 2018, María Elvira Salazar. Mucarsel-Powell, who was born in Ecuador and was the first South American immigrant to serve in Congress, lost to Miami-Dade Mayor Carlos A. Giménez despite outraising him.

Then, Republicans quickly started to lock down districts that Democrats were bullish they would flip. In Indiana, a top target for Democrats, the suburban seat of retiring Rep. Susan Brooks (R) appeared to fall out of reach of Democratic candidate Christina Hale, who trailed Republican Victoria Spartz. And in suburban Cincinnati, Rep. Steve Chabot (R) — another prime Democratic target whose race was considered a toss-up — took the lead for his 13th term representing the Cincinnati area against Kate Schroder.

By 2 a.m., any elation on the Democrats’ part had faded entirely as the Associated Press began calling races for Republicans. In Oklahoma, Rep. Kendra Horn conceded her race. In New Mexico, the AP called the race for GOP businesswoman Yvette Herrell against Rep. Xochitl Torres Small.

 Meanwhile, Democratic Rep. Abby Finkenauer, who won her seat in northeastern Iowa two years ago, fell to state Rep. Ashley Hinson (R), a former journalist. And in the costliest House race in South Carolina, Democratic Rep. Joe Cunningham was defeated by Republican Nancy Mace. Cunningham had taken pains to distance himself from Democratic leaders, voting against Pelosi as speaker.

Even Minnesota’s Rep. Collin C. Peterson — who has represented the state’s 7th District for three decades and has withstood multiple GOP-wave elections — lost to former lieutenant governor Michelle Fischbach. Peterson had won in 2016 despite Trump carrying the district by 30 percentage points.

At the same time, many of the party’s moderate freshman stars were trailing their opponents and appeared primed to lose. Rep. Max Rose, a blunt-talking veteran and New Yorker who won in a district Trump carried by double digits, fell behind his GOP challenger, state assembly member Nicole Malliotakis, by double digits. In Virginia and Michigan, Reps. Abigail Spanberger (D) and Elissa Slotkin (D), both former CIA officials, appeared to be losing to their GOP opponents — though neither race had been called.

The defeat of a number of Democratic incumbents came as Republicans held on in vulnerable suburban areas. In Missouri, Rep. Ann Wagner, leader of the GOP’s Suburban Caucus, held on in a race labeled a “toss-up.” So, too, did Reps. French Hill of Arkansas and Rodney Davis of Illinois.

To be sure, Democrats had some wins. The party early on picked up two open seats in North Carolina, taking full advantage of redrawn congressional maps, as well as GOP retirements. Deborah Ross, who ran for the Senate four years ago, defeated a Republican and Libertarian candidate to secure North Carolina’s 2nd District. Kathy Manning, a lawyer and community fundraiser, defeated Republican and small-business owner Lee Haywood in the 6th District.

But those wins belied the predictions of many House Democrats and even nonpartisan political handicappers who had projected that the party would drastically expand the map. Indeed, Democrats were so confident that they had started spending millions in districts Trump won by 10 points in 2016, even running TV ads in places like Montana and Alaska, which have been in GOP hands for decades.

As it turns out, that money may have been better used on their own turf or in the more competitive races.

Perhaps nowhere will Democrats’ disappointment be more pronounced than Texas, a state that has increasingly become competitive and which Democrats thought would become a prime example of the political realignment happening around the nation. Democrats flipped several GOP-held suburban seats in the Lone Star State in 2018. And Bustos made the executive decision to send DCCC staff members to the state early this cycle to try to pick off additional suburban areas.

Early in the evening, however, five of those competitive districts that Democrats were eyeing were called for Republicans, including races for Reps. Dan Crenshaw, Van Taylor, Roger Williams, John Carter and even Michael McCaul, whose seat was considered a “toss-up.” 

Democrats even lost a Texas seat they considered an easy pickup: Texas’s 23rd Congressional District, where moderate Rep. Will Hurd is retiring.

The results stand in stark contrast to the expectations, given the current political environment. Democrats expected that Republicans would pay for Trump’s fumbled handling of the coronavirus pandemic as well as the divisive tone coming out of the White House. But if anything, election night signaled that 2020 was no 2018 in terms of a blue wave.