The biggest surprises of the 2020 Democratic House debacle

Ally Mutnick

It was the biggest surprise on election night: Democrats, instead of growing their House majority, actually lost seats.

Now the party is going through an internal reckoning on what went wrong. The clearest picture of what happened will come when a full breakdown of how Donald Trump and Joe Biden fared in individual districts across the country is available.

But the most shocking results available thus far make it clear that Trump did far better than polling indicated he would in many suburban battlegrounds, and in others Republican congressional candidates may have benefited from ticket-splitters. Overall, it looks like 2018 was a high-water mark for Democrats — a wave that crested and fell.

Democrats’ unexpected losses ranged from districts in Florida and Texas where sliding Latino support proved costly, blue-trending suburbs where affluent voters split their tickets and rural seats in which Trump’s GOP roared back last week. In the end, Democrats could end up losing around 10 seats, depending on the final counts in the more than a dozen races yet to be resolved.

Here are the most surprising congressional races of 2020 — and what both parties can learn from them:

Florida’s 27th District

Democrats assumed that this South Florida seat would be theirs indefinitely when Donna Shalala, the former Clinton-era health secretary, flipped it in the midterms. Going into 2020, the DCCC didn’t even place Shalala in its “Frontline” program for endangered incumbents, and the district saw hardly any outside spending on TV.

But Republican Maria Elvira Salazar, a former Telemundo anchor, ultimately beat Shalala by nearly 3 points in a rematch of their 2018 race. In a post-election debriefing, Shalala said the four polls conducted by her campaign and others were off, and she attributed the GOP’s strength to the potency of the socialism attacks among the Cuban population in Miami.

Internal Democratic data suggests Trump massively overperformed and only lost the seat by a few points in 2020 — part of a turnaround in South Florida that made the state one of only a few where Trump actually ran stronger than in 2016.

Florida’s 26th District

A more shocking Trump surge played out in a neighboring district, where freshman Democratic Rep. Debbie Mucarsel-Powell lost to Miami-Dade Mayor Carlos Giménez. Both parties spent millions in the pricey Miami media market, but Democrats felt certain the president would be a drag on Giménez, since he lost this seat by 16 points in 2016.

Yet, as outgoing DCCC Chair Cheri Bustos shared in a call with members this week, Democratic data indicates Trump actually carried this seat by about 5 points in 2020 — a 21-point improvement. Socialism hits in GOP attack ads likely hurt Mucarsel-Powell here, as did attempts to tie her to a Ukrainian “warlord.”

Iowa’s 1st District

Republican Ashley Hinson’s win over Democratic Rep. Abby Finkenauer offers some insight into the behavior of one of the most interesting slices of the electorate: the Obama-Trump voters. President Barack Obama carried this northeast Iowa district by 14 points in 2012, before Trump won it by 4 points in 2016 — then Finkenauer ousted then-GOP Rep. Rod Blum in the midterms.

Hinson, a state representative and former TV news anchor for a local station, was one of the most compelling GOP candidates in the country. But some operatives thought the district had too much Democratic DNA for her to overcome.

Instead, Trump was probably a boon to Hinson; both parties believe he carried the district again, though the numbers aren’t final. Meanwhile, Democrats lost or are trailing in four other Obama-Trump seats they targeted: those currently held by Reps. Lee Zeldin (R-N.Y.), Pete King (R-N.Y.), Jim Hagedorn (R-Minn.) and Jeff Van Drew (R-N.J.).

The GOP flipped Finkenauer’s seat and is in striking distance of winning a neighboring Iowa seat and ousting Rep. Max Rose (D-N.Y.) on Staten Island — all results might suggest Obama-Trump voters stuck with Trump.

California’s 48th District

Republican Michelle Steel’s victory over Democratic Rep. Harley Rouda represents only the second time the GOP has flipped a House seat in California in two decades.

This coastal Orange County district is the most Republican-friendly of the seven that Democrats wrested away in 2018, but a loss here is still concerning. Democrats built their majority by sweeping through seats like Rouda’s and other traditionally red-hued suburbs that Hillary Clinton won in 2016.

And Democrats could also cede another district that includes part of Orange County if fellow freshman Rep. Gil Cisneros can’t come back to overtake Republican Young Kim in the state’s protracted vote count.

If those voters are going back to their Republican roots in the post-Trump era, the party could have a tough time maintaining their edge in the House. Rouda, however, believes these voters are still up for grabs and has already decided to run again in 2022, when the district lines will be different.

South Carolina’s 1st District

Rep. Joe Cunningham’s loss last week shocked Democratic strategists, who saw a host of polls that had the freshman congressman winning by a comfortable margin, and Biden holding his own against Trump in the presidential. (One fall poll showed Cunningham leading by 13 points.)

Instead he came 1 point short of securing a second term and fell to GOP state Rep. Nancy Mace. Cunningham’s ouster underscores two key trend lines of the 2020 election: Most district-level House polls that showed Trump running roughly 10 points behind his 2016 margin understated the president’s support. He won Cunningham’s seat by 13 points in 2016. And it adds credence to the Republican strategy of recruiting more women candidates. Mace, who has previously fizzled as a conservative primary challenger to Sen. Lindsey Graham, was the first female graduate of The Citadel.

Texas’s 24th District

This open North Texas seat should have been one of Democrats’ easiest pickups in the country. In 2018, an underfunded Democratic nominee came within a few points of beating GOP Rep. Kenny Marchant — and Marchant decided to retire rather than run again.

The DCCC opened a satellite Texas office to zero in on the state —a strategy proved to be a giant flop. Republican Beth Van Duyne, a former HUD official and mayor of Irving, beat Democrat Candace Valenzuela. And Democrats failed to flip a single seat in the Lone Star State — even those where Trump performed far worse than previous GOP presidential nominees a pattern that suggests that Democrats’ 2018 suburban successes were a ceiling, not a floor.

Texas’s 23rd District

Democrats didn’t only cede ground with Latino voters in idiosyncratic South Florida. This massive West Texas seat, which stretches from the outskirts of San Antonio to the edge of El Paso and includes some 800 miles of the U.S.-Mexican border, also showed surprising Democratic weakness.

The party thought it was strongly favored to flip the district this cycle because battle-tested GOP Rep. Will Hurd was retiring, and their 2018 nominee, Gina Ortiz Jones, was running again after coming within 1,000 votes of beating Hurd in the midterms.

Still, Republican liked their nominee, former Navy cryptologist Tony Gonzales, and Trump on the ticket may have helped him. Clinton carried this seat by 4 points in 2016, but Democrats suspect when the votes are tallied up that Biden will either have lost it or lagged Clinton’s performance.