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How The GOP Defied Expectations Down The Ballot

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Democrats kept control of the House of Representatives in this fall's elections, but Republicans are celebrating gains. NPR congressional correspondent Susan Davis has been asking how they did it.

SUSAN DAVIS, BYLINE: At his weekly press conference, House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy couldn't resist taking a victory lap.

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KEVIN MCCARTHY: Pundits doubted us. Polls were stacked against us. And I don't believe one person in this room believed we'd win one race.

DAVIS: House Republicans did far better than election forecasts predicted. Not one Republican incumbent has lost. Races are still being called, but Democrats are on track to have the narrowest single-digit House majority in two decades.

DAN CONSTON: The first building block of how we got here was recruitment.

DAVIS: Dan Conston runs the Congressional Leadership Fund, the top House Republican super PAC. Of the seats Republicans flipped, the winning candidate was either a woman, a minority, a veteran or some combination of the three. Conston said they had better messengers and a more persuadable message on the economy and cultural issues for undecided swing voters. CLF spent $140 million on ads this year. This one that ran against Democratic Congressman Joe Cunningham of South Carolina, who lost his race, sums up that message.

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UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: Cunningham's backed by lobbyists and radicals who want to defund the police. And he supports Biden - that means higher taxes.

DAVIS: The coronavirus pandemic has also made campaigning itself a cultural and tactical issue. Many Republicans continued to hold in-person events, rarely wore masks and ran traditional door-knocking campaigns to get out the vote - all things Democrats more often avoided over concerns of public safety. Republican Beth Van Duyne just won an open seat in the Dallas-Fort Worth suburbs. She credited her ground game with her narrow victory. She told NPR she never saw her Democratic opponent on the campaign trail.

BETH VAN DUYNE: Her point was she was concerned about COVID. And you know what? That's fine. But in an elected position role and a public servant role, we do not have the luxury of calling it in.

DAVIS: Van Duyne's was one of six Republican-held suburban Texas seats that Democrats made a play for in 2020. They lost in all of them. Liesl Hickey and Robert Blizzard are veteran party strategists who've been conducting an ongoing focus group with suburban swing voters across the country since late May.

ROBERT BLIZZARD: This doom and gloom that we were going to get, you know, slaughtered in the suburbs obviously was - did not materialize. And, you know, this type of research suggests why.

DAVIS: Hickey said that while Trump fatigue was very real for suburban voters, that fatigue did not drag down House Republicans on the ballot who focused on issues and not the president.

LIESL HICKEY: A center-right agenda, that's what suburban voters are looking for. And when we're on offense on policy, we win.

DAVIS: And it's why House Republicans are celebrating 2020, even though they still technically lost. This election didn't send them off searching in the political wilderness, but rather provided what many see as a shorter path back to the majority.

HICKEY: Going into 2022, we have a great opportunity to continue to create a choice between Republican policies and Democrat policies. And I think, you know, that will be a very clear choice as we go into the new year.

DAVIS: President-elect Joe Biden won a historic victory, but he had no coattails for his party, and now he faces an emboldened House Republican minority.

Susan Davis, NPR News, Washington.

(SOUNDBITE OF OMER KLEIN'S "SLEEPWALKERS") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.