Democrats clinched two more years of controlling the House on Tuesday, albeit with a potentially razor-thin majority.
It marks a bittersweet finale to last week’s elections that has left the party divided and with scant margin for error for advancing their agenda.
The party has now nailed down at least 218 seats, according to The Associated Press, and could win a few others when more votes are counted.
While that assures command of the 435-member chamber, blindsided Democrats were all but certain to lose seats after an unforeseen surge of Republican voters transformed expected gains of perhaps 15 seats into losses potentially approaching that amount.
“We have the gavel, we have the gavel,” said House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, who seems all but certain to continue in that role.
While she bemoaned Democrats’ losses in districts where GOP votes proved “almost insurmountable”, she told reporters last week, “We’ve lost some battles but we’ve won the war.”
By retaining the House, Democrats will control the chamber for four consecutive years for only the second time since 1995, when Republicans ended 40 years of Democratic dominance.
Yet though Joe Biden won the presidential election, there was a strong chance Republicans would keep Senate control.
That would force Democrats to scale back their dreams of sweeping health care, infrastructure and other initiatives, instead needing compromises with the GOP.
Republicans have been heartened by the House results, which many believe position them for a strong run for the majority in the 2022 elections.
They also bolstered their distressingly low number of women representatives from 13 to at least 26, a record for the GOP, according to the Centre for American Women and Politics at Rutgers University, and were adding new ethnic minority lawmakers as well.
“The Republican coalition is bigger, more diverse, more energetic than ever before,” House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, said the day after the election.
Democrats went into Election Day with a 232-197 House advantage, plus an independent and five open seats.
With some races remaining undecided, it was possible that in the new Congress that convenes in January they will have the smallest majority since Republicans had just 221 seats two decades ago.
Democrats secured the majority after The Associated Press declared three winners late Tuesday: incumbents Kim Schrier in Washington, Tom O’Halleran in Arizona and Jimmy Gomez in California.
A tight majority could cause headaches for Ms Pelosi, empowering any determined group of lawmakers to pressure her on what bills should be considered or look like.
But sometimes, a slender margin can help unify a party because its members know they must stick together to achieve anything.
Democratic moderates and progressives clash periodically, and while the moderates are more numerous, the progressives’ ranks include influential social media stars like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez.
Underscoring that tension, House Democrats vented during a three-hour conference call last week in which both factions blamed the other for rhetoric and policies they said proved costly in the campaign.
“We should be honest that this was not a good outcome,” Tom Malinowski, a moderate freshman, said in an interview.
He said terms like “defunding the police” hurt Democrats by making it sound like they oppose law enforcement, and said they should not speak “as if we were talking to woke progressives in neighbourhoods where 90% of the votes are for Democrats.”
Pramila Jayapal, a progressive leader, said in an interview that Democrats need to discuss “how we talk about some of these issues that are critical to different parts of our base.”
But with moderates complaining that the GOP hurt Democrats by repeatedly accusing them of pushing socialism, Ms Jayapal said such accusations “will be used against us no matter what we say.”
Democrats believed they would pick up seats, especially in suburbs, because of a decisive fundraising edge, President Donald Trump’s unpopularity and exasperation over the pandemic. Many Republicans and independent polls supported that expectation.
But with some races still uncalled, Democrats have not defeated a single GOP incumbent and failed to capture open GOP-held seats in Texas, Missouri and Indiana they thought they would win.
Instead, they have lost at least seven incumbents: six freshmen from states including Florida, Oklahoma and South Carolina plus 30-year veteran Collin Peterson from rural Minnesota.
And while they successfully defended most of their 29 districts that Mr Trump carried in his 2016 victory, they saw stronger than expected performances by GOP candidates all around the country.
“With President Trump on the ballot, it just drove enormous turnout that was almost impossible to surmount,” said Elissa Slotkin, a reelected freshman.
So far, Democrats’ only pickups were three open seats from which Republicans retired. Two were in North Carolina, where court-ordered remapping made the districts strongly Democratic, and one was outside Atlanta.