WASHINGTON — Democrats who had been hoping to expand their share of seats in the House of Representatives instead saw some of their most promising young legislators fall to Republican opponents who mounted unexpectedly spirited challenges from New York City to New Mexico.
Although control of the lower chamber will remain in Democrats’ hands, the GOP had gained at least seven seats as of Wednesday afternoon. That reversed, to a modest degree, the gains Democrats made in the 2018 midterm elections. This time around, Democrats failed to flip a single Republican seat, a potentially ominous development that party leaders will doubtlessly want to study and address.
Notably, six of the incoming Republican legislators will be women.
Democrats’ losses in the House on Tuesday night were accompanied by disappointing results in the Senate, which they had hoped to win on the strength of voters’ antipathy to President Trump. Although Joe Biden won a bare majority of the popular vote nationwide, he didn’t help down-ballot candidates to anywhere near the degree Democrats had hoped.
The results amounted to a “dumpster fire,” as one House member put it to Politico.
Some Democrats maintained that the prospect Biden would win the presidency made up for the losses in Congress. As of Wednesday afternoon, it was looking increasingly likely that the former vice president would prevail over Trump, whose defeat has been a Democratic goal for four years.
“We will have a net loss, but not by much,” pointed out one congressional aide. He added that “Jake Sherman types” were “just insanely out of perspective,” alluding to the Politico reporter known for his granular knowledge of Capitol Hill. Sherman called Tuesday’s results an “abject disaster” for Democrats in Congress.
Among the Democrats’ most notable losses was on Staten Island, a GOP redoubt in New York City. Max Rose, a Democrat, had won there in 2018 and spent the next two years assiduously courting the borough’s Republican majority. But he appears to have been bested by GOP candidate Nicole Malliotakis, who attacked Rose with the false charge that he was in favor of defunding police departments.
In Iowa’s First Congressional District, which includes Cedar Rapids and the college town of Grinnell, Abby Finkenauer lost to Ashley Hinson, a state representative. Finkenauer, like Rose, had been in Washington for only two years.
Another Democratic first-termer, Rep. Xochitl Torres Small of New Mexico, was also defeated on Tuesday night. Republicans picked up two seats in Florida, ousting Donna Shalala and Debbie Mucarsel-Powell. They also showed Kendra Horn of Oklahoma the door.
As if to underscore the scope of the disaster, among those facing a potential loss is Cheri Bustos, the Illinois congresswoman who heads the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, which allocates funds for House races. The committee raised $290 million for the 2020 election cycle, compared with the $225 million raised by its Republican counterpart.
In the search for answers, another congressional aide speculated that the failure of Congress to pass a new coronavirus stimulus may have contributed to the perception that House Democrats were out-of-touch obstructionists. Nancy Pelosi, the House speaker, had been in negotiations with Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin, but the two parties remained divided on the amount, with Trump doing little to bring them together and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell refusing to consider more than a token, or “skinny,” stimulus package.
That second aide said Republicans were more aggressive in executing a traditional door-knocking campaign, while Democrats took a more cautious approach in light of the coronavirus pandemic. That may have been the right move from a public health standpoint but a costly one when it came to politics.
Another factor may have been the QAnon conspiracy theory, which has gained millions of followers on the internet. “I don't think QAnon is insignificant, especially in communities that don’t have newspapers anymore,” the aide speculated. QAnon is a baseless concoction involving a worldwide ring of sexual predators and other shadowy forces in league with Democrats. Trump has shown sympathy to the movement, which supports him. At least one new member of Congress, Marjorie Taylor Greene, a Republican from Georgia, is a QAnon adherent.
The Democrats now face the prospect of undergoing a painful period of introspection about their failures, and will wrestle with two diametrically opposite explanations: that the leaders failed to push back hard enough against the progressive wing of the party, enabling Republicans to paint them as “socialists” — or that they neglected to harness the energy of their young, progressive voters and stuck with a centrist message that, in the end, failed to galvanize the electorate.
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