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Democrats "devastated" and reflective after House GOP exceeds expectations

Historic Congressional election victories
Democrats, Republicans make history in 2020 Congressional elections 03:05

House Republicans exceeded Election Day expectations, knocking off at least five targeted incumbent Democrats in 2020. While Democrats will maintain a slimmer majority in the House, CBS News projects Democrats are still likely to lose several more races, including two in Florida. 

Both parties anticipated that the political environment going into Tuesday's election would expand the House Democratic majority and predicted gains ranging from 5 to 18 seats. But from Miami to New Mexico to Des Moines, Republican congressional candidates outperformed polls and pundits that predicted another "blue wave" that would keep even the most vulnerable House Democrats afloat. 

"We lost members who shouldn't have lost," Virginia Democrat Abigail Spanberger said on a Thursday call with the Democratic caucus, first reported by The Washington Post. "Tuesday, from a congressional standpoint, was a failure." CBS News has her leading by over a percentage point with 96% of the vote in. Her opponent Republican Nick Freitas has not yet conceded.

Democrats and Republicans have different theories for their pre-election miscalculations. Some wondered if Trump voters hid their alliances from pollsters and then turned out in high numbers on Election Day. Consistent Republican attack ads on Democrats on socialism and the "defund the police" movement seemed to take a toll on Democrats. 

COVID-19 likely cost Democrats, too, when they chose to eschew in-person canvassing for much of the campaign season for safety reasons, while Republicans did not. The GOP-backed Congressional Leadership Fund allocated $10 million towards a "ballot chase" program and more on-the-ground field operations. 

Democrats' assessments of districts they thought were in reach may simply have been wrong. And the lack of a third pandemic relief package or the unpopularity of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi among Republicans, independents and progressives may also have hurt some candidates. 

The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee had designated at least 47 open seats or Republican incumbents to flip this cycle and grow their caucus. But by Friday, they had picked up just three of those targets. In Texas, which they often referred to as "Ground Zero" for their potential pickups, Democrats are set to lose all ten of their targeted seats. 

Congresswoman Cheri Bustos, the Chair of the DCCC, argued on a post-election call with the House Democrat caucus their offensive battlefield forced Republicans to play more defense. But she said she was "furious" with the results and said the committee would be doing a "deep dive" into what happened. She added that "something went wrong here across the entire political world," and she placed much of the blame on faulty polling.

"Our polls, Senate polls, [Governor] polls, Presidential polls, Republican polls, public polls, turnout modeling and prognosticators all pointed to one political environment – that environment never materialized," she said according to a source familiar with the call. Other House strategists said they'd be doing their own audit on the polling in the coming weeks. 

"House Democrats failed to recognize that their socialist agenda is completely out of touch with middle class voters. They scoffed at the reality that they could do any wrong," said National Republican Congressional Committee spokesperson Michael McAdams about the DCCC's targeting. He also attributed the wins to the turnout Trump brings at the top of the ticket, as well as a record amount of GOP women and minority recruits.

Republicans may still pick up more seats, though some competitive races are still too close to call or are waiting for absentee ballots to be counted, including two in New York and four in California. The GOP could still be looking at life in the House minority under a potential Biden-Harris administration, but that gap between the two parties may even drop into single digits.

"I'm not going to lie and say that people aren't sad and devastated," said Pennsylvania Congresswoman Chrissy Houlahan, a freshman member who is close to several of the Democrats who lost their seats.

"But I think that we all need to take solace in the fact that we retained the House and that it looks like that we'll have a historic victory with the vice president. We have to take solace in that and know that each one of us has played a role in that."

But Democrats are still holding onto their majority, a point made by House Speaker Pelosi on Friday. "We did not win every battle in the House, but we won the war," she said at a press conference. "This is not a zero-sum game, somebody's success here is not taking away from your success there." Pelosi also sent a letter to colleagues on Friday asking for their support in her reelection for Speaker of the House.

California Congressman Ami Bera, who helped lead the DCCC's program for vulnerable members, said there needs to be an unblinking "360-degree" look at what messages employed by Republicans ended up being effective if Democrats want to stay in the majority after 2022.

He said "defunding the police" could have damaged vulnerable Democrats, and that the caucus could have talked about its platform as one of reforming — rather than defunding — the police more effectively. 

"'That's what most of us mean," he told CBS News. "But there might be pockets of the caucus that use that language [of defunding the police]. We've got to have a conversation that if you use that language, it might make a good sound bite, but it might put some of your colleagues in a tougher position to get re-elected and it's not going to help us hold onto the majority."

Republicans needed to achieve a net gain of 17 seats to flip the chamber and are currently on track to see a net gain of at least three seats according to CBS News race calls. After recent redistricting created more Democratic districts, Democrats easily flipped North Carolina's 2nd and 6th Districts. They're also about to pick up Georgia's 7th District in the diversifying Atlanta suburbs, a district they lost by 433 votes in 2018. 

The GOP saw success in several targeted districts that President Trump won in 2016, as well as in traditionally Democratic areas. Their first flips of the night were in Florida's 26th and 27th Districts in South Florida. Republicans Carlos Gimenez, the Mayor of Miami-Dade County, and Maria Elvira Salazar were able to unseat freshmen Democrats Debbie Murcarsel-Powell and Donna Shalala. The Associated Press has called these races, and the latest CBS News data shows both Republicans leading with virtually all ballots in. 

Salazar, a former Spanish television newscaster, persistently tied Shalala and Democrats to socialism during the campaign and even in her winning remarks. Republicans say the anti-Socialism message resonates with Cuban-Americans in South Florida, a group that also helped Trump surpass his 2016 margins in the state. 

"I will not cower to the mob and when faced with the so-called democratic socialists," she said on election night. 

Linking Democrats to socialism and the Green New Deal was a tactic employed by Republican House organizations in districts throughout the campaign. They utilized the "Defund the Police" movement to  claim Democrats supported it and to warn that it would only lead to more crime.

David McIntosh, a former Indiana Congressman and current president of the fiscally conservative Club for Growth PAC, said the South Florida swings "were incredible." 

"We actually didn't think it'd be possible, it's a heavy Democrat base," he said. "People voted for Trump, but they also voted for the agenda: rejection of socialism, for growing the economy, for limited government."

Republican challengers like Stephanie Bice in Oklahoma and Iowa's Ashley Hinson also played up bipartisan inclinations heading into the final weeks of the campaign. 

Nebraska GOP Congressman Don Bacon, who won his metropolitan Omaha seat despite Joe Biden's victory in the district, also used this approach. He prevailed in his rematch with Democrat Kara Eastman, a Democrat who had the backing of both establishment and progressive Democrats. He distilled his winning message into "I've delivered bipartisan results," and "my opponent is a Bernie Sanders Democrat." 

"And I thought if I could make that stick in the voter's mind, I would win," he said. 

He did. 

Kimberly Brown contributed to this report

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