House Democrats Poised for a Power Boost

Even if they can’t win the majority, Democrats will have more chances to throw their weight around in a closely divided chamber.

House Assistant Minority Leader James Clyburn, Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, and Minority Whip Steny Hoyer at a news conference in 2015
AP Photo/Pablo Martinez Monsivais
Oct. 19, 2016, 4:44 p.m.

After a few years in the wilderness, House Democrats are preparing to be increasingly relevant next year—regardless of whether they take back control of the lower chamber.

House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi told her members on a conference call Wednesday afternoon that even if they do not win the 30-plus seats needed to take the majority, Democrats can most certainly whittle the Republican majority to under 10 seats.

The House party divide will “be single-digit either way. Either way it will be bad for Paul Ryan,” she said, according to a Democrat on the call.

Although Democratic leaders are more bullish on their chances of taking back the chamber than they were a few weeks ago, they believe that even in a slighter Republican majority they will be more important. As Pelosi noted, in a single-digit GOP majority Ryan would have a hard time winning back the speakership, let alone governing.

Democrats are assuming Hillary Clinton bests Donald Trump, who is cratering in national and key statewide polls following accusations from several women that he sexually assaulted them. House Minority Whip Steny Hoyer said in an interview that, even in a small majority, Ryan would have to work with Democrats in order to pass any legislation that would be signed by a Democratic president.

“He’s leading a party that is almost impossible to lead. If he has a five-vote majority, it will be even more impossible,” Hoyer said. “Paul Ryan, if he is reelected speaker, … he’ll have to decide, ‘Do I want to be an obstructionist and appeal to the Trump base … or do I want to try to appeal to the moderate wing?’”

Having a Democratic-controlled Senate would make House Democrats’ life even easier, especially because that would be a return to a political playbook they already know. When Democrats controlled the Senate and White House, they were able to jam House Republicans on a series of votes, including the Violence Against Women Act.

A Democratic leadership aide said they are already envisioning scenarios in which, on issues like immigration and infrastructure, a Democratic Senate could pass favorable legislation and House and Senate Democrats could team with the White House on a messaging blitz to force House Republicans to act on the bill, or at the very least make them look like obstructionists if they refuse.

That rosy outlook, and Trump’s free fall, are the reasons why Democrats are continuing to tie statewide races to Trump. In Virginia, for instance, Republican Rep. Barbara Comstock is narrowly favored to win and has called for Trump to drop out, but her Democratic challenger, LuAnn Bennett, is running ads claiming Trump and Comstock ultimately have the same agenda.

“The fundamental truth is that despite Speaker Paul Ryan and House Republicans’ efforts to distance themselves from Donald Trump, the dynamic has not changed in the slightest,” Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee Chairman Ben Ray Lujan told members on the conference call, according to a source on the call.

Still, with the allure of a wave election, Democrats are also widening the circle of races they consider winnable and investing time and resources even on races in which there is only an outside chance of victory. Hoyer, for instance, spent part of this week in South Carolina, where Fran Person, a former aide to Vice President Joe Biden, is running against Rep. Mick Mulvaney in a race that is not considered competitive but where Democrats think they can pick up a seat in a best-case scenario.

And, on the conference call, Rep. Zoe Lofgren highlighted a California race not thought to be competitive in which she believes Democratic candidate Suzanne Savary is gaining ground in her rematch against Trump-supporting GOP Rep. Dana Rohrabacher.

House Democratic Conference Chairman Xavier Becerra has been traveling to battleground districts as well this week and last week, including a Republican-leaning seat in New York where Democrat Colleen Deacon is running against Rep. John Katko. The fact that election prognosticators are more inclined to think the House could change hands has been validating, Becerra said.

“It actually confirms and validates what I’ve been saying for quite some time, that the House was in play,” he said. “It was tougher for people to believe that when I was saying it months ago. It becomes clearer today why.”

Unlike on the Republican side, however, the Democratic leadership picture seems pretty clear, regardless of whether the party is in the majority or minority. Although some younger members remain frustrated that their top three leaders are septuagenarians, Pelosi, Hoyer, and Assistant Democratic Leader James Clyburn have not signaled that they plan to step aside anytime soon.

With Rep. Chris Van Hollen running for the Senate, the new generation of Democrats have lost their presumptive successor to Pelosi. If the party wins the majority, Pelosi would be speaker and Hoyer the majority leader, and Clyburn could choose to run for his previous role as whip. It’s unclear whether more-junior members would choose to challenge any of the current top three leaders, but there seems no viable path to doing so successfully.

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