Rep. Diana DeGette has begun asking her colleagues for support in a budding campaign to be House Democratic whip, according to sources in the chamber.
Though it is hardly a challenge to Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi’s reign, DeGette’s campaign is the latest clear sign that Democrats have begun to look past the November elections and, more notably, past their top three septuagenarian Democratic leaders, who have held power for more than a decade.
Currently, Rep. Steny Hoyer holds the whip position. DeGette’s campaign is based on the supposition that Democrats win back the House in November. In that case, Pelosi and Hoyer would seek to move back up to speaker and majority leader, respectively. Assistant Democratic Leader James Clyburn would be in line to be whip, a position he held when Democrats were last in the majority.
Democrats may have cause to doubt that DeGette would follow through on her bid, however: She seriously considered running against Clyburn for the post when Democrats gained control of the House in 2007 but decided against it, citing the disruptiveness of an internal leadership struggle.
Clyburn appointed her as a chief deputy whip, a post she has continued to hold when Hoyer took control of the whip operation as Democrats moved back into the minority.
Besting Clyburn would be a high bar, since he is well-liked in the conference and represents the powerful Congressional Black Caucus at the leadership table. The Caucus would not take kindly to a diminished role in party leadership, although CBC member Barbara Lee is running for Conference chairwoman against Vice Chairwoman Linda Sanchez.
Still, it is possible that a Democratic House win could instigate a full leadership shake-up or that Clyburn doesn’t decide to move up, in which case DeGette would be well positioned to advance. And if Democrats lose the House, the campaign could be even more viable. Clyburn himself has said that if Democrats fall short of their goal, a leadership change will be necessary.
“If we’re still in the minority” after Election Day, he told Politico in April, “all of us have got to go.”
If such a shake-up occurs, any number of Democrats could be interested in moving up. Rep. Tim Ryan challenged Pelosi in 2016, winning about a third of the caucus, and he has said he would consider running again. Politico reported that Rep. Ben Ray Luján, the current Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee chairman, is interested in the whip position if Democrats win the majority. Several other members from different wings of the caucus could also decide to jump in.
DeGette declined to comment for this story except to say, “What I’m really focused on is winning the House in November.”
Her spokeswoman, however, did not deny that the seeds of a campaign are being planted.
“She’s been interested in this role for several years … and that hasn’t changed,” said DeGette’s communications director, Lynne Weil. “As this fall develops, she’ll continue to look at it.”
Indeed, DeGette once said in an interview for her Almanac of American Politics profile: "If the opportunity arose, I would love to be whip.
"I love to whip!" she continued.
DeGette is known as one of the most energetic members of the whip team and has long been talked about as a potential future leader for Democrats. After then-Rep. Rahm Emanuel left his post as House Democratic Caucus chairman to become President Obama’s chief of staff in 2008, DeGette was asked to run for the conference vice chairmanship. She declined, however, noting, “I don’t really want to be the chairman of the caucus. … I really want to be the whip,” according to 5280 magazine.
She has made a name for herself, back to her days in the Colorado statehouse, as a staunch defender of abortion rights and stem-cell research. From her perch as a senior member of the powerful Energy and Commerce Committee, she has proven her bipartisan bona fides by working across the aisle on health care issues, such as food safety and biomedical research.
DeGette represents a solidly Democratic district and has a modest leadership PAC that has donated to needy Democrats as well as the DCCC.
Still, the 60-year-old, 11-term incumbent is hardly a fresh face on the Hill, and it remains to be seen how much the progressive and youth movements in the party will shape Democratic leadership elections.
DeGette recently fended off a primary challenge from progressive Saira Rao, who ran a campaign similar to Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s successful challenge against Democratic Congressional Caucus Chairman Joseph Crowley. Rao criticized DeGette for accepting corporate PAC money, and she was supported by the Justice Democrats, a group that has tried to topple incumbent Democrats across the country.
Rao ran as an outsider, but DeGette used her own experience as an asset, noting that she would become chairwoman of the Energy and Commerce Oversight Subcommittee if Democrats win back the House and pledging to subpoena then-Environmental Protection Agency chief Scott Pruitt. If elected whip, she would not serve on the committee but would undoubtedly help shape the Democratic agenda.
In 2001, DeGette supported Hoyer as party leader over Pelosi, but Pelosi and DeGette have since mended fences; Pelosi headlined a primary fundraiser for her earlier this year and has worked with her on abortion-rights issues, even appointing her to the special committee Republicans created to investigate Planned Parenthood.