Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) and her invigorated caucus charged into Tuesday with an energized base, a sharp fundraising advantage and hopes to flip anywhere from five to 15 Republican seats on election night. Instead, it was the Republicans who scored big — at least in the early counting — knocking out at least a half dozen vulnerable Democrats with several more clinging to the ropes.
It was a reversal of fortunes for the Democrats, who had led big in the polls and the money race and were betting that President Trump at the top of the ticket would be a drag on GOP lawmakers all the way down the ballot. With gushing optimism, Democrats were expecting Tuesday night would give them a chance to pad their 232-197 majority next year.
“We're well-positioned to have a good night,” Rep. Cheri Bustos (Ill.), head of the Democrats’ campaign arm, told reporters hours before polls closed Tuesday.
As the sun came up Wednesday morning, however, there appeared few bright spots for Bustos’s party.
While Democrats will retain their majority, a handful of their front-line members — incumbents facing the toughest races — had been defeated. And after boasting about how they’d expanded the map and were playing “deep into Trump country,” they’d failed to pick off even a single House Republican running for reelection. Democrats did manage to pick up a pair of GOP-held open seats in North Carolina, where redistricting had made the districts much bluer, and a third in Georgia after the retirement of vulnerable GOP Rep. Rob Woodall.
The spate of Democratic losses were not limited to any one geographic region. In rural Minnesota, Rep. Collin Peterson (D), a 15-term veteran and chairman of the Agriculture Committee, was clobbered by the state’s former lieutenant governor, who’d linked Peterson to the liberal Pelosi.
In the suburbs of Oklahoma City, Rep. Kendra Horn (D), a first-term moderate, was defeated by Republican Stephanie Bice, a state senator, in one of the country’s most contested races.
On New Mexico’s southern border, Rep. Xochitl Torres Small (D), a 36-year-old centrist also in her first term, fell to Yvette Herrell, a former state legislator, in a rematch of 2018.
And in South Carolina, first-term Rep. Joe Cunningham (D) was ousted by state Rep. Nancy Mace (R).
An early surprise on election night — and early bad news for Democrats — was the defeat of two first-term Democrats in Florida’s Miami-Dade County: Reps. Debbie Mucarsel-Powell and Donna Shalala, the former Health and Human Services secretary under President Clinton. Cuban Americans, a powerful voting bloc in South Florida, broke overwhelming for President Trump, helping to hand Republicans the Sunshine State and the pair of House seats.
“Part of it is incorrect assumptions about how minority voters will perform based on previous elections. Democrats can no longer take Black and Latino voters for granted,” said former Rep. Carlos Curbelo (R-Fla.), a Cuban American who previously represented one of the Miami seats.
Symbolic of the tough night suffered by the Democrats, even Bustos on Wednesday morning was trailing her GOP opponent, although plenty of absentee ballots remain to be counted and Democrats have cautioned the public not to jump to conclusions about race results before every vote has been tallied. Bustos hails from a largely rural district won by Trump in 2016, and the race was predicted to be close heading in.
While votes were still being counted Wednesday morning in races around the country, an additional number of Democratic incumbents were trailing or locked in a tight races, including Abby Finkenauer (Iowa), TJ Cox (Calif.), Anthony Brindisi (N.Y.) and Max Rose (N.Y.), a former Army Ranger representing Staten Island.
House Republicans, long criticized for the small number of women in their ranks, picked up seats by running female candidates against Democratic incumbents. At least five GOP women will be part of the freshman class; Republicans had added just one woman in 2018.
The devastating night for Democrats is sure to prompt plenty of head scratching about their campaign strategy, including questions about the accuracy of their polling and decisions to go on the offensive in districts where Trump won handily, rather than dedicating resources to more moderate districts.