On a private conference call with House Democrats, Speaker Nancy Pelosi of California said they had pulled off a “remarkable achievement,” and said Mr. Maloney “took an arrow for us,” according to a person on the call who disclosed the remarks on the condition of anonymity. And she did not miss a chance to crow about what she said was a failed strategy by Republican leaders, saying that they had misspent millions of dollars, costing themselves potential seats.
For Republicans, the election night results were reminiscent of the midterm elections in 1998, when members turned on House Speaker Newt Gingrich after unexpected losses and forced him to give up the gavel. With no clear substitute to Mr. McCarthy waiting in the wings, that is not expected to happen this time.
“Frankly, there simply is no alternative,” said Representative Tom Cole, Republican of Oklahoma. “Without his candidate recruitment skills, fund-raising prowess, shrewd strategy and keen tactics there would be no Republican majority in the House.”
Many predicted that the person to take the fall for the underperformance would be Representative Tom Emmer, Republican of Minnesota, who served as chairman of the National Republican Congressional Committee and is running for the No. 3 position of whip.
Mr. McCarthy maintained his typical jovial mood on Wednesday morning, according to people who spoke with him, working the phones and predicting Republicans would end up with between 225 and 230 seats in the House, which would constitute a larger majority than Speaker Nancy Pelosi currently holds.
But the dynamics had changed under his feet. For months, the rationale for Mr. McCarthy becoming speaker was based on the assumption that his party would win the House by a large margin. You don’t fire the football coach, Republican lawmakers often said, after he wins the Super Bowl.
Some Republicans expressed confidence, even as at least two dozen critical races remained unresolved, that they would eventually take the majority, arguing that a victory is a victory, regardless of its size, and Mr. McCarthy could still claim he won the big game.