Democrats have clinched two more years of controlling the House of Representatives but with a potentially razor-thin majority, a bittersweet finale to last week’s elections in the United States that has left them divided and with a scant margin for error for advancing their agenda.
The party on Tuesday nailed down at least 218 seats, according to The Associated Press, and could win a few others when more votes are counted.
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While that assures command of the 435-member chamber, blindsided Democrats were all but certain to see their current 232-seat majority shrink after an unforeseen surge of Republican voters transformed expected gains of perhaps 15 seats into losses.
“We have the gavel, we have the gavel,” said House speaker Nancy Pelosi, who seems all but certain to continue in that role.
While she bemoaned Democrats’ losses in districts where Republican votes proved “almost insurmountable”, she told reporters last week. “We’ve lost some battles but we’ve won the war.”
By retaining the House, Democrats will control the chamber for four consecutive years for only the second time since 1995, when Republicans ended 40 years of Democratic dominance.
Yet though Joe Biden won the presidential election, there was a strong chance Republicans would keep Senate control. That would force Democrats to scale back their dreams of sweeping healthcare, infrastructure and other initiatives.
Republicans have been heartened by the House results, which many believe position them for a strong run for the majority in the 2022 elections.
The party also bolstered their distressingly low number of female representatives from 13 to at least 26, a record for the GOP, according to the Center for American Women and Politics at Rutgers University, and were adding new ethnic minority legislators as well.
“The Republican coalition is bigger, more diverse, more energetic than ever before,” House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy said the day after the election.
Democrats went into Election Day with a 232-197 House advantage, plus an independent and five open seats. With some races remaining undecided, it was possible in the new Congress that convenes in January they will have the smallest majority since Republicans had just 221 seats two decades ago.
Democrats secured the majority after the AP news agency declared three winners late on Tuesday: Incumbents Kim Schrier in Washington, Tom O’Halleran in Arizona and Jimmy Gomez in California.
A tight majority could cause headaches for Pelosi, empowering any determined group of legislators to pressure her on what bills should be considered. But sometimes, a slender margin can help unify a party because its members know they must stick together.
Democratic moderates and progressives clash periodically, and while the moderates are more numerous, the progressives’ ranks include influential social media stars such as Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez from New York.
— Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (@AOC) November 11, 2020
Underscoring that tension, House Democrats vented during a three-hour conference call last week in which both factions blamed the other for rhetoric and policies they said proved costly in the campaign.
“We should be honest that this was not a good outcome,” Representative Tom Malinowski, a moderate freshman, said in an interview. He said terms like “defunding the police” hurt Democrats by making it sound like they oppose law enforcement.
Representative Pramila Jayapal, a progressive leader, said in an interview Democrats need to discuss “how we talk about some of these issues that are critical to different parts of our base”. But with moderates complaining the GOP hurt Democrats by repeatedly accusing them of pushing socialism, Jayapal said such accusations “will be used against us no matter what we say”.
Democrats believed they would pick up seats, especially in suburbs, because of a decisive fundraising edge, President Donald Trump’s unpopularity and exasperation over the pandemic. Many Republicans and independent polls supported that expectation.
But with some races still uncalled, Democrats have not defeated a single GOP incumbent and failed to capture open GOP-held seats in Texas, Missouri and Indiana they thought they would win.
Instead, they have lost at least seven incumbents: Six freshmen from states including Florida, Oklahoma and South Carolina plus 30-year veteran Representative Collin Peterson from rural Minnesota.
And while they successfully defended most of their 29 districts that Trump carried in his 2016 victory, they saw stronger than expected performances by GOP candidates all around the country.
“With President Trump on the ballot, it just drove enormous turnout that was almost impossible to surmount,” said Elissa Slotkin, a re-elected freshman from Michigan.
“The country has become more polarised and divided,” said Gerald Connolly. “If you’re running in alien territory, you’re always at risk of failure.”