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House Democrats' keys to victory: Suburbs, money and fired-up women college grads

Analysis: Attack ads declaring Republican incumbents had voted with Trump "95 percent of the time" proved too much for them to overcome.
Image: Hillary Clinton
Then-Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton pauses as she speaks during a campaign rally in Raleigh, North Carolina on Nov. 8, 2016.Andrew Harnik / AP file

Democrats swept all of the seats where they were favored and won or are ahead in 17 of the 30 seats the Cook Political Report rated as toss-ups. They also scored impressive upsets along the coast of South Carolina, in Oklahoma City and on Staten Island. With several uncalled races, it will take more time than usual to take stock of Tuesday's powerful, if uneven, wave. But here are a few initial impressions:

1) This was mainly a suburban revolt. Democrats easily swept out most of the Republicans sitting in high-income suburban Hillary Clinton-won districts: Reps. Mike Coffman (CO-06), Peter Roskam (IL-06), Kevin Yoder (KS-03), Erik Paulsen (MN-03), Leonard Lance (NJ-07) and Barbara Comstock (VA-10), all by comfortable margins. Just about the only one in this category who may survive is Rep. Mimi Walters (CA-45).

In these seats, ads declaring that the Republican incumbent had voted with President Donald Trump "95 percent of the time" proved too much for them to overcome. But well-funded Democrats also broke through in outer, middle-class suburbs that Trump carried by single digits: Illinois's 14th District, Iowa's 3rd District, Michigan's 8th and 11th Districts and Virginia's 2nd and 7th Districts. Several were breakthroughs in places Barack Obama had never carried.

However, Democrats didn't win a single Republican seat where Trump cracked 55 percent of the vote in 2016. They fell short in Florida's 6th District, Kansas's 2nd District and Kentucky's 6th District, despite multiple polls depicting competitive races. They also failed to hold onto two rural open seats in Minnesota and failed to knock off two indicted Republicans, Reps. Duncan Hunter of California and Chris Collins of New York.

2) Democrats' massive financial advantage helped overcome Republicans' structural geographic edge in the House. At this writing, Democrats lead in total votes cast for House by about 5.3 percent, and are leading Republicans in seats by about 5.7 percent. Democrats' popular vote lead will grow as more ballots are counted in states like California, Massachusetts and New York, perhaps to 7 points.

In other words, after all the hand-wringing about Republicans' built-in gerrymandering advantage, Democrats' share of votes roughly translated into their share of seats. A closer analysis suggests that's mostly because Democrats performed exceptionally well in the roughly 75 battleground districts they targeted, mostly because their candidates' massive fundraising advantages helped them control the late narrative.

3) In the House, this was the "Year of the Fired Up Female College Graduate." This was the first year in history Americans elected more than 100 women to the House, and it almost entirely driven by Democrats — a clear reaction to Trump's election. Of the 38 seats Democrats flipped or maintain a lead, women were the Democratic nominees in 21 — accounting for well over Democrats' margin in the House.

4) This is also going to make it next to impossible for Democrats to ditch Nancy Pelosi, the first female speaker of the House. During the campaign, 37 Democrats on the DCCC's "Red to Blue" list publicly opposed Pelosi for speaker. But of those 37, only 10 prevailed and another five are in races that are too close to call. And a few "no" votes won with such comfortable enough margins that they are probably flippable.

Republicans, looking for a silver lining after Tuesday, are gleeful at the prospect of her return and argue it makes Democrats the instant underdogs to keep what may only be a 12-15 seat majority heading into 2020. After all, these Democrats campaigned on changing Washington and challenging both parties' leaders. Instead, their very first vote would be to fall in line behind the San Francisco-led old guard.

Indeed, it's the Democrats who look like the more divided party as they assume power in the House. Their newcomers, mostly hailing from swing suburbs, campaigned on health care and pocketbook issues, not Russia, tweets or Trump. But the incoming committee chairs, almost all from urban and coastal districts, each have their own long lists of executive branch matters they want to investigate.

5) The Republicans who survived in tough seats did so mostly by establishing their own moderate reputations before Trump took office. Reps. David Valadao (CA-21), John Katko (NY-24), Brian Fitzpatrick (PA-01) and Will Hurd (TX-23) all hung onto their seats by cultivating nonpartisan images a long time ago, much like the few younger, conservative Democrats who hung on in 2010.

In some respects, this was a mirror image of 2010. Much as the Blue Dogs were decimated in the 2010 wave, moderate "Tuesday Group" Republicans suffered large losses from both retirements like Reps. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (FL-27) and Charlie Dent (PA-07), and defeats like Reps. Carlos Curbelo (FL-27) and Leonard Lance (NJ-07). The congressional GOP is about to become a more Trump-centric party.

Bonus takeaway: Democrats' hard pickup count is already at 31, according NBC's count, and their odds look good in many of the uncalled races. Democrats currently hold leads in four of the nine seats where the winner isn't clear: CA-48 (Rohrabacher), NJ-03 (MacArthur) and UT-04 (Love). In addition, Democrats are hopeful additional mail-in ballots will help their candidates overcome deficits in CA-10 (Denham) and CA-39 (Royce).

Maine's 2nd District is the quirkiest nail-biter of all. GOP Rep. Bruce Poliquin leads Democrat Jared Golden by less than 1,000 votes, but 22,000 cast ballots for left-leaning independents. Under the state's new "ranked choice voting" law, those independent voters' second and third choices will be added to the two contenders' totals sometime next week. Republicans fear Golden is the preferred second choice of most of those 22,000 voters.

Republicans maintain small leads in CA-45 (Walters), GA-07 (Woodall) and NC-09 (Open), but the counting of provisional ballots in each of these states could take weeks. Typically, late-counted mail-in and provisional ballots in California skew slightly to Democrats. The drama is set to last well beyond this week, and it's not inconceivable Democrats' eventual haul could be closer to 40 seats than 35.

A version of this article was previously published in The Cook Political Report.