Republican hopes of a House romp dim, though majority remains in sight

Republicans' drive for the House majority hangs in the balance Wednesday morning, as dozens of key battlegrounds remain too close to call.

An early sense of relief washed over Democrats Tuesday night as they notched crucial wins in several key districts: Reps. Abigail Spanberger (D-Va.), Vicente Gonzalez (D-Texas) and Marcy Kaptur (D-Ohio) all fended off highly touted challengers. And Democrats avoided what would have been a humiliating defeat in a Rhode Island district the GOP had made a serious play to claim.

The turbulent economy and an unpopular president have put Democrats on defense even in states typically considered party strongholds, from the Pacific Northwest to the Northeast. GOP attacks on inflation and crime rattled longtime incumbents in what’s long been friendly territory, including House Democrats’ own campaign chief, Rep. Sean Patrick Maloney (D-N.Y.), who trailed in his district early Wednesday.

Republicans remain favored to win the House majority — but it was not the blowout victory that some predicted. Their first major pickup: GOP candidate Jen Kiggans defeated Democratic Rep. Elaine Luria in Virginia Beach after a hard-fought race there. Republicans appeared poised for other gains in Iowa, New Jersey and New York, but all of those races were tight heading into Wednesday.

In a bellwether central Virginia district, Spanberger defeated GOP challenger Yesli Vega, bringing some optimism to the party ahead of a long night of waiting. And in Ohio, Democrats held onto Kaptur’s endangered Toledo-area seat even after it became redder in redistricting. GOP officials had been confident about ousting Kaptur until their candidate, J.R. Majewski, lost funding from national Republicans after reports that he misrepresented his military service.

Democrats also ousted longtime Rep. Steve Chabot (R-Ohio).

With just five seats standing between them and the speaker’s gavel, GOP lawmakers and officials started the night predicting their gains will be far larger. And their confidence was bolstered by competitive polling in districts like the Rhode Island open seat that GOP candidate Allan Fung had hoped to flip, as well as heavily Democratic turf in South Texas, the greater Los Angeles area, upstate New York and the suburbs of Portland, Ore. But that enthusiasm was somewhat tempered.

The GOP was already projected to gain a handful of House seats, thanks largely to redistricting. Republicans netted three as of 10 p.m. Tuesday night in Florida, flipping seats held by Democratic Rep. Al Lawson and the two left vacant by retiring Democratic Reps. Stephanie Murphy and Charlie Crist. The Nashville-area seat vacated by Democratic Rep. Jim Cooper also fell thanks to redistricting.

And they're set to gain more, just four years after losing the House in a Trump-fueled revolt, by turning many of the affluent suburban seats that turned blue in 2018 while benefiting from improved standing with Latino voters and in rural areas left open by retiring Democrats.

A favorable national environment for Republicans helped bolster their potentially vulnerable incumbent as open seats proved a huge liability for Democrats. Of the 37 districts that saw a Democratic incumbent retire this cycle, roughly 18 yielded a competitive race, draining precious party resources. But Democrats could still hang on to many of those.

Even so, Democrats long insisted they are still in the fight. Many in the party are hopeful they can hold the GOP to a small majority, making life difficult for a likely future Speaker Kevin McCarthy. Others — including current Speaker Nancy Pelosi and her top lieutenants — argued they still had a path to keeping their majority, driven by a liberal base that remains furious over the Supreme Court’s reversal of Roe v. Wade and the GOP’s promotion of baseless election fraud claims.

In a briefing with senior leadership staff one week ago, the executive director of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee said Democrats’ chances of holding the House were approximately nil before Roe's reversal, according to multiple people on the call. But in early fall, DCCC's own modeling had forecast a slim Democratic majority of 220 seats — a sign they still had a fighting chance.

The polls tightened in later October, as expected, DCCC Executive Director Tim Persico recapped on the call. But, he contended, party candidates remained still neck-and-neck and could hold the majority if key races broke their way on Tuesday.

Exactly how many of Tuesday's House toss-up races — from the Lehigh Valley suburbs of Pennsylvania to Connecticut farm towns — will break for Republicans is still unclear.

It wasn’t just President Joe Biden's low approval boosting the GOP: Cash-rich Republican super PACs have dumped hundreds of millions of dollars on endangered Democrats from Orange County, Calif., to northern Maine. Democrats have scrambled to make up the gap, focusing for much of the fall on piling up more donor dollars.

And in recent weeks, a good chunk of those GOP ad dollars have focused on a particularly potent attack: fears of rising crime.

“When you talk to everyday Oregonians, the fact is that they’re just afraid to go downtown. They don't want to walk on the streets with their kids,” said GOP candidate Lori Chavez-DeRemer, a former mayor in the Portland, Ore., suburbs who's now in position to flip a seat there.

Redistricting also squeezed Democrats, who had control of the process in far fewer states than the GOP. In states where they did draw the maps, like Maryland and New York, Democrats were forced to watch state judges toss them out as improper partisan gerrymanders while counterparts in Florida and Ohio saw their red-tinted maps stand intact.

But Democrats created another obstacle for themselves by drawing maps to benefit them for the next decade, not to carry them through a GOP wave year. That meant states like Oregon and Nevada have three districts each that Biden carried by high-single digit margins in 2020.

Democrats could risk of losing all six of those seats to Republicans this week — results on the West Coast were still trickling in. Regardless, they would be favored to regain them all in a better national environment.

“The bottom line is that a structural advantage that they had is gone,” said Kelly Ward Burton, president of the National Democratic Redistricting Committee. “Those become seats that we just get right back, especially in a presidential year.”

Top House Democrats had long called themselves the underdogs of these midterms; nearly every president since World War II has lost seats two years after taking office. That’s not to mention the overheated economy, lingering pandemic and war in Europe that Biden's contending with.

While Biden and congressional Democrats ultimately succeeded in passing more of his agenda than expected, the party has often struggled to communicate how those laws — from a sweeping pandemic aid package to massive infrastructure investment — have helped voters in real time.