The House is on track to have its thinnest majority in about two decades next year — and it could get worse for Democrats.
Speaker Nancy Pelosi has so far lost seven incumbents in Tuesday’s election, and that number could increase to about a dozen as more votes are tallied in New York, California and Utah. That would leave Democrats with a razor-thin margin — and an even more emboldened GOP minority — as the party looks to govern under a potential President Joe Biden.
The most likely scenario for Democrats is a net loss of between seven to 11 seats, according to interviews with campaign officials and strategists from both parties. That toll has prompted some tense discussions within the Democratic caucus about its message, tactics and leadership, with an internal race intensifying to succeed Democratic Congressional Campaign Chair Cheri Bustos (D-Ill.).
And the fallout means the House is indeed in play in 2022, and the battle will be fought on a whole new set of district lines, most of which will be drawn by Republicans who maintained control of key statehouses.
Some two dozen battleground races remain uncalled, and the final results may not be known for weeks. But at least two more Democrats are likely to fall: Reps. Max Rose and Anthony Brindisi in New York, who trail their opponents by tens of thousands of votes. And the party is also worried about ceding an open southeast district in Iowa and about the fate of Rep. Ben McAdams (D-Utah).
In California, there’s a real chance Democrats could lose three more members — Reps. Gil Cisneros, T.J. Cox and Harley Rouda — because the remaining mail-in ballots have not skewed against their GOP challengers as they did in the 2018 midterms.
Democrats have so far secured victory in about 15 districts that Donald Trump won in 2016, and are expected to lock down several more in Illinois, Pennsylvania and New York in the coming days. The party has also lost two seats in Clinton territory: Reps. Debbie Mucarsel-Powell and Donna Shalala in southern Florida, with several more seats in California in the danger zone.
“We held the House, that was our goal. If we could win more, that would be good. We’re still in the hunt for a number of seats right now,” Pelosi told reporters Friday at her first press conference since the election.
“We lost some battles. But we won the war. We have the gavel,” Pelosi said, adding that many of the Democratic incumbents who lost faced an “almost insurmountable” challenge with Trump on the ballot. And Biden, she said, was on the brink of seizing back the White House.
There were a few bright spots for Democrats Friday. Democrat Carolyn Bourdeaux officially flipped a suburban Atlanta seat blue for the first time in 25 years. That victory marks the Democrats’ only pickup besides a pair of North Carolina seats that were redistricted into safe blue seats.
In a DCCC memo sent to members late Thursday night, officials projected confidence about several races that remain uncalled, including Reps. Lauren Underwood in Illinois, Susie Lee in Nevada and Antonio Delgado in New York.
Democrats are also monitoring four competitive seats in California, which handed them seven pickups in 2018. Nearly all of them came in after election night two years ago, thanks to lethargic mail-ballot counting in the state. Those late-arriving votes overwhelmingly favored Democrats, delivering them come-from-behind victories.
That does not appear to be the case in 2020.
“This late vote, even if it breaks Democratic, it’s not going to break as solidly Democratic as it did in 2018,” said Paul Mitchell, a nonpartisan data guru in California.
“Republicans decided to vote later but also Democrats decided to vote earlier,” he said. “Any situation like that makes it harder to think of a pathway for this late tail of votes to be extremely Democratic.”
Democrats are most pessimistic about Rouda, a freshman who trails Republican Michelle Steel by about 4,800 votes in his Orange County-based district. In a nearby seat, which includes parts of Los Angeles, Orange County and San Bernardino counties, Cisneros is behind Republican Young Kim by about 2,500 votes.
In a northern Los Angeles-area seat, GOP Rep. Mike Garcia narrowly leads Democrat Christy Smith in a rematch of their May special election. This is likely Democrats’ best chance to net a fourth pickup — but the final margin is likely to be close.
Bustos said in a report that she was “cautiously optimistic” about McAdams, a freshman member who narrowly leads former NFL player Republican Burgess Owens. The party believes there are more outstanding ballots in Salt Lake County, McAdams’ stronghold, than in Utah County, which is more red-leaning.
The tightest House race in the country might be in an open seat in southwest Iowa, where Democrat Rita Hart leads Republican Mariannette Miller-Meeks by just 162 votes in a race that’s almost certainly headed to a recount.
In New York, more than a half dozen races remain uncalled. While mail ballots there could favor Democrats, the GOP nominees have massive leads in seats held by Rose, Brindisi and in an open GOP-held seat on Long Island. (Even Democratic Rep. Tom Suozzi trails his Republican opponent in a race that drew little outside attention or spending, though he is likely to prevail when absentees roll in.)
Republicans were ecstatic this week. In a press call held Wednesday afternoon, National Republican Congressional Committee Chair Tom Emmer (Minn.) mocked Democrats for their upbeat predictions and poor messaging.
“Cheri Bustos laughed in my face when I made the argument that the Democrats’ socialist agenda was going to cost them seats, during a panel that we both attended in September of 2019 in Austin, Texas — by the way where they didn’t flip a single seat,” Emmer said.
The latest DCCC memo was sent to members hours after Bustos and other top Democrats held an emotional three-hour caucus call on Thursday, where some lawmakers traded blame as they processed the string of losses — even as Democrats are increasingly likely to capture the presidency.
On the call, Bustos declared that the campaign arm would do a post-mortem in the coming weeks. No Democrats on the call directly criticized Bustos or any other Democrat about the losses, though several in the caucus have begun privately lining up to succeed her as chair. Bustos has not said whether she will run for the position again.
Rep. Tony Cárdenas of California has told members he is interested in running, and Reps. Linda Sánchez of California, Marc Veasey of Texas and Sean Maloney of New York are also in the mix, according to multiple Democratic sources.
The DCCC is facing a litany of criticism, from its spending decisions to its Latino outreach to its polling. While health care again remained a central theme in down-ballot campaigns, Democratic candidates and outside groups were yoking their GOP opponents to Trump in dozens of TV ads in districts from Texas to Illinois that the president will likely end up carrying.
Swing district Democrats — many stung by tighter-than-expected margins in their own races — say they’ve been privately sounding the alarm about the party’s anti-Trump messaging, which they say hurt in areas like upstate New York, Staten Island and Miami.
Shalala, who holds a South Florida seat Trump lost by 20 points in 2016, said her polls didn’t pick up how harmful the GOP’s “socialism” attacks could be. But those tags — along with accusations that Democrats would defund the police amid widespread protests over racial injustice and police brutality — “caught on.”
“It’s not just Biden, it’s the whole Democratic establishment that has to work these districts consistently,” Shalala said. “We had not been working them over a generation. It just takes a lot of work. Could we have done more? Absolutely.”
Progressive Democrats have disputed any finger-pointing from the caucus’s centrist flank about the party’s 2020 message.
Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.), a member of the progressive Squad, argued that moderates did, in fact, steer much of the legislative agenda for the last two years — the reality of a House Democratic majority with tight margins, which are only likely to shrink in the 117th Congress.
“They were very much centered and prioritized. … No one was really sounding many alarms to me about how they felt about their race,” Ocasio-Cortez said in an interview.
Ocasio-Cortez also directed some blame at the Democratic campaign arm for not listening to diverse viewpoints about how to succeed as it struggled with Latino and Black hires at the top levels.
“The Democratic party has a problem with just overwhelmingly white strategists that then export their implicit biases into macro-level national strategy,” she said. “And that is disastrous.”
The New York Democrat didn’t knock the prospects of a Latino chief next cycle, but said any leader would need to address issues that run deeper than representation.
“The problem, I think, is less, ‘Do you put a Latino person in charge?’ That’s like not what’s going to solve this at all,” she said. ”If this conversation is like, more about names than about actual changes in strategy and policies, then it’s not going to be effective.”
Laura Barrón–López and Heather Caygle contributed to this report.