This paper investigates the cyclic behavior of deep wide-flange sections, used as columns in steel Special Moment Frames (SMFs), through detailed finite element (FE) analysis. A wide range of wide-flange sections is subjected to symmetric cyclic lateral loading combined with different levels of constant compressive axial load ratios representing the loading conditions of interior steel columns in SMFs. The FE simulations demonstrate that wide-flange beam-columns, with web and flange slenderness ratios near the current compactness limits of seismic design provisions (AISC 341-10), experience rapid cyclic deterioration in flexural strength under high axial load ratios. It is also found that deep wide-flange slender sections shorten axially to about 10 % of their length due to severe flange and web local buckling. Based on the FE simulations, for bottom story columns, where axial load ratios are in the range of 20–35 %, a reduction to about two thirds of the current compactness limit for highly ductile members would achieve a 4 % chord rotation while maintaining a flexural strength larger than 80 % of the expected plastic flexural strength of a steel column. The FE simulation results also suggest that the pre-capping rotation predicted by current modeling recommendations for steel components (PEER/ATC 72-1) is overestimated for sections with high web and flange slenderness ratios undergoing monotonic and/or cyclic lateral loading combined with high axial load levels. © 2014, Springer Science+Business Media Dordrecht.