Not all of these outcomes are surprises—for example, Sinema was the slight favorite headed into Election Day, and Rohrabacher was the slight underdog. But with the late results in, Democrats have netted 36 seats. In the six remaining races, Democrats lead in three and Republicans lead in three, so if the results hold, Democrats will end up gaining 39 seats—at the high end of the range of predictions heading into Election Day. Even without those races called, it’s the party’s biggest pickup since Watergate.
It was clear on Election Night that Democrats would win the House, but the scale of the victory was perhaps underappreciated. Why did such a big win seem initially underwhelming?
For one thing, there were several major moral defeats for Democrats Tuesday night. Beto O’Rourke, the most hyped Democratic candidate of the cycle, lost his Senate race against incumbent Ted Cruz. That wasn’t unexpected—an O’Rourke win would have been an epochal surprise—but it took some wind out of the sails of Democrats.
A few Democrats who were expected to win also appeared to lose. In Florida, polling showed gubernatorial candidate Andrew Gillum and Senator Bill Nelson both with an edge, but when the results came in, they were down. Neither race is officially called yet, and the Senate contest is headed to a hand recount, but Republicans Ron DeSantis and Rick Scott lead in those two races, for governor and Senate, respectively. In Georgia, Democrat Stacey Abrams also trails Republican Brian Kemp in a close, and closely watched, race.
Second, a sort of progressive-pundit panic took hold early in the night on November 6. The first upset of the evening had Democrat Jennifer Wexton unseating Representative Barbara Comstock in Virginia, but then there was a long stretch without big Dem wins. Liberals started to get edgy, as they do. Longtime operative James Carville declared, “It’s not going to be a wave election.” CNN’s Van Jones called the results “heartbreaking.” The narrative took on a life of its own, spreading contagiously across TV and Twitter. Even your faithful correspondent was swept up by the sense that Dems were falling short. Later in the night, as more results came in, it became apparent that Democrats were sticking closely to projections—but the narrative of underwhelming results, once established, stuck.
Finally, many of these results, especially those in California and in Arizona, took days to arrive. That shouldn’t be a surprise. Many of these races were always going to be close, and both of those states often report vote totals late. But without the results immediately available, it wasn’t clear just how well Democrats had done—for example, that they might have just about conquered Orange County.
There are still those six U.S. House seats to go, plus the Florida and Georgia races. But even if Democrats lose all of those, which seems unlikely, their success on Election Day will have been huge—and bigger than it seemed on Election Night.
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