Democratic Leadership Scramble Intensifies

Hakeem Jeffries is in, Linda Sanchez is out, and multiple races have gotten more complicated.

Rep. Hakeem Jeffries (right), accompanied by House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (left), is considered a strong contender to assume party leadership in a post-Pelosi world.
AP Photo/Andrew Harnik
Daniel Newhauser
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Daniel Newhauser
Nov. 8, 2018, 7:30 p.m.

The challenge with musical chairs is that not everyone gets a seat, and so it goes with the House Democratic Caucus’s frantic down-ballot leadership elections of 2018.

With little movement so far at the top echelons of leadership, at least two three-way races and in one case a five-way race for three slots are breaking out for lower-level leadership positions—and sources think even more people could declare before the fields are settled.

What is becoming clear is that Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi’s bid for the speakership will likely proceed—for now—with little or perhaps just token opposition. Instead, people viewed within the caucus as logical heirs will be running for more junior positions, with an eventual eye towards the gavel should Pelosi not be able to get the votes. That inevitably leaves some odd candidates out.

Although he was a late entrant to the race, sources believe members are planning to clear the field for outgoing Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee Chairman Ben Ray Lujan to become assistant Democratic leader. Having shepherded House Democrats to a wave victory in the chamber, Lujan has earned an unimpeded step up the ladder, those sources said.

That leaves an unclear path for the two other candidates for the position, Democratic Policy and Communications Committee Cochairs Cheri Bustos and David Cicilline. Bustos may drop out of the race and run instead to chair the DCCC, Lujan’s old job. Already running for the DCCC are two Washingtonians, Reps. Suzan DelBene and Denny Heck.

DelBene, a wealthy former Microsoft executive, will have the edge in terms of ability to raise money, but Bustos is making a strong case that her ability to win a Trump-favoring district makes her a valuable asset to the leadership table.

Heck has chaired the DCCC’s recruitment committee for four years in which it has recruited talented candidates. A source close to him said he will remain in the race regardless of who else runs.

Cicilline is expected for now to run to maintain his slot on the DPCC. He would be term-limited after the 116th Congress. But four other candidates are already making moves to run for the three DPCC cochair slots: Reps. Matt Cartwright, Debbie Dingell, Adriano Espaillat, and Ted Lieu. More candidates may yet declare for that race.

Meanwhile, another three-headed race was averted Thursday when Rep. Linda Sanchez dropped her bid to be Democratic Caucus chairwoman after she found out her husband was indicted on theft and conspiracy charges. James Sullivan and five other people connected to a Connecticut energy cooperative stand accused of using public money on lavish trips, including to the Kentucky Derby.

Earlier in the day, the Congressional Hispanic Caucus held a conference call during which any leadership candidates who want the group’s endorsement were asked to submit a formal letter to the group outlining the candidacy. Only Lujan and Rep. Pete Aguilar, who is running for caucus vice chairman against Rep. Katherine Clark, mentioned they would submit one.

Sanchez’s unexpected exit leaves DPCC Cochairman Hakeem Jeffries and Rep. Barbara Lee in an unusual race involving two members of the Congressional Black Caucus. The group usually settles matters internally rather than allowing power struggles to spill out into the open, but in this case, Lee, a well-regarded former chairwoman of the group, will take on up-and-comer Jeffries.

Several Democratic members and aides believe that Jeffries has a bright future in the caucus and is widely viewed as a strong contender to lead the party in a post-Pelosi world. The 48-year-old has youth on his side, as members may feel adding 72-year-old Lee to a leadership table already packed with septuagenarians may send the wrong message to candidates who won elections on a message of generational leadership change.

Lee, on the other hand, has distinguished herself with a trailblazing progressive legislative track record, and she formerly cochaired the Congressional Progressive Caucus. She sent a letter to the caucus Thursday evening, writing, “As the daughter of a veteran, someone who relied on food stamps and public assistance to feed my sons, and climbed out of poverty to open a thriving small business, I want to ensure that every family has the opportunities that were afforded me.”

Among the top three slots, Rep. Diana DeGette is looking to upset Rep. James Clyburn in his bid to return to the majority-whip post. DeGette has long been interested in being the party whip, but Clyburn’s presence as the CBC’s highest-ranking member and his good relationships across the caucus have kept him in power, and it remains to be seen whether another CBC member’s presence in leadership would change that dynamic.

Minority Whip Steny Hoyer, meanwhile, is so far running unopposed to return to his former post as majority leader.

Ally Mutnick contributed to this article.
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