“We lost too many women, Republican women, in the suburbs and we lost men and women,” she said. “We must win hearts and minds, and we can do it.”
One big question mark for how bad life could get for Republicans is the approach taken by Representative Nancy Pelosi of California, the longtime Democratic leader and presumptive speaker. When she first ran the House from 2007 to 2011, Ms. Pelosi oversaw a strongly top-down management structure as she worked with Mr. Obama and the Democratic Senate on economic recovery, the new health care law and a climate change measure that died in the Senate. Republicans were uniformly opposed to the Democratic efforts and had little role in the legislative process.
Ms. Pelosi is now under pressure from some in her own party to cede some authority, give committee leaders more leeway and bring more Democrats into House decision making. As she rounded up votes in her drive to return as speaker, Ms. Pelosi also agreed to demands to enact rules changes intended to make the House more bipartisan and empower the rank and file. As a result, Republicans could have a chance to get proposals considered in committee and by the House provided they can secure some level of Democratic buy-in.
“It looks like the place is going to breathe a little bit more,” Mr. Cole said.
One huge difference from the last time Democrats swung back into power is inescapable — President Trump. While Democrats had their differences with President George W. Bush, particularly over the war in Iraq, the volatile conflicts with Mr. Trump are at another level entirely. Democrats are already digging in for a series of investigations that will provide a unique challenge for House Republicans if they choose to take up the president’s cause.
“There are going to be a lot of investigations,” Mr. King said. “We have to be ready to be on defense when the investigations go too far.”
All of the Republicans said there was still a possibility, even in this hyper-polarized congressional era, for the two parties to find some consensus on a few issues, notably infrastructure. But given that the new Congress is kicking off with a shutdown caused by a deep partisan stalemate, it is hard to see much room for big compromises.
Republicans say they must adapt and try for a comeback.
“Everything changes rapidly,” Mr. Cole said. “Two years is not an eternity. You can get through these things. We need to hang together, pick our shots and keep moving.”
And with fewer Republicans around, Mr. Kinzinger said, “it might be easier to get a seat at the State of the Union.”