2020 was not supposed to be a good year for House Republicans. The polls pointed to a Democratic-leaning electoral environment, Democratic candidates were outraising Republicans in most competitive seats, and the GOP had to defend a host of open seats that Republican incumbents had abandoned.
Yet, contrary to expectations, including their own, Republicans managed to gain seats even as the Democrats held onto their majority. Votes are still being counted, but based on contests projected by ABC News, Republicans have netted six seats so far, and they may still flip a few more.
But top-line numbers about seats gained and lost can only tell us so much. Let’s look at some of the major takeaways from the 2020 House elections.
Where the rest of the 2020 races stand | FiveThirtyEight Politics Podcast
Republicans outperformed expectations
Coming into the 2020 election, FiveThirtyEight’s forecast only gave Republicans about a 1 in 6 shot of picking up six or more seats, and if the GOP gains more as-yet-uncalled seats in the coming days, the party’s haul could become even more unlikely.
It’s not just the flipped seats that are impressive, though. Not a single Republican incumbent has lost in the races where we know the outcomes thus far. Among the outstanding contests, only California Rep. Mike Garcia, who won a May special election, appears to be in danger of losing.
Open-seat races have also been friendly to Republicans, despite the large number of GOP incumbents who retired or left office ahead of the 2020 election. The GOP had to defend 35 open seats compared to the Democrats’ 13, but of the 33 Republican-held open seats projected so far, only three have gone for the Democrats. And two of those Democratic wins were in North Carolina seats that the GOP had written off after a court-ordered redistricting made the districts heavily Democratic.
GOP women made big gains
While the majority of the Republican caucus will still be men come 2021, there will be far more Republican women in Congress than there were this year. So far, it looks like at least 26 GOP women will be in the House next year, surpassing the record of 25 from the 109th Congress. That’s thanks in part to the record number of non-incumbent Republican women — 15 — who’ve won House contests. And it’s also because of how well Republican women did in tight races. The table below shows the Republican women who ran in Democratic-held House districts that were at least potentially competitive,1 according to FiveThirtyEight’s forecast. As of this writing, seven of them have won.
|District||Candidate||Current Margin||Projected||GOP flip|
|FL-27||Maria Elvira Salazar||R+2.7||✓||✓|
|TX-15||Monica De La Cruz-Hernandez||D+2.9||✓|
|IL-17||Esther Joy King||D+3.8||✓|
|FL-13||Anna Paulina Luna||D+6.1||✓|
|OR-05||Amy Ryan Courser||D+6.7||✓|
It’s not all bad news for Democrats
While it was unquestionably a good night for Republicans, Democrats still held onto most of the seats they won in 2018 and will continue to be the majority party in the House. That’s in part because they retained most of the suburban districts they picked up in 2018.
Of the 233 seats that Democrats held coming into the election,2 186 of them were in districts that were predominantly or partly suburban in nature, according to density categorizations by Bloomberg’s CityLab. (This figure excludes North Carolina because CityLab has not updated its density data to account for North Carolina’s court-ordered redistricting in 2019.) Thus far, Democrats have lost seven of those seats, but they captured one GOP-held suburban seat around Atlanta. And thanks to redistricting, they’ve also won two formerly Republican seats around Greensboro and Raleigh in North Carolina, which reflect the party’s strength in more populous areas. (ABC News hasn’t projected a winner yet in 11 suburban races — eight Democratic-held districts and three Republican-held districts.)
Because of their relative success in the suburbs, Democrats kept many seats in places President Trump won in 2016. Coming into the election, Democrats held 30 seats in districts Trump carried in 2016, and they would’ve lost their majority if they’d lost more than half of them (assuming they didn’t offset the losses by gaining seats elsewhere). But they’ve won 18 of them so far and picked up one from the GOP (Georgia’s 7th Congressional District). In fact, more than half of Republicans’ gains have come in seats representing places that Trump won by a pretty sizable margin in 2016. We’ll have to wait a bit before data can tell us how congressional districts voted in 2020,3 but for now it seems many Republican gains were made by picking off the lowest-hanging fruit.
Republicans are well positioned to take the House in 2022
Although we don’t yet know the winners of some House races, we can already look ahead to the 2022 midterms and see a fairly straightforward path for the GOP to capture the House. Midterm elections historically go well for the party that’s not in the White House, and the out-of-power party is especially likely to do well in the House, since every seat is up for election (the Senate is a more complicated story).
Since the end of World War II, the presidential party has lost an average of 27 House seats in midterm elections, as the chart below shows. No matter how many seats Democrats end up with after 2020’s election — at this point, they will probably end up somewhere in the low 220s — a loss of that magnitude would easily be enough for Republicans to retake the House.
The recent history of midterms in a Democratic president’s first term seems especially promising for the GOP, too. Following Bill Clinton’s election in 1992, Democrats lost more than 50 seats in 1994, and after Barack Obama won the presidency in 2008, Democrats lost more than 60 seats.
If Democrats had added five to 10 seats this year, they could have survived a 20-seat loss in the midterms. Instead, Republicans will probably need to win fewer than 10 seats to gain a slender majority in 2022.
On top of this, Republicans could very well benefit from the new district lines that will be drawn ahead of the 2022 midterm elections. The GOP is set to fully control redistricting for about two-fifths of all House seats, while Democrats will only hold sway over one-tenth of them, with the remaining seats are in states with divided governments or where redistricting is done by a commission system. The Republican line-drawing advantage should help the party draw favorable maps that could help the GOP win more seats than we might otherwise expect.
Biden is set to be president. What comes next? | FiveThirtyEight Politics Podcast
CORRECTION (Feb. 18, 2021, 2:52 p.m.): The chart in this article originally showed Democrats losing four House seats in the 1998 midterms; they actually gained four seats.