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Republicans defy expectations in the battle for Congress

Democrats suffer House losses, face shrinking path to the Senate majority

NRCC Chairman Tom Emmer said his party didn't believe they would lose House seats this year.
NRCC Chairman Tom Emmer said his party didn't believe they would lose House seats this year. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call file photo)

After a tumultuous election cycle, one thing is clear: Republicans had a much better election night than many, including some in the GOP, were expecting. 

As of Wednesday evening, Republicans have netted five House seats. Democrats netted one Senate seat, but their path to the majority is shrinking with Republicans racking up wins in competitive races. 

National Republican Congressional Committee Chairman Tom Emmer told reporters that the party never agreed with predictions that Democrats would grow their House majority, saying he was confident Republicans had a strong, diverse slate of candidates and a compelling case to voters. GOP women flipped six of the party’s seven House gains.

“It’s the Republican ideas that actually won last night,” Emmer said.

The picture of what happened in the 2020 election is still coming into focus as officials count ballots in a few dozen competitive races. On Wednesday, Democratic operatives said that, other than the polling that in hindsight appeared far off, they weren’t sure what upended their party’s candidates in pivotal races. 

One Democratic consultant said, bluntly, that it was “hard to polish this turd.”

After blue wave, a ‘red undertow’

Far from a second consecutive blue wave, Matt Rhoades, a former Mitt Romney campaign manager, dubbed this year’s election as “a red undertow” that pulled down Democrats in the Senate and House, a term he coined in an election recap sent out by his firm, the CGCN Group.  

Going into Election Day, polling showed multiple House and Senate races within the margin of error. Many of those races broke in Republicans’ favor, and there are different theories about why. 

It’s possible that polls failed to pick up on enthusiasm for Trump and the resulting surge of Republicans who turned out to the polls on Tuesday. Multiple campaign strategists said there would have to be a reckoning in the polling industry, with public and private polling misreading support for Trump nationally and in battleground House and Senate races. 

“The polling was off in 2016 and was pretty spot-on in 2018 and was off again in 2020, and the constant here is Trump,” said Joshua Karp, a Democratic consultant. “He is doing something under the surface level of the electorate that pundits, pollsters, media observers, Republicans and Democrats all are not seeing.”

The results in hotly contested Senate races largely reflected the presidential results in each state. Trump prevailed in several states he won in 2016, including in Iowa and Montana, where GOP Sens. Joni Ernst and Steve Daines fended off Democratic challengers. But in Arizona, where Biden defeated Trump, Democrat Mark Kelly also defeated GOP Sen. Martha McSally

House results were murkier, with strategists in both parties drawing different conclusions while awaiting more data, particularly which House districts went for Trump or Biden.  

Some Democrats were questioning Wednesday why they didn’t manage to flip GOP House seats in suburban areas where Biden had appeared to be doing well. It’s possible those polls were just way off. It’s also possible that voters split their tickets, registering their disapproval of Trump by voting for Biden, but then voting for down-ballot Republicans. A similar dynamic developed in 2016, when Hillary Clinton carried 25 House districts that Republicans also won.

There was a split result in at least two House districts. Voters in Maine reelected Democratic Rep. Jared Golden as Trump took the district’s electoral vote. The opposite happened in Nebraska’s 2nd District, which backed Biden, while GOP Rep. Don Bacon once again defeated Democrat Kara Eastman. Bacon said his win had more to do with his bipartisan record and voters rejecting Eastman’s liberal policies.

“In the end, my opponent is a Bernie Sanders Democrat, and I don’t think in the near term that philosophy will ever be elected in this district,” Bacon told CQ Roll Call early Wednesday. 

Expanding the map as donations grew

Democrats said some of their successes got lost because they failed to meet what, in retrospect, were unrealistically high expectations as Democrats extended their targets into increasingly conservative territory. 

Democrats flipped a historic 43 seats in the 2018 midterms and won in 31 districts that had voted for Trump two years before. One of those moved back to the Republican column when New Jersey Rep. Jeff Van Drew switched parties in 2019.

Republicans made the Trump districts early targets. But Democrats kept expanding their map as they raised record-breaking sums of money throughout the cycle and saw Trump’s poll numbers dip in the aftermath of the coronavirus pandemic. Party leaders entered the eve of the election expecting to flip districts that had voted for Trump by double-digit margins. 

Even some Republicans were bracing for defeat. Dan Conston, president of the GOP super PAC Congressional Leadership Fund, noted in a statement early Wednesday that House Republicans “outperformed all expectations.”

Democratic freshmen Joe Cunningham of South Carolina, Xochitl Torres Small of New Mexico, Kendra Horn of Oklahoma and Abby Finkenauer of Iowa, who all flipped Trump districts in 2018, lost their reelection bids. 

“Those were always going to be tough races,” California Rep. Ami Bera, co-chair of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee’s Frontline program for vulnerable members, told CQ Roll Call. 

Republican Rep. Rodney Davis, who won reelection in Illinois’ 13th District after being targeted by Democrats, said Republicans had better candidates, conserved their smaller cash hauls for the closing days and benefited from the turnout among Trump voters. 

A similar dynamic played out in Senate races, as Democrats sought multiple paths to a majority by looking to historically conservative states. 

Democratic candidates in Texas, South Carolina and Montana amassed formidable war chests that allowed them to conduct massive advertising campaigns and voter outreach operations. But their strategies depended on winning over moderate or Republican voters in states Trump was expected to do well in and ended up carrying. 

“Democrats really got out over their skis overselling races in states that were really tough political terrain for them,” said Jack Pandol, communications director for the Senate Leadership Fund, a super PAC that supports Republican candidates.

Money isn’t everything  

Democratic Senate challengers, who broke fundraising records, had a big political money edge over their GOP incumbents, but it wasn’t enough in pivotal states such as Maine and South Carolina. Democrat Jaime Harrison hauled in $58 million in this year’s third quarter, compared with South Carolina GOP Sen. Lindsey Graham’s $28 million. But Graham won. 

After begging his party faithful for donations, Graham taunted Harrison’s donors during his victory speech, saying they got “the worst return on investment in the history of American politics.” 

Outside groups, including the Senate Leadership Fund, spent heavily in Graham’s race and across the nation, breaking records too. Outside groups helped GOP senators bridge their money gap in North Carolina, as well, helping to make that the nation’s most expensive Senate contest ever at $287 million.

Democratic candidates, including vulnerable incumbents, also raised huge sums. Rep. Max Rose, in New York’s 11th District, raised nearly $8.4 million, while his GOP challenger, Nicole Malliotakis, collected about $3.1 million. Although the race had not been called Wednesday night, she led Rose 58 to 42 percent. 

Outside Republican groups, including the Congressional Leadership Fund, also stepped in to help bridge the gap, moving beyond their more traditional role of airing attack ads.

CLF spent nearly $6.4 million in Texas’ 22nd District, where Republican Troy Nehls defeated Democrat Sri Kulkarni, airing the bulk of GOP ads in the race and operating a field and absentee ballot chase program. 

“Jaime Harrison had a gazillion dollars, but the money raised didn’t seem to make much of a difference,” said Burdett Loomis, emeritus professor of political science at the University of Kansas. “Why? In some sense, I think party kind of trumped message.”

Lindsey McPherson contributed to this report.

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