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The Close Race To Control The House Reveals Important Lessons

How the Red Wave became little more than the red ripple.

Kevin McCarthy and Nancy Pelosi flanked by other members of Congress
Nathan Howard/Getty Images

It was supposed to be a blowout, with some predicting a red wave shift over 30 or 40 votes, typical of a midterm with economic uncertainty and an unpopular President. Instead, control of the House remains up in the air, and no matter where things ultimately land, it’s a huge disappointment for the GOP, and really ought to be a wake-up call if not a shake-up call.

But even on the Democratic side, where there are certainly congratulations in order, there is a bittersweet realization that if we do lose the House, the reasons for it are becoming apparent, and had things gone just a bit differently in our own backyards, we would probably be looking at a narrow Democratic win.

Let’s take a look at where things stand and where the races shook out, and see if there are some takeaways we can develop for the all-important 2024 presidential election cycle.

The State of the House

It takes 218 seats by a party to control the House majority, and national election bean counters are placing the GOP, when all is said and done, at around 220…plus or minus 7.

That last part makes Democrats still hopeful and Republicans a bit nervous. While the GOP only needs a few more seats from its current haul to get to 218, those wins are increasingly hard to predict.

Cook Political’s House tracker, which does pretty deep dives on individual House races, currently puts the balance of power at 200 seats for the Dems and 211 for the Republicans. With 25 races left to call, it would seem like the GOP could easily pick up seven, except for where those seats are located.

Many of these contests are out West, where mail-in ballots are still being laboriously counted. In 2018, the slow-arriving mail tipped many close House races toward the Democrats. High profile races, such as the razor tight House race in C0-3 where GOP enfant terrible Rep. Lauren Boebert is currently hanging on by a thread, only heighten the drama.

It’s already clear that many races will take a very long time to resolve, and that recounts and challenges inevitably will follow. This is why it’s always best these days to think of it as “Election Month” not Election Day or even Election Week any more.

Abortion and Extremism Hurt the GOP…But Not Everywhere

It doesn’t require much deep analysis to conclude the Democratic Party overperformed expectation in the swing states, especially in places where abortion was on the ballot or at risk of being stripped away by overzealous legislatures.

Weeks ago, I wrote about how the enthusiasm gap between new women and new men voters in registration was pronounced in places like Michigan and Wisconsin, but non-existent in somewhere like New York.

While some correctly saw this as a sign Democrats would benefit in those states, few heeded the warning (despite my best efforts to sound the alarm!) this signaled for “safe” blue bastions, where a lot of the most vulnerable races were located.

Turnout among young people and women indeed was particularly high in the states where the perceived threat to abortion rights and the danger of electing extremists ran highest, and helped carry critical local and House races. But the opposite happened in those safe blue bastions.

Nate Cohn of The New York Times wrote about this in his newsletter The Tiltthis morning, contrasting the Democrats’ outstanding performance in Pennsylvania with the abysmal showing in New York.

In Pennsylvania, Democrats were elected statewide, swept every competitive House seat, and regained control of the state assembly. By contrast, just across the state line in New York, Republican House candidates all did better than Trump performed in 2020, sometimes by as much as 20 points.

The GOP won all but one of the state’s seven competitive districts. Had New Yorkers showed up to vote, the House majority far more likely would still be ours.

There are parts of the country, such as Texas and Florida, where politicians have learned they can gain political power from being quite politically extreme, as we saw in Florida where Democrats were trounced across the board and have basically ceded the state to the GOP.

But importantly, GOP Governor Ron DeSantis shrewdly did not call for a change to Florida’s existing 15-week abortion ban, taking that wedge off the table a bit in his state. By contrast, over in Texas where abortion is now illegal, while that wasn’t enough for Beto O’Rourke to unseat Governor Greg Abbott, Democrats performed decently well along the border counties and avoided a wipe-out state wide.

Looking Ahead

If the remaining races go as expected, the GOP will have won a very narrow majority of seats in the House. From there, they will have the difficult, some might say unenviable, task of uniting behind a common message and leader.

On the one hand, the far-right “Freedom Caucus” likely will assert a list of priorities that Representative Kevin McCarthy will need to agree to or lose their support for him to be elected Speaker. But this could wind up pulling the party toward the very kinds of exhausting, radical behavior that helped turn the Red Wave into a Red Ripple.

If a new GOP House majority is narrow enough, a small group of more moderate members, including many in swing districts who just won their seats by seeming not-quite-as-crazy as the rest of their party, will have an opportunity to assert their tempering influence.

If they get organized in time, they can also block McCarthy’s ambitions to become Speaker or demand that, in return for their support, he will need to tone things down and get to the real business of actually governing.

And they further may not support the idea of holding the entire country hostage by refusing to raise the debt ceiling. A few defectors on that question and the whole threat dissipates.

In other words, there is a bright side to losing control of the House by a thread.

While legislation would in fact stall for two years and the far-right will gain a platform in Committees and hearings, that circus could wind up alienating independents and moderates who will decide the 2024 election.

It will take an enormously skillful political leader, one with as much clout and political smarts as Nancy Pelosi had with the Democrats, to keep such a “raucous caucus” in line.

With a war already brewing between the Trump and DeSantis camps (Trump has already launched a rambling attack on DeSantis to quell any talk of him becoming the party’s new standard bearer), Democrats can sit back, throw in a few barbed wedge issues like abortion and election denialism, and then watch the fragile GOP majority try to hold together.

There is also a certain comfort in not having to carry the ball for the next two years while we focus on things like judicial appointments and executive actions. It is a historical reality that the GOP would regain control of the House at some point in time.

Doing so with a dangerously thin majority, comprising already warring factions, just two years before a highly consequential presidential election, is probably the best outcome we might have hoped for—besides of course actually retaining the majority.