House Democrats Rankled By Surprise Losses

“It makes me wonder what value polls even have at this point,” one Democratic lawmaker said.

Although many of the votes in House races were still being counted Wednesday, one thing was already clear: These were not the results Democrats hoped for or expected.

It wasn’t the worst-case scenario. As of Wednesday afternoon, Joe Biden appeared to have staked out an advantage against President Donald Trump as counting continued in several too-close-to-call states. And while Democrats don’t look like they’ll take back the Senate as they thought, their House majority appears intact.

But Democrats were hoping for considerable gains in both chambers ― four or five more Senate seats, and double-digit gains in the House. Instead, it looks like Republicans will retain their Senate majority, even with uncalled races and a runoff election in Georgia. And it now appears that Democrats will lose seats in the House.

Democrats had some cushion in the House, with a 232-197 party breakdown in the chamber (with five vacancies and one Libertarian). But Republicans appear poised to knock that number down by at least a half-dozen seats, potentially even crossing into double-digit territory.

Again, election officials are still counting votes in many races, but when the dust settles, it looks like Republicans will have flipped seats in Florida, New York, New Mexico, Minnesota and Iowa ― among others.

In Florida, Democratic Reps. Donna Shalala and Debbie Mucarsel-Powell both lost to Republican challengers Maria Elvira Salazar and Carlos Gimenez, respectively. In Minnesota, 15-term Democrat Collin Peterson ― the chairman of the Agriculture Committee ― finally lost his seat, even after voting for a number of GOP priorities and against impeachment. In Iowa, freshman Democrat Abby Finkenauer narrowly lost to Ashley Hinson. In New Mexico, Rep. Xochitl Torres Small lost to GOP challenger Yvette Herrell. In Oklahoma, Rep. Kendra Horn lost to Republican Stephanie Bice. In New York, Max Rose badly lost to Republican Nicole Malliotakis, and Anthony Brindisi lost a rematch to former Republican Rep. Claudia Tenney. And in South Carolina, Democratic Rep. Joe Cunningham lost to Nancy Mace.

Rep. Donna Shalala (D-Fla.) was defeated in a surprise loss to Republican challenger Maria Elvira Salazar on Tuesday.
Rep. Donna Shalala (D-Fla.) was defeated in a surprise loss to Republican challenger Maria Elvira Salazar on Tuesday.
POOL New / Reuters

If you couldn’t tell, one trend that was emerging from Election Day was Republican women flipping districts. In this Congress, there were only 13 Republican women in the House, compared to 89 for Democrats. But even with a number of races yet to be called, Republicans will grow their female ranks significantly, particularly when you add in the Republicans who took over existing GOP seats, like QAnon conspiracy theorist Marjorie Taylor Greene, who won her safe Georgia seat by appealing to the far-right during the primary.

On Wednesday, House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) touted adding “14 to 19” women to the House GOP’s ranks, noting that it would be a record number of Republican women in the House.

“The Republican coalition is bigger, more diverse, and more energetic than ever before. And that is because of President Trump,” McCarthy said.

McCarthy also noted how much better Republicans did than expected.

“From every single pundit, even from the Cook Report upping the number of losses they said Republicans would have up to 20 just this week, or if you listened to Speaker Pelosi, or Cheri Bustos who runs the [Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee], or the Majority Leader Steny Hoyer ― they all said it was double digits. Steny even upped it to 15 this week alone that they would win,” McCarthy said. “They were all wrong.”

Pundits and professional pollsters were largely wrong, particularly in some districts, where polling had massively favored incumbent Democrats who are currently down. Conor Lamb (D-Pa.), for example, looked like he was cruising to an easy reelection in western Pennsylvania by double digits. But he’s currently down by eight points to Republican Sean Parnell, though strategists still believe he could pull out a victory based on mail-in ballots.

Democratic members told HuffPost on Wednesday that the polling was all over the place ― in some districts and states like California, the numbers were spot on. In other areas, like Texas and South Florida, the polls were way off.

“Nobody got a heads-up that Donna Shalala was in trouble,” one Democratic lawmaker said. “It makes me wonder what value polls even have at this point.” (This lawmaker, like several Democrats and strategists who spoke with HuffPost, requested anonymity in order to speak freely.)

This lawmaker said the DCCC had led Democrats to believe they were on offense, when the case was clearly the opposite. But Democratic strategists defended the DCCC by noting that, across the board, pollsters got races wrong ― it wasn’t just internal Democratic numbers.

“Everybody involved in campaigns is data-driven, but things missed the mark,” one Democratic strategist said. “First we need to figure out who wins and who loses, and then we can figure out why we got it wrong.”

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) faces a reduced Democratic presence in the chamber.
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) faces a reduced Democratic presence in the chamber.
ALYSSA SCHUKAR via Getty Images

The DCCC did pour late money into some races that may have saved some seats. It spent $1.1 million in freshman Democrat Susie Lee’s Nevada district in the final weeks of the campaign, as well as $950,000 in Haley Stevens’ Michigan district. That money may have saved both representatives. And overall, the DCCC spent $75 million on vulnerable Democrats, so-called “frontliners.” But the committee also had its eyes on a far more ambitious battleground.

Democrats expected to pick up multiple seats in Texas. Instead, it looks like Democrats may lose a seat there. They expected to pick off seats in New York, Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, New Jersey, Virginia, even GOP strongholds like Arkansas and Missouri.

But it looks like Republicans may have held Democrats off at every turn.

“Look at the toss-up seats on the Cook Political Report,” another Democratic lawmaker told HuffPost. “I’m not sure we won a single fucking one.”

In fact, at the moment, Democrats may have only flipped two North Carolina seats that were redistricted and were placed in the “Likely Democratic” category on Cook. Across 17 GOP toss-ups, Republicans may have shot the moon and defended every single one of them.

“Something was clearly very wrong on our polls,” this Democrat said. “Clearly very wrong. And it was wrong on the presidential level, but it was way off in some of these districts. And that sucks because we probably would have been putting more money into defending some of our colleagues rather than trying to win some of these ghost seats.”

And yet another Democratic lawmaker said the reduced majority would make governing much harder, particularly if you expected vulnerable Democrats to try to establish their independence from the party. “We already lose motions to recommit every other week,” this lawmaker said, referring to a procedural vote that Democrats have lost at a surprising rate.

Democrats didn’t think the reduced numbers would necessarily threaten Rep. Nancy Pelosi’s House speakership, mostly because many of the Democrats who lost their seats were the same Democrats who were prone to vote against her in a speaker election.

But Pelosi’s position isn’t exactly locked up. At the start of the 116th Congress, 15 Democrats voted against Pelosi. And at least eight of those Democrats will be returning to Congress. With a majority that looks to be in the single digits, Democrats could start the new Congress with a bitter leadership fight.

It was certainly not the night Democrats were hoping for.

“We got what we needed, which is to end the Trump presidency,” one of those Democratic lawmakers said optimistically. “We didn’t get what we wanted.”

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