Democrats’ Control of the House Is Increasingly Fragile

The House Speaker needs all her skill to keep her shrinking majority in control. Photo: Alex Wong/Getty Images

Fifteen-term congressman Alcee Hastings of Florida died on April 6 at the age of 84, apparently from pancreatic cancer. That means there are now five vacancies in the U.S. House of Representatives. Unlike the Senate, the House does not allow states to fill vacancies temporarily or permanently via appointments; special elections are required. Hastings was a Democrat, like Cedric Richmond, Marcia Fudge, and Deb Haaland, all of whom resigned from House seats to accept positions in the Biden administration. There’s also one empty seat previously held by Republicans in Texas, which was vacated by the death of Ron Wright in February.

So the 222-213 margin by which Democrats originally held the House after the 2020 elections is currently at 218-212, pending special elections in May (Louisiana and Texas), June (New Mexico), and November (Ohio), with Florida’s date not yet established. The Texas and New Mexico districts are somewhat competitive but lean Republican and Democratic, respectively. The rest are not competitive.

As The Cook Political Report’s Amy Walter noted before Hastings’s death, for all the talk of Joe Manchin’s leverage in the Senate, it wouldn’t take many House Democrats to upset Nancy Pelosi’s apple cart, either.

Thus far, only Rep. Jared Golden (ME-02) has been a consistent defector. He was the one Democrat to vote against the American Recovery Act. Most recently, he was the only Democrat to vote against a Democratic immigration bill. 

There are six other Democrats who, like Golden, sit in districts that Donald Trump won in 2020. Those include Cheri Bustos (IL-17), Cindy Axne (IA-03), Elissa Slotkin (MI-08), Matt Cartwright (PA-08), Andy Kim (NJ-03), and Ron Kind (WI-03). Another 18 Democrats won in 2020 with less than 52 percent of the vote. 

Redistricting may help shore up the districts of some of these Democrats — like Bustos in western Illinois. But new lines could also put those like Tom O’Halleran (AZ-01) in an even more competitive or challenging CD. 

Assuming the May special elections go as expected and cancel one another out, between now and June, Pelosi can afford to lose only two Democratic votes and still enact legislation. Luckily for her, the House Democratic Caucus is more ideologically cohesive than it has been since — well, maybe forever. As Walter observed, “Back in 2009, for example, Democrats had a whopping 40-seat majority, but 22 of them represented conservative districts in deep-red states like Oklahoma, Tennessee, Arkansas, Alabama, West Virginia, and Mississippi.” What they’ve lost in numbers they’ve gained in unity.

And fortunately for Democrats, Pelosi is firmly established as one of the most skillful legislative leaders in the storied history of House Speakers. Still, you never know when the Grim Reaper, a scandal, or simply an unexpected personal decision could produce another vacancy. And politicians being politicians, you can be sure that quiet, self-convened caucuses of Democrats have taken a look at which prizes they may be able to secure by threatening or even executing a revolt.

So far, Pelosi has kept firm control in what she has said will be her last term as Speaker. Before deciding on a successor, Democrats will face a tough fight to maintain a majority in the midterms, when the president’s party almost always loses ground.

Democrats’ Control of the House Is Increasingly Fragile