Four years ago, many commentators lamented that Hillary Clinton fell short of winning the Electoral College by less than 80,000 votes. “You Could Fit All the Voters Who Cost Clinton the Election in a Mid-Sized Football Stadium,” read a headline in Vanity Fair. Now, it is not just Hillary Clinton that lost by a hair.
Two things are clear about the 117th Congress. First, Democrats will retain the majority and the Speaker of the House — second in line to the presidency — will again be Nancy Pelosi. Second, after 150,803,558 votes have been counted, Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy came within approximately 35,000 votes — 0.02 percent — of becoming Speaker of the House.
Three congressional races have yet to be called, but House Republicans have already gained eight seats and will hold at least 210 seats and perhaps as many as 213. Five seats that Republicans lost — NJ-7, IL-14, IA-3, VA-7, and MN-2 — were each decided by 5,000–10,000 votes. Had Republicans done a bit better in those races, the majority would have flipped and Kevin McCarthy would be the next Speaker of the House.
Most election watchers expected Democrats to increase their majority in the House. FiveThirtyEight’s Nate Silver’s central estimate called for a net gain of six seats for Democrats and pegged the odds of a Republican majority at just 3 percent. The Cook Political Report predicted House Democrats would gain 10–15 seats.
Not only have House Republicans gained seats, not a single Republican incumbent has lost his or her reelection, and Republicans held 30 of 33 open seats. When all the counting is done, it may well be that the 117th House has 222 Democrats and 213 Republicans, a mere five-seat margin. The last time the majority was so slim was in 2001–02, when Republicans held the majority.
Does such a narrow victory for House Democrats imply a timid congressional agenda? On the one hand, Speaker Pelosi certainly knows that history suggests further losses for the party of the president at the midterm election and may try to avoid creating difficult votes for vulnerable members of her caucus. Moreover, six of her Democratic colleagues will hail from congressional districts won by President Trump. On the other hand, in 2001–02, Republicans pushed through large and partisan policies including the Bush tax cuts and Trade Promotion Authority. If that experience is a guide, Democrats may try hard to push an aggressive agenda to prove themselves to voters ahead of the midterm election in 2022.
Regardless, House Republicans are certainly within striking distance of the majority, and Minority Leader McCarthy may be speaker-elect in just 24 short months.
This article first appeared on the American Enterprise Institute blog.