Democrats edge toward House takeover, prepare to challenge Trump

After a strong showing in House races by Democrats on Tuesday, Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi addresses supporters at a hotel in Washington. (Evelyn Hockstein for The Washington Post)

By Erica Werner Erica Werner

Democrats appeared on track to take control of the House Tuesday night, a victory that would transform the Republican-controlled chamber that has supported and protected President Trump into a legislative body eager to thwart his agenda.

Early results suggested Democrats would pick up at least the 23 seats they’d need to take the House, giving the party control of half of Congress after being completely locked out of power since Trump took office last year.

They aim to quickly usher in a new era and tone in Washington, starting with a legislative package of anti-corruption measures aimed at strengthening ethics laws, protecting voter rights and cracking down on campaign finance abuses.

House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi has said the party hopes to follow with bills to lower the cost of prescription drugs and rebuild the nation’s infrastructure — both areas, infrastructure in particular, where they see the possibility of common ground with Trump.

“That is something he wants to do,” Pelosi (D-Calif.) said Tuesday evening in an interview on PBS NewsHour, referring to infrastructure. “It’s always been nonpartisan — always been nonpartisan. Hopefully, we can work together to advance that agenda.”

A House takeover would amount to major vindication for Pelosi, who became the first female House speaker in 2006, only to lose the majority in 2010 as voters rebelled against former President Barack Obama’s health care law and other priorities in the first midterm elections of his presidency.

Midway through Trump’s first term, the elections once again focused on health care, only this time Democrats were on the attack against Republicans, attacking the GOP over attempts to repeal the Affordable Care Act and its signature protections for people with pre-existing conditions.

Pelosi would be the favorite to ascend to the speakership once more, though that outcome is not assured, as a number of Democratic candidates distanced themselves from her in the course of the campaign.

Democrats appear to have picked up the seats they need by targeting suburban districts where Trump had grown increasingly unpopular, as well as by focusing relentlessly on health care and other economic issues. But their message didn’t resonate as widely in rural areas, leaving them short of the massive “blue wave” some in the party had hoped for.

Democrats also appear to have failed to take over the Senate, leaving the GOP-controlled chamber as a check against Democrats’ ability to pass partisan legislation through Congress.

That could mean an impasse on issues including immigration, guns and health care — the topic that, more than any other, defined House races around the country this campaign season.

In the eastern suburbs of Denver and in Kansas City and Minneapolis-area districts, GOP incumbents fell to Democratic challengers. All three seats had been heavily targeted by Democrats in 2016, but this year was different.

In Northern Virginia, Republican incumbent Barbara Comstock lost to Democrat Jennifer T. Wexton, while in one surprise win, Democrat Max Rose — a former boxer who raised millions on the strength of a viral video — unseated Rep. Dan Donovan (R-N.Y.) in a seat encompassing Staten Island and Queens. Donovan was the only Republican representing New York City.

In a disappointment for the Democrats, incumbent GOP Rep. Garland “Andy” Barr held off a strong challenge from Democrat Amy McGrath, a former fighter pilot. McGrath raised millions in small donations and rocketed into contention thanks to a viral video introducing her candidacy, but her bid fell short in a district where Trump beat Clinton by 15 percentage points.

Polls had closed in nearly all states but many votes remained to be counted, leaving an outside chance that late results could making the ultimate outcome uncertain.

Heading into Election Day, Republicans said their best-case scenario after Tuesday’s voting was a narrower House GOP majority than the 45-seat margin they now command. Republicans had pledged that, if returned to power in the House, they would get to work on a new 10 percent tax cut for the middle class Trump spoke of in the closing days of the campaign.

“We’ve known from the beginning that history was not on our side this election cycle. And the big money was not on our side,” House Majority Whip Steve Scalise (R-La.) said, citing a “motivated base” on the Democratic side who inundated Republican incumbents with small donations to their challengers.

House Democrats and Republicans both face leadership questions heading into the next Congress, as well as internal ideological differences that would complicate their ability to enact a unified agenda.

If Democrats retake the majority, it will be thanks to many moderate candidates who beat Republicans in districts that voted for Trump. But the party would welcome newcomers who ran on distinctly progressive agendas calling for Medicare-for-all or abolishing the Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency — such as New York’s Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, who beat longtime Democrat Joseph Crowley in a June primary, and Michigan’s Rashida Tlaib, who is set to claim the seat once held by veteran lawmaker John Conyers Jr. in a deep-blue district.

That mix would be certain to create tensions over the party’s priorities, especially with a restive liberal base that has already begun calling for impeachment proceedings against Trump.

On the GOP side, with House Speaker Paul D. Ryan (Wis.) retiring from Congress, Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy (Calif.) is his likeliest successor as the top Republican leader in the majority or minority. But he may not get there without a fight, since Scalise is also eyeing the job, and Rep. Jim Jordan (Ohio), a leader of the House Freedom Caucus, is the choice of some conservatives.

If surprising late results leave Republicans in control of the House but with a smaller margin, the Freedom Caucus — a bloc of conservatives that has proved difficult for successive leaders to control — could gain even more clout, pulling House Republicans to the right and making dealmaking with Democrats and with the Senate even tougher.

Tuesday’s voting capped intense House races around the country that saw many Republicans on defense over health care. Republicans who rode their opposition to Obamacare to the House majority in 2010 were forced to backtrack in race after race, insisting that they actually did support such protections.

Despite the strong economy and Republicans’ success in pushing a $1.5 trillion tax cut package into law, those achievements were not central to many GOP campaigns. Instead many Republicans followed Trump’s lead in raising fears about illegal immigration and crime, while casting Democrats as overly liberal and linking them to Pelosi.

“They still have a big internal struggle within their ranks, win or lose,” Scalise said of Democrats. “There are a lot of Democrat members that don’t like Nancy Pelosi’s agenda. They’re just afraid to take it on. And I think they’re going to have to confront their internal struggles as soon as this election is over.”

♦ Culled from The Washington Post

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