Republicans finally won control of the House more than a week after the 2022 midterm elections, but their victory was significantly smaller than they had hoped, than polls had forecast, and than historical trends had suggested it should have been.
The GOP's disappointing victory, and the Democrats' better-than-expected loss, were due to lots of decisions made by individual campaigns, and in some cases, the quality of their candidates. But there were also circumstances out of the hands of the campaigns and their partners and donors. If any number of choices had gone the other way, Democrats would have retained control of Congress — or Republicans may have surfed their red wave to a much larger victory.
Here are four outside decisions that likely gave Republicans control of the lower chamber of Congress:
Florida GOP's successful gerrymander
The Republicans "might not have had a shot at the House at all if not for a court ruling that let stand a brutal GOP gerrymander" in Florida, said Newsweek's Adrian Carrasquillo. After Florida's Republican legislature approved a relatively neutral congressional map, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis (R) called them back to draw a new map a lot more favorable to Republicans.
That map, Cook Political Report's Dave Wasserman told NPR's Weekend Edition, gave the GOP "an additional four seats in that state, converting the delegation from 16-11, in Republican's favor, to 20-8. And that alone right there is likely to be the size of the Republican majority."
On top of the political hardball involved, "the entire effort likely violates the Florida state Constitution, which voters amended in 2010, with overwhelming majorities, to ban partisan gerrymandering," David Daley said at The Nation. But DeSantis bushed all that aside, and Florida's Supreme Court, "packed with DeSantis cronies, allowed the rigged map to stand."
New York Democrats' thwarted gerrymander
Republican legislatures also contrived to draw more favorable maps in Texas, Ohio, Tennessee, and several Deep South states, and "while Democrats were able to gerrymander a small number of states of their own, including New Mexico and Illinois and Nevada and Oregon," Wasserman told NPR, "they weren't able to counter Republicans by gerrymandering the very large blue states that they typically dominate — California and New Jersey and Washington and Colorado and Virginia," all of which have "passed anti-gerrymandering reform" in which commissions or courts draw the congressional districts.
Democrats did try to gerrymander New York, but "it got struck down by a state judge," Wasserman added, and the combination of successful GOP gerrymandering and Democratic failures or redistricting reforms "probably cost Democrats at least 15 seats that they would have been able to essentially grab into their column."
In New York alone, Republicans won Long Island's four House seats and "knocked off the chair of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee for the first time in more than 40 years," Axios reported.
A New York Democratic source texted Axios that "all blame" goes to state Senate Democrats for "screwing up" the redistricting lines, and that "could cost the Dems the U.S. House in the end ... unreal." A New York Democratic strategist also blamed disgraced former New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo (D) for appointing several of the conservative-leaning judges who threw out Democrats' redistricting map, adding, "He's simmering under the surface just making everything stink."
New York Democrats' non-gerrymander collapse
The bungled gerrymander doesn't explain all five crucial losses in New York.
"Furious Democratic strategists and outside observers say the wounds were self-inflicted," Axios reported. The late congressional map drawn by the court-appointed special master left the Democratic incumbents madly scrambling to find suitable districts, and amid the chaos, "New York Democrats spent the remainder of the campaign getting hammered by Republicans on crime and bail reform," which ended up being potent issues, especially when amplified by the New York media market. There's anecdotal evidence the focus on crime hurt House Democratic candidates just outside New York City.
Supreme Court allowed racial gerrymanders
If Republicans end up winning the House by fewer than 10 seats, "it will be no overstatement to say that the conservative majority of the U.S. Supreme Court took control of the House of Representatives for Republicans," Mark Joseph Stern argued at Slate just after the election. "The reason is simple: In February, by a 5-4 vote, SCOTUS suspended the Voting Rights Act's ban on racial gerrymandering," allowing Alabama to eliminate one of its two black-majority districts even after conservative lower courts had ruled that violated federal law and Supreme Court precedent.
The Supreme Court gave no "compelling or even plausible explanation" for its unsigned "shadow docket" stays in these reach gerrymander cases, University of Texas law professor Steven Vladeck told The New York Times. "It just so happens that the unexplained rules in election cases have a remarkable tendency to save Republicans and hurt Democrats." And these cases were so blatant, Stern added, "even Chief Justice John Roberts, an avowed foe of the VRA, felt compelled to dissent, noting that the district court 'properly applied existing law in an extensive opinion with no apparent errors for our correction.'"
And that ruling had a long shadow: A federal judge in Georgia cited the Alabama stay ruling to allow a congressional map to stand that he said violated the VRA, and the Supreme Court stepped in again in June to stop another federal judge from ordering a new, VRA-complaint map in Louisiana. Federal judges similarly allowed congressional maps that shrank Black and Latino representation in Texas and South Carolina, and a map in Ohio that violated the state's ban on political gerrymanders.
Wasserman told the Times the use of rejected maps in Alabama, Georgia, Louisiana, and Ohio handed Republicans five to seven House seats they wouldn't have otherwise won.