5 key House races and what they show about American politics

So many candidates. So many races. So many polls. Election Day in the 21st century is a veritable Niagara Falls of information surging through social media streams and cable news networks.

Below, we’ve isolated five House of Representatives races that in our view speak to broader trends in American politics — trends that will hold, we believe, well after all the votes are counted.

Nicole Malliotakis, lone Republican from New York City, keeps her seat

Nicole Malliotakis speaks at a podium in front of an American flag.
Republican Rep. Nicole Malliotakis thanks her supporters during her victory speech on election night Tuesday in Staten Island, N.Y. (Robert Nickelsberg/Getty Images)

Nicole Malliotakis, the only Republican to represent New York City in Congress, kept her seat despite a spirited challenge from Max Rose, a Democrat who had previously represented New York’s 11th District, which includes perennially conservative Staten Island and a small swath of Brooklyn.

Rose led a disciplined, high-energy campaign focused on access to abortion, which emerged as a major midterm issue after the Supreme Court’s ruling last spring in Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health. He also highlighted Malliotakis’s support of then-President Donald Trump’s efforts to overturn the 2020 presidential election.

Even as outrage over Dobbs persisted, Republican messaging on crime exacted a toll. A military veteran, Rose was unable to escape conservative attacks that tied him to progressive rhetoric on policing.

In the end, Malliotakis nearly doubled Rose’s vote total, a sign of how badly the Democratic brand has been damaged with center-right voters who might be persuaded, under the right conditions, to vote for Democrats. Those conditions simply did not align in favor of such a shift in NY-11, with concerns about the economy and public safety top of mind for New Yorkers.

Virginia voters reward Abigail Spanberger for standing up to fellow Democrats

Rep. Abigail Spanberger speaks into a microphone at a podium in front of an American Flag with her husband and three daughters standing to the side..
Rep. Abigail Spanberger celebrates in Fredericksburg, Va., on Tuesday after winning reelection. (Anna Rose Layden/Getty Images)

For months, Democrats have been anxiously watching polls in Virginia’s Seventh Congressional District, a vertical swath stretching from the Washington exurbs down to the suburbs of Richmond. It was a seat Republicans badly wanted to reclaim, one of three in Virginia that Democratic women had won in 2018.

Rep. Abigail Spanberger may have been lucky in the candidate Republicans chose to run against her, former law enforcement officer Yesli Vega. Over the summer, a recording emerged of Vega doubting that rape could result in a pregnancy. Even though she denied having made the remark, it continued to exact a toll, with Spanberger painting Vega as a right-wing extremist.

“If Spanberger controls the narrative and makes it about Vega’s position on abortion, then it will be very difficult for Vega to break through,” Dave Wasserman of the Cook Political Report predicted to the Washington Post in late September. It proved a prescient observation.

Still, as other Democrats have discovered, reproductive rights have tended to motivate only a portion of the electorate. Spanberger was also helped by having bucked fellow Democrats in ways that highlighted her independence.

In a call with fellow House Democrats after the 2020 election, Spanberger lashed out at progressives for their embrace of socialism and defunding police departments, warning them that they would all get “f***ing torn apart” if they ran a similar campaign in 2022. The comments made national news, establishing her as an unabashed centrist unwilling to cede the narrative to the left.

Nor, however, was she a party functionary. Earlier this year, Spanberger took on House Speaker Nancy Pelosi on the question of whether members of Congress and their spouses should be allowed to trade stocks. By vociferously opposing the practice, Spanberger distanced herself from perhaps the most polarizing figure in Washington.

As returns came in on Tuesday night, accolades for Spanberger followed. “Her campaign was top-flight and her energy and savvy were extraordinary,” Larry Sabato, director of the University of Virginia’s Center for Politics, wrote on Twitter. “More Democrats across the nation should study how she did this.”

In Ohio, a problematic GOP candidate fails in a pro-Trump district

Rep. Marcy Kaptur holds a black binder in one arm while appearing to descend steps next to sign that reads: Members only.
Rep. Marcy Kaptur walks down the House steps on Sept. 30. (Bill Clark/CQ-Roll Call, Inc via Getty Images)

After the boundaries of Ohio’s Ninth Congressional District were redrawn to include more Republican areas of the state near the border with Indiana, Rep. Marcy Kaptur’s congressional career appeared to be coming to an end. First elected in 1982, the longest-serving woman in the House seemed as if she was bound to be undone by the overwhelming partisanship of today’s electorate.

Instead, Kaptur won her 19th race, helped in large part by an unlikely factor: her Republican candidate.

That candidate, J.R. Majewski, embodied Trumpism to a degree few others approached, first gaining notice for using 120 gallons of paint to turn his front yard in Bay Township into a giant Trump banner.

Majewski’s enthusiasm for Trump hardly ended there. He was present at the Jan. 6, 2021, riot at the U.S. Capitol, one of several future Republican candidates to emerge from the violent mob that tried to stop the results of the previous November’s presidential election from being certified.

He also offered a solution for states that had voted for Trump: secession from the United States.

Later, Majewski performed in a rap video titled “Let’s Go Brandon Save America,” a title that references a crude anti-Biden slogan. He also expressed enthusiasm for QAnon, the lurid conspiracy theory with antisemitic overtones.

Trump endorsed him last spring, sort of. “He’s in there fighting for whatever the hell he’s fighting for,” the former president said at a rally. “I don’t care. I love him.”

What proved most damaging to Majewski, however, were allegations that he had lied about his military service. Instead of deploying to Afghanistan, as he had claimed, he served in a logistical role in Qatar, an Associated Press investigation published in September found.

The day after the investigation was published, the House Republicans’ campaign committee stopped advertising in the district — an ominous sign.

Through it all, Kaptur kept campaigning, unglamorously but persistently. “A lot of shoe leather, a lot of personal visits, a lot of public events,” she told CNN.

It wasn’t rocket science, but it worked.

In New Jersey, suburban discontent prevails, topping Tom Malinowski, a centrist Democrat

Tom Malinowski hugs someone in room near half a dozen onlookers.
Rep. Tom Malinowski hugs a supporter as people cry during his election night party in Garwood, N.J., early Wednesday. (Andres Kudacki/AP Photo)

The most remarkable thing about the race between Democratic incumbent Rep. Tom Malinowski and Republican challenger Tom Kean was how unremarkable the race was. In a political season full of vitriol, hyperbole and fearmongering, the race for the House seat from New Jersey’s Seventh Congressional District was, in relative terms, a staid affair, waged by two men who could easily pass for Manhattan-bound commuters on the morning NJ Transit train from Short Hills.

Which, in a way, made Kean’s victory all the more remarkable. Asked to choose between two relatively moderate, studiously inoffensive candidates, the wealthy suburbanites of NJ-07 seemed to be motivated by an antipathy to the party in power, the party in charge of both Capitol Hill and the White House, which was, of course, the party to which Malinowski belongs.

(Malinowski has yet to concede, but the race has been called by several outlets, and Kean’s lead of nearly 14,000 votes is virtually insurmountable, even if some mail-in ballots remain uncounted.)

Frustrated by persistent inflation, voters in NJ-07 appeared frustrated by Democrats' inability to own up to the toll that high prices were taking.

“Most of the ads I've been seeing have been focusing on issues like women's rights and abortion, which I feel is very important,” one Rahway resident told NorthJersey.com, “but it's just not what the majority of people are focused on at the moment. A majority of Americans care about finances and inflation and how we're going to combat that.”

During the single debate between the two candidates, Kean was criticized for not offering specific solutions to the grievances he identified. In the final analysis, that lack of specificity did not seem to matter.

The race was not entirely generic. Kean is the son of a popular New Jersey governor, while Malinowski is a former Rhodes scholar who served in high-ranking diplomatic positions in the Obama administration. But he recently faced an investigation over a failure to disclose stock trades.

Kean may have benefited from frustrations that had been building since 2020. New Jersey was slow to reopen schools and lift other COVID restrictions, leading Phil Murphy, the Democratic governor, to nearly lose in his reelection campaign last year. He ultimately survived. Malinowski was apparently not so lucky.

In California, Katie Porter is fighting off a Republican resurgence

Rep. Katie Porter.
Rep. Katie Porter thanks supporters, volunteers and staff at an election night watch party in Costa Mesa, Calif. (Apu Gomes/Getty Images)

As of this writing, Rep. Katie Porter is expected to retain her House seat in Orange County, Calif. But the very fact that her race merited any writing to begin with is a sign of the complex crosscurrents that have claimed Democrats and Republicans alike.

Four years ago, Porter emerged as a Democratic superstar, an Elizabeth Warren understudy — in the literal sense, that is: Warren had been her professor at Harvard Law School — who used congressional hearings to humiliate corporate executives, with a whiteboard serving as the fearsome prop on which she sketched out the varieties of injustice she was battling.

Tuesday found her battling Scott Baugh, a little-known California state legislator whose ability to keep pace with — if not ultimately to defeat — Porter may speak to the limits of narrowly tailored partisan appeals.

It did not help that Porter, a crusader against corporate malfeasance, may have allegedly used her clout with the University of California, Irvine, to purchase a house at a price well below what the market commanded. Tense relationships with fellow Democrats have also slowed her ascent, limiting her legislative reach.

When all the votes are counted, Porter will likely prevail over Baugh. But the closeness of the race could serve as a reminder that most voters do not dwell in the pressure cookers of Twitter and cable news, where ideological commitments routinely receive praise — but do not readily translate into enthusiasm at the ballot box.