House Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi prevailed Wednesday against the most substantial opposition she has faced since taking her post in 2001, but her real challenge now is whether she can turn the angst of junior members into action.
She must now unify a battered and uneasy House Democratic Caucus still reeling from the 2016 elections and the realization that their Democratic message has been ignored by the electorate.
Heading into at least two years of solid Republican reign over Congress and the presidency, Democrats said Wednesday that Pelosi and her leadership team will have to take to heart the complaints of dozens in her caucus and millions nationwide, and craft a national message aimed at reclaiming the working-class electorate.
Pelosi acknowledged the challenge at a press conference following Wednesday’s leadership election. She noted that she is exhilarated by the more than two-thirds vote that she received from her caucus, but recognizes the enormity of the political obstacles facing her party.
“To take that message clearly to the public is something that is of historic challenge,” Pelosi said. “Nevertheless, this does afford an opportunity so that the congressional Democrats can go forward and remove all doubt that never again will we have an election where there’s any doubt in anyone’s mind where the Democrats are when it comes to America’s working families.”
Her challenger, Rep. Tim Ryan, had run a campaign noting that House Democrats had become a gerontocracy and are out of touch with rural voters, particularly in Rust Belt areas such as his hometown of Youngstown, Ohio. He won 63 votes, the most Democrats that had voted against Pelosi since her matchup with now-Minority Whip Steny Hoyer in 2001, and roughly 20 members more than her last challenge from then-Rep. Heath Shuler four years ago.
Still, Ryan said at a press conference following the election that despite the tough internal talk just undergone by Democrats, he believes that Pelosi can help bring the party back from political purgatory.
“At the end of the day, we have got to figure out how to win. I added to that conversation,” Ryan said. “We’re going to work our butts off to make that happen, and it’s not just Leader Pelosi, it’s a team. Part of this campaign was to energize lots of people that want to get out there and contribute.”
To that end, some Ryan supporters, such as Rep. Marcia Fudge, said the campaign succeeded because it forced leadership to open up the process to a wider array of members. Pelosi pledged to create more leadership positions to be filled by junior members.
“We did not win the position, but we won our caucus. We have now a leadership that listens to what we are saying,” Fudge said. “[Ryan] didn’t lose today. We made our caucus more responsible to its members.”
Others, however, left the election feeling disheartened. Rep. Jim Costa, for instance, said the scene felt like “déjà vu all over again,” noting he believes the caucus is making the same mistakes it make in 2010.
“I hope the leadership listens to us who have been basically telling them or years now that unless we can address the concerns of rural America, Joe Six-Pack, people who everyday work for a living and are fed up with what’s going on in Washington … we’re going to continue to find ourselves unable to win the swing seats,” Costa said. “And unless we can win these swing seats, we’re not going to be in the majority.”
Similarly, Rep. Stephen Lynch, a Ryan supporter, said he does not have high hopes for reconnecting with working-class Americans, many of who voted for President-elect Trump.
“The Democratic Party, in many areas of the Midwest, our brand is toxic right now,” he said. “I don’t know how someone gets elected in the Midwest when they say, ‘Elect me, I’m going to make Nancy Pelosi the speaker of the House.’”
Nonetheless, the opposition to Pelosi was not nearly enough to topple her. She won more than two-thirds of the caucus, and Rep. Marcy Kaptur, who has had disagreements with Pelosi in the past, said it came down to a few things: “A huge delegation, fundraising prowess that one cannot even imagine, very fair treatment of members, including some of those that may not agree with her on certain issues, and very hard work,” Kaptur said. But she added that she voted for Pelosi and is heartened by her message to the caucus.
“The first test will be how the caucus is restructured, how its working committees are restructured,” Kaptur said. “Even the leader in her election talked about trying to focus more on working families and how we structure the institutions of the caucus to achieve that.”
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