House Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi has been known to brag that while Republicans use her presence atop the party as a political attack against House candidates, she’s worth the trouble.
Heading into a critical November election, Democrats are looking for her to prove it—again.
Second only to legendary Speaker Sam Rayburn in tenure as a House party leader, Pelosi has no doubt cut a historic figure in her 16 years helming House Democrats. Yet in the wake of a disastrous 2016 election, the caucus has been simmering with discontent, and a significant chunk of the group is itching for a leadership change.
As they gather Wednesday at their annual retreat, relocated from Cambridge, Maryland because of upcoming votes to keep the government open, that discontent has been put on the back burner. That is chiefly because they are unified in opposition to President Trump and the political outlook for Democrats is so positive: They are facing an unpopular president in a midterm year, the polls are mostly pointing in their favor, the base is excited, the money is flowing, and candidate recruitment has exceeded expectations.
Yet the Democratic optimism could also be a poisoned chalice for Pelosi; if congressional Democrats fall short of expectations for a second election cycle in a row, there will be a real movement to clean house, several members and aides said. In other words, Pelosi appears to have her heart set on going out on top, but if she fails to win back the House this year, it may mark an unceremonious end to her career.
“If we take over the House, I think that a lot of that need for new leadership to take us in another direction is going to be somewhat muted,” progressive Rep. Raul Grijalva said. But should Democrats fail to win back the gavel, he added, “then the race for the top positions become competitive.”
Pelosi, for her part, has always kept talk of her own future close to her vest. If not for her admission that she would have retired had Hillary Clinton won the 2016 presidential race, members might have no cause to think she will ever step down. While the 77-year-old’s career is closer to the end than the beginning, she has shown few outward signs of slowing down. Instead, she zooms from meeting to meeting on Capitol Hill and keeps her caucus in line while traversing the country on weekends raising a small fortune. She is, as one member put it, the Democrats’ “one-woman super PAC.”
“Leader Pelosi is singularly focused on winning back the House for Democrats. The Leader is not here on a shift, but on a mission,” Pelosi spokesman Drew Hammill said in a statement.
Pelosi’s support in the caucus remains deep and wide, and members know they would have a tough time replacing her skill sets. As a result, she has never really faced a credible challenge, and there exists no candidate clearly next in line to replace her.
“The caucus is solidly behind Nancy Pelosi. She has demonstrated that she has been able to skillfully deal with this president. That’s what we got when we elected her: someone who can go to the table and give us the best chance,” said Rep. Eric Swalwell, a Pelosi ally. “We have a leader and we’re all rowing toward 2018. If someone’s paddle is not rowing in that direction, it’s slowing us down in getting to victory.”
Still, the last year has presented cracks in the veneer of her leadership. Members complain that they lack the opportunity for advancement into leadership, that the party focuses too much on identity politics rather than economic issues, that Pelosi’s home state of California wields outsized influence, that her inner circle is too cliquey, and that viable leaders have come and gone as Pelosi hung on to power.
Facing a challenge from Rep. Tim Ryan, she lost a record one-third of the caucus in a closed-door November 2016 vote—a number members believe would have been higher if she had faced a more qualified challenger. Her preferred candidates for two top committee posts fell short of securing the jobs. And on the campaign trail, several candidates have either sworn off or declined to commit to voting for Pelosi for leader.
There is no doubt, too, that there exists a small but vocal group in the conference that will look to depose Pelosi no matter the outcome.
“My hope is that we say, ‘Great, thank you for bringing us to the promised land.’ But as all leaders have to do, they have to realize it’s time to pass the baton at some point,” said Rep. Kathleen Rice, an ardent Pelosi detractor. “That could maybe give hope to voters that, ‘Hey, if I elect these new people, maybe they will go to Washington and bring the kind of leadership change we as Democrats need, finally.’”
It is the size and inclination of the coming freshman class, more than anything, that makes for a wild card this year. A large-enough freshman class, especially if many of them feel unbeholden to Pelosi, could repeat the path of the 1974 Democratic delegation and demand new committee chairs or even new leaders.
“If we’re smart enough to be successful in November, I don’t think it’s any one person who will get us there,” said Rep. Cheri Bustos, a member of leadership. “Leader Pelosi has been very good to me. … It is not my style to either publicly or not publicly speak badly of [her], but I think if people back home—if that’s something important to their constituents, I don’t have anything against that.”
Still, the election scenarios aren’t as simple as win-or-lose. Rep. Gerald Connolly said a close margin, with Democrats either up or down by a few seats, could be interpreted differently. Maybe Democrats would blame Pelosi for not doing better electorally. Maybe they would decide that with such a tight margin, Pelosi’s aptitude for counting votes would be more necessary than ever.
“Outcomes will be dependent on the election results, and not just in a black-and-white striated way. There will be permutations of various scenarios,” Connolly said. “Are you credited with bringing us back out of the wilderness? Did it happen despite you? Did you miss some opportunities that in retrospect seem obvious and cost us?”
In that case, it may be up to Pelosi to decide whether fighting to stay in control is ultimately worth the trouble.
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