Pelosi Gets the Majority—and a Math Problem

With the gavel again in reach, Nancy Pelosi needs to persuade or withstand all the incoming members who've vowed not to back her for speaker.

AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite
Nov. 7, 2018, 7:20 p.m.

House Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi prides herself in her ability to count and deliver votes, but the next few weeks may present her biggest numbers challenge yet.

Pelosi is projected to preside over a roughly two-dozen-seat majority next year, depending on how the remaining undecided races shake out. Yet she will be welcoming into her caucus at least 13 new members who have pledged on the campaign trail not to support her for speaker or who have voiced support for a new generation of leadership. Meanwhile, another seven races in which the Democratic candidate expressed support for a leadership change remain unsettled.

Add that to the three members who already voted against her on the House floor last year and pepper in an effort by disaffected Democrats to whip support against her, and Pelosi’s path to getting half of the whole House to vote for her in January’s speakership vote seems difficult.

“She needed a bigger margin,” said one undecided Democrat. “Still doable, but any defection could be mortal.”

Pelosi wasted no time Wednesday, a day after the election, sending a letter to members asking them to support her bid for speaker. She pledged to hold to the "For The People" agenda candidates touted on the campaign trail and gave a nod to the roughly dozen Democratic members of the Problem Solvers Caucus who have promised not to support any speaker candidate who doesn’t change the House rules to allow for more bipartisan legislation.

Complicating the matter for Pelosi is a group of a dozen or so members who spoke by phone Wednesday evening. They have been reaching out to the candidates skeptical of Pelosi to explain the leadership election process and let them know they have allies in the campaign for a new leader.

“There is a group of Democrats who are working in unison, in an organized fashion, to develop candidates, to coordinate messaging, to support members-elect, and to develop a concerted effort to elect a new leader,” said a Democratic aide, who asked not to be identified because of the sensitive nature of the discussions.

Then again, if there is anything members have learned about Pelosi over the years, it is that they should not count her out. At a Wednesday press conference celebrating her electoral victory, Pelosi told reporters she is confident she will become the next speaker and quickly shut down any other questions on the subject.

“I think I’m the best person to go forward to unify, to negotiate,” she said. “I think that my case is about being the best person going forward, and I’m not going to answer any more questions on that subject.”

That Pelosi would rather not answer questions about it is not a surprise. The fact is, there are more questions than answers at this early stage. Among those questions: Will the candidates who vowed not to support Pelosi change their minds when they come to D.C.? Will they consider a vote against Pelosi behind closed doors sufficient to honor their pledge, but support her as the caucus’s choice on the House floor? Can anyone actually win a race to replace her?

The odds someone could beat Pelosi in a head-to-head matchup are slim, though Pelosi’s detractors may indeed coax popular young members like Reps. Hakeem Jeffries or Tony Cardenas to take the chance. Yet there may not need to be a race at all. Some members have thought for weeks leading up to the election that Pelosi would step aside on her own if enough members dig in their heels and she realizes that she does not have the votes on the floor to be speaker. Still, her loyalists were steadfast on Wednesday.

“This is the person that took us to the Super Bowl and won. … I think we’ll hold it together. I think she’ll be the next speaker,” said a Pelosi ally, Rep. Anna Eshoo. “She will win. But it would be wrong for any of us to demand something of members coming in. It’s up to them, and Nancy Pelosi was the first person to say that as she was funding their campaigns for victory.”

Indeed, Pelosi has been by far and away Democrats’ best fundraiser, and even candidates who pledged not to support her benefitted from that largesse. Some may come around to supporting Pelosi in the end, yet telling constituents you’ll do one thing and then doing another generally doesn’t translate to continued electoral success—especially for new members from swing districts that will be GOP targets in 2020.

Meanwhile, other House Democratic groups are sure to have a say in Pelosi’s chase for the gavel, with some signaling that the path to the top job will be won with several smaller transactions along the way. Progressive Caucus Cochairman Mark Pocan and the group’s presumptive cochairwoman in the next Congress, Pramila Jayapal, both declined to commit to supporting Pelosi, as progressives are seeking more power themselves.

“I’m going to keep my options open to make sure I’m leveraging power to make sure progressives are well represented in leadership,” Pocan said. “If we don’t respond to the electoral wins we had, we will not have a good 2020.”

The winning candidates who are looking for a leadership change are not just the red-state or purple-district members who helped Democrats reclaim the majority, such as Colorado’s Jason Crow or South Carolina’s Joe Cunningham. Even some progressive types, such as Connecticut’s Jahana Hayes, Michigan’s Rashida Tlaib, and Pennsylvania’s Mary Gay Scanlon, have voiced a need for change.

Another idea for a path to victory has been making the rounds as well: New members who do not support Pelosi vote “present” during the speakership vote, thereby lowering the threshold for Pelosi to achieve a majority. Yet it could be risky to ask new members to participate in such legislative maneuvers on their first day of work.

As part of her charm campaign, Pelosi has for the first time begun talking about herself as a transitional leader, perhaps in an effort to tamp down concerns about her long tenure. Rep. Scott Peters, however, said Pelosi’s would be better served if she laid out a clear vision for what that transition may look like.

“I’ve always supported her. I think she’s an American hero, but obviously there’s a lot of people who wonder, 'What’s happening, what’s next?'” he said. “I think Nancy should be leading a conversation about transition in a transparent way. A lot of people are confused about where she wants to go.”

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