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Wave did not hit, but McCarthy predicts GOP House control

A net five seats needed for majority, but incumbents also lost

House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., takes the stage to address an election night party at The Westin Washington hotel.
House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., takes the stage to address an election night party at The Westin Washington hotel. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)

House control was too early to call in the wee hours of Wednesday morning as Republican leader Kevin McCarthy addressed a thin crowd at The Westin Washington, D.C. City Center in what was billed as an election night victory party.

“It is clear we are going to take the House back,” the California Republican said. “When you wake up tomorrow we will be in the majority and Nancy Pelosi will be in the minority.”

Republicans only need a net gain of five seats to win control of the House. As of 2 a.m. Wednesday, the GOP had flipped at least seven held or being vacated by Democratic incumbents but lost at least five of theirs. Many other key races were too close to call. 

In a Texas member-on-member race, Democratic Rep. Vicente Gonzalez beat GOP Rep. Mayra Flores, who had just flipped the 34th District in a special election earlier this year after Democratic Rep. Filemon Vela resigned. Gonzalez opted to run in the 34th District after redistricting made his current seat more difficult. 

“The RED WAVE did not happen,” Flores tweeted after The Associated Press called the race for Gonzalez. “Republicans and Independents stayed home. DO NOT COMPLAIN ABOUT THE RESULTS IF YOU DID NOT DO YOUR PART!”

But another member-on-member contest went the other way: Republican Rep. Neal Dunn prevailed against Democratic Rep. Al Lawson in Florida’s 2nd District. Lawson’s Jacksonville-based 5th District was divided into several pieces in redistricting, and rather than retire, he opted to run in a district that would have backed Trump by 11 points in 2020.

Democrats’ pickups

Ohio Rep. Steve Chabot, the top Republican on the Small Business Committee, lost to Democrat Greg Landsman in Ohio’s 1st District.

Democratic attorney Wiley Nickel flipped a redrawn North Carolina 13th District seat GOP Rep. Ted Budd left to run for Senate, defeating Republican Bo Hines, a former football player for North Carolina State University. 

In Michigan’s 3rd District, Democratic former Justice Department attorney Hillary Scholten beat Republican John Gibbs, who worked in the Department of Housing and Urban Development in President Donald Trump’s administration. Gibbs had Trump’s endorsement as he ousted incumbent Peter Meijer in the primary. Meijer was one of the Republicans who voted to impeach Trump for inciting the Jan. 6, 2021 insurrection. 

And Democrat Nikki Budzinski, a labor activist and former White House Office of Management and Budget staffer, beat Republican Regan Deering, chair of the Decatur Public Schools Foundation, to flip a GOP seat in Illinois’ 13th District that became more favorable for Democrats after redistricting.

GOP ‘Commitment to America’

To aid in the closing months of the campaign, Republicans released their “Commitment to America” agenda in September to show voters what policies they stood for, not just the Democratic policies they were against. 

But the GOP platform, which promises to cut “wasteful” government spending, increase energy production, return to Trump-era immigration policies, conduct “rigorous” government oversight and more, did not appear to have the same power as House Republicans’ 1994 “Contract with America” that helped them gain 54 seats on their way to the first GOP majority in 40 years.

McCarthy said the election results show the American people are ready for a House majority that will offer a different direction than Democrats. 

“It’s a new direction towards an economy that is strong, where you can fill up your tank and feed your family, where your paychecks grow, not shrink,” he said.

Democrats said the votes had not all been counted and predictions have been wrong before.

“For two years, Republicans bragged about a GOP ‘red wave,’ but already the media and Republican members of Congress have conceded this is far from it,” Tom Persico, executive director of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, said in a statement.

The so-far smaller-than-expected election wins may not boost McCarthy’s bid for speaker, but he currently has no challengers for the position. However, conservatives are likely to make some demands around rules and process in exchange for backing him in a floor vote where support from a majority of the House is needed to secure the gavel. 

Former President Donald Trump endorsed McCarthy for speaker and backed New York Rep. Elise Stefanik to chair the House GOP Conference again in an interview with Fox News Digital Monday night. GOP Rep. Byron Donalds of Florida is running against Stefanik for conference chair. 

The underwhelming GOP performance Tuesday may factor in the most contested GOP leadership race. National Republican Congressional Committee Chairman Tom Emmer of Minnesota, who joined McCarthy at The Westin but did not speak, is running against Republican Study Committee Chairman Jim Banks of Indiana and current GOP chief deputy whip Drew Ferguson of Georgia for Republican whip. 

GOP pickups and holds

Republican state Sen. Jen Kiggans defeated Democratic Rep. Elaine Luria in Virginia’s 2nd, which President Joe Biden won by 2 points two years ago. Luria, a member of the select committee reviewing the Jan. 6, 2021, attack on the Capitol, was first elected in 2018 when Democrats won control of the House after eight years in the minority.

In New York’s 3rd District, Republican George Santos defeated Democrat Robert Zimmerman, flipping a seat that Biden won by 8 points. The seat was open after Democratic Rep. Tom Suozzi unsuccessfully ran for governor. 

Two of the early GOP pickups came in Florida’s 7th and 13th Districts, where Republicans Cory Mills, an Army veteran and defense contractor, and Anna Paulina Luna, a conservative commentator and Air Force veteran, beat their Democratic opponents. Both districts were redrawn to be more favorable for Republicans and left open by departing Democratic Reps. Stephanie Murphy, who is retiring, and Charlie Crist, who resigned to run for governor but lost Tuesday to incumbent Gov. Ron DeSantis. 

Another redistricting-related GOP pickup came in Georgia’s 6th District, which Democratic Rep. Lucy McBath vacated to run in the 7th District after her seat was redrawn from a district that backed Biden by 6 points to one that backed Trump by 15. Republican emergency room physician Rich McCormick, who unsuccessfully ran in the 7th District last cycle, won this year. 

In Tennessee’s 5th District, Republican Andy Ogles, a business owner and mayor of Maury County, won the seat vacated when Democratic Rep. Jim Cooper decided to retire. And in Texas’ 15th District, the seat Gonzalez vacated, Republican insurance agency owner Monica De La Cruz won.

In addition to flipping a handful of seats, Democrats held on in several tough races Republicans had eyed as prime pickup opportunities. 

In Rhode Island’s 2nd District, which Inside Elections with Nathan L. Gonzales rated as a Toss-up, state treasurer Seth Magaziner defeated Republican Allan Fung to keep the seat retiring Rep. Jim Langevin is vacating in Democratic hands.   

A handful of incumbents in races Inside Elections rated Tilt Democratic also prevailed. Democratic Reps. Abigail Spanberger of Virginia, Sharice Davids of Kansas and Chris Pappas of New Hampshire all beat their GOP challengers.

Messaging battles 

House Republican incumbents and candidates largely focused their campaign messaging on the economy, blaming Washington Democrats for record high inflation that has driven up the cost of food, energy and other necessities. They also turned to familiar GOP talking points about law and order as they suggested Democratic policies are responsible for urban crime rates and an influx of migrants trying to cross the southern border. 

Democrats tried to counter those attacks, while hitting Republicans on their anti-abortion stances in the wake of the Supreme Court’s decision to overturn Roe v. Wade and painting Republicans who cast doubt on the 2020 election results or downplayed the Jan. 6 insurrection as anti-democracy. Public opinion polls showed the abortion issue boosting Democrats’ chances over the summer before sentiment shifted back toward Republicans and economic issues in recent weeks. 

Political pundits consistently favored Republicans to win the House majority, given Biden’s low approval ratings and historical precedent for a first-term president’s party losing seats in the midterms. Biden’s approval rating has consistently been under 50 percent since August 2021, according to FiveThirtyEight’s polling compilation

The historical headwinds, as well as redistricting, drove many House Democrats toward the exits, with 31 choosing to retire, run for another office or resign to take another job. By contrast, only 20 Republican incumbents declined to seek reelection, eight of whom ran for a statewide office. Both parties lost incumbents in the primaries. Overall most of the competitive open seats came from Democratic departures. 

‘Better than anyone expects’

Nonetheless, Speaker Nancy Pelosi remained publicly optimistic about Democrats’ chances until the last minute, citing the party’s “far superior candidates,” mobilization and “great record.”

“Just because a pundit in Washington says history says you can’t win is no deterrent for the enthusiasm we have out there,” the California Democrat said on PBS NewsHour Tuesday evening. “We think we’ll do much better than anyone expects.” 

Biden and congressional Democrats secured a number of legislative victories this Congress that they touted on the campaign trail, from their coronavirus relief and climate, tax and health laws to bipartisan infrastructure and gun safety bills.

Pelosi conceded in the PBS NewsHour interview that Biden has not received the “respect and the appreciation” he deserves for the wins he’s helped secure in his first term but she believes Democratic incumbents “are doing just fine in terms of their own approval ratings.” But she acknowledged GOP attacks, led in large part by super PAC funding, have been “formidable.” 

“The American people are certainly better off than they were two years ago,” Pelosi said. “But again, because of disinformation — they suffocate the airwaves with disinformation. And that confuses people.”

One key to Republicans’ strategy this cycle was to invest in congressional districts Biden won by large margins in 2020, both to expand the map and to force Democrats to spend in traditionally blue districts and divert dollars away from more competitive contests. 

The Congressional Leadership Fund, the chief super PAC aligned with McCarthy and House GOP leadership, said it had invested 93 percent of its expenditures this cycle in districts that Biden won in 2020, including more than $110 million in seats Biden won by between 5 and 9 points, and $57.7 million on seats where Biden won by 10.

“We know that historically, you don’t run the table. Any kind of success requires going into double digit Biden districts,” CLF President Dan Conston said. “One of the major places CLF had a defining role was expanding the map.” 

Kate Ackley, Mary Ellen McIntire and Paul V. Fontelo contributed to this report.

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