After Victory, Pelosi Faces a Tougher Challenge

The House Democratic Leader won more than two-thirds of the caucus against Rep. Tim Ryan, but it’s clear that members want changes.

House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi of Calif. speaks to members of the media following House Democratic Caucus elections Wednesday.
AP Photo/Andrew Harnik
Daniel Newhauser
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Daniel Newhauser
Nov. 30, 2016, 4:16 p.m.

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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