Kevin McCarthy delayed a victory speech to what was supposed to be a jubilant party of Republicans until 2 a.m. Wednesday. By that time, a sizable number of attendees had already left.
And the GOP leader kept his speech brief, as he still didn’t have a firm call that his party had won the House.
“When you wake up tomorrow, we will be in the majority and Nancy Pelosi will be in the minority,” McCarthy said to a ballroom that quickly filled up with staffers after it had thinned in the early morning hours.
A year ago, McCarthy had predicted the GOP would pick up more than 60 seats in the chamber in a historic red wave. While that was before the reversal of Roe v. Wade, Republicans were still eagerly expecting dozens of House seats to swing in their favor after a campaign centered on economic woes and the underwater ratings of President Joe Biden.
Instead, election night saw a slow burn of those hopes, though party leaders were quick to point out they still had reason to celebrate.
McCarthy, flanked by RNC chair Ronna McDaniel and House GOP campaign arm chief Tom Emmer (R-Minn.), claimed that Rep. Sean Patrick Maloney (D-N.Y.) lost his race and would be the first Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee chair to be ousted in 40 years, and that Republican candidate Anthony D’Esposito had won his seat in New York. Neither race had been called.
The sleepy event was not the victory rager Republicans had envisioned. In downtown D.C. at the Westin Hotel, GOP staffers and lobbyists had flocked to different open bars scattered around the downstairs ballroom around 9 p.m., keenly awaiting election results to start rolling in from TVs tuned to Fox News.
However, in the hours leading up to McCarthy’s appearance, there were few cheers as the room watched as competitive races rolled in with mixed results.
“Oh no,” exclaimed a woman, as Fox News showed John Fetterman triumphing over Mehmet Oz in the Pennsylvania Senate race, hours after Republicans had started to acknowledge they wouldn’t get their red tsunami.
“The RED WAVE did not happen. Republicans and Independents stayed home. DO NOT COMPLAIN ABOUT THE RESULTS IF YOU DID NOT DO YOUR PART!” tweeted Rep. Mayra Flores (R-Texas), who won her district in a June special election but lost the seat to Democratic Rep. Vicente Gonzalez (R-Texas) Tuesday after redistricting.
Echoing this sentiment, Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) proclaimed on NBC News: "Definitely not a Republican wave, that's for darn sure."
A number of seats targeted by Republicans had already been called for Democrats or looked likely to be won by them. Among them was Rep. Abigail Spanberger (D-Va.), who staved off a challenge from GOP candidate Yesli Vega in what was considered one of the most competitive races in the Commonwealth.
GOP hopes of flipping a district in deep-blue Rhode Island were also dashed as Democrat Seth Magaziner defeated GOP candidate Allan Fung. And Wiley Nickel held an edge against GOP candidate Bo Hines in North Carolina early Wednesday, though the race had yet to be officially called.
Despite Democrats holding their ground in some areas, some House Republicans were still publicly cheerful. Rep. Thomas Massie (R-Ky.) told reporters after midnight that he was “just as happy with a slim majority.” Then he illustrated why that narrow majority would benefit him but be tough on McCarthy and other Republican leaders.
“I mean, look at what Joe Manchin has done in the Senate as the one deciding vote, right? I would love for the Massie caucus to be relevant. If there's a one seat majority, my caucus has one person. It's me. So I can decide whether a bill passes or not,” Massie said, noting that 218 seats means they have subpoena power. “I’d be the wrong guy if you're trying to find somebody who's heartbroken that we don't have a 40-seat majority.”
Apart from Massie, the only other GOP lawmaker found at the flagship GOP election-night party in Washington was Rep. Debbie Lesko (R-Ariz.), who made an appearance in the early hours.
For much of the evening, the ballroom was relatively quiet and attendees were somewhat scant or scattered before McCarthy took the stage, which was emblazoned with the words “TAKE BACK THE HOUSE.” Planners apparently hadn't anticipated such a late night, as they sought to figure out how to ensure guests would still have access to alcohol after 1 a.m.
The muted affair contrasted with stood in stark contrast to an exultant private party beforehand, hosted by the National Republican Congressional Committee, which included McCarthy and McDaniel as they prepared for the results.
Democrats, meanwhile, took their own victory lap of sorts, despite projections that they’ll still lose the House.
“While many races remain too close to call,” Speaker Nancy Pelosi said in a statement at 1:30 a.m., “it is clear that House Democratic Members and candidates are strongly outperforming expectations across the country.”CORRECTION: A previous version of this report misspelled Anthony D’Esposito's last name.