Pelosi's Future Uncertain as Dems Weigh Options
Faced with the unexpected task of rebuilding their party under a Donald Trump presidency, Democrats are deliberating whether their path forward includes Nancy Pelosi at the helm of the House caucus.
Under significant pressure from frustrated rank-and-file members, Minority Leader Pelosi postponed leadership elections until after the Thanksgiving holiday. Many Democrats have said this week they want more time to digest the lessons of last week’s “shellacking” rather than rushing to hold the elections this week.
The Democratic caucus is weighing whether the results of the presidential election call for a replacement of their long-serving, coast-dwelling, aging leaders or whether the collective experience of the top brass is beneficial in combating a President Trump and congressional Republicans.
“We don’t want to rush a vote to leadership for [voters] to think everything is business as usual,” said Arizona Rep. Ruben Gallego. “Everything is not good. Business as usual is no longer going to work.”
In a private meeting of Democrats Tuesday morning – before deciding to delay leadership elections until after Thanksgiving – Pelosi tried to rally her caucus by pointing out the opposition party took control of Congress under the three previous presidents.
“We’ve been through hell,” she said, according to an aide in the room. “And it’s only going to get worse as he makes his appointments and we have this fight. But we have to see it as an opportunity."
The challenge for those clamoring for change is there is no clear alternative to Pelosi. No member has officially thrown his or her hat into the ring.
One potential competitor is Ohio Rep. Tim Ryan, a youthful lawmaker from Youngstown whose district captures critical constituencies, including minority voters, but also contains the disaffected white blue-collar voters who turned out for Trump. Ryan hasn’t ruled out a bid and has been fielding calls from some lawmakers urging him to run, but he isn’t yet actively soliticing support.
If the congressman were to launch an insurgent bid, fellow Ohio lawmakers like Marcy Kaptur might reconsider her support of Pelosi. Kaptur and other Midwestern Democrats have expressed concern over the lack of representation of their states on the leadership team. During the Democratic caucus meeting on Tuesday, Kaptur said she told colleagues there are “certain places in the country that are missing in our leadership. If you look at who is in the leadership from our region, find me one person.”
Pelosi hails from California, Whip Steny Hoyer from Maryland, and Assistant Democratic Leader James Clyburn from South Carolina. After Hillary Clinton’s losses in Pennsylvania, Michigan, Ohio, and Wisconsin – all states President Obama won twice – Democrats are trying to figure out a message that better resonates in the so-called Rust Belt.
Kaptur led the charge against Pelosi in 2010 after Democrats lost their House majority in the midterm election, which was seen largely as a rebuke of Obama. Several Democrats who voted for the Affordable Care Act lost their seats that year. The caucus ultimately supported Pelosi, who had been demoted from the first woman speaker of the House to minority leader. Even Kaptur acknowledges that Pelosi brings a fundraising advantage that others can’t match and which will be critical in terms of electing more Democrats to the lower chamber.
“[Ryan] has not raised a great deal of money for others, so he will have his work cut out for him if he chooses to run,” Kaptur said.
She expressed frustration, however, with the fact that Pelosi’s fundraising prowess has strengthened her grip on the leadership position. Ryan’s lack of extensive national fundraising is seen as a negative, and many lawmakers view Pelosi’s ability to bring in the money – she raised $141 million in the 2016 cycle – as a major reason to keep her as leader. Kaptur said she viewed the need to have leaders raising large sums as a “corrosive” problem for Congress.
“Those who have the ability to raise those large sums then fund their colleagues and are successful in internal races because of it,” she told RealClearPolitics. “It creates an unending cycle."
Another area of concern among Democrats is cultivating a deeper bench and bringing younger people up through leadership.
“We have to bring in fresh faces. We have fresh faces and they ought to be listened to,” Hoyer said when asked about some changes that could elevate younger members and give them more influence.
“I want there to be a competition of ideas in potential leaders. I think that’s very healthy for us,” said Rep. Beto O’Rourke, a young lawmaker from Texas.
Without an alternative, many Democrats were poised to support Pelosi, even if they wanted more time to absorb the shockwaves of last week’s election.
“We just got a shellacking last Tuesday. We got an unexpected defeat and we’ve got to re-calibrate and decide how we go forward,” said North Carolina Rep. G.K Butterfield, chairman of the Congressional Black Caucus, who made clear that Pelosi has his support for leader.
“It’s just like death. There are different stages of grief that you go through,” he continued. “We have to interpret the results. We have to get the lessons learned. We have to figure out what we’ve done right, what we’ve done wrong and how we can better message our Democratic message in the years to come.”
Part of that process involves Democrats coming to terms with being in the minority in Washington and the reality that the party has diminished across the country.
“We don’t have the House, we don’t have the White House, we don’t have the Senate, we hardly have any governorships and state legislatures,” said Massachusetts Rep. Seth Moulton, a 38-year old Iraq War veteran elected to Congress in 2014. “The American people sent us a message loud and clear.”
Moulton supported delaying the leadership elections to put Democrats "in the best possible position that we can to take back the House in 2018.”
Indeed, the midterm elections are already on the minds of lawmakers. And Democrats face a daunting map in which they have to defend 25 U.S. Senate seats, 10 of which are in states Trump won, and the prospect of giving Republicans a filibuster-proof majority in the upper chamber. Senate Democrats will hold their leadership elections on Wednesday, and New Yorker Chuck Schumer is poised to take over as minority leader. But the question of who will lead the Democrats’ campaign arm in the Senate remains, and few are up for the task.
Congressional Democrats are also considering how they should govern in 2017, and whether they should rebuild by being the opposition party and work to deny Trump a second term or whether they should find areas of common ground and pick off successes for their constituents.
House members are preparing "for a very strong stand against any of the policies that this individual who is now the president-elect will render that will not have a positive effect on the American people. As Democrats, we have that responsibility,” said Texas Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee. “We want to shore ourselves up and we want to make sure we are girded in the manner that will respond to our Republican colleagues, and to work with him where it will help the American people, but to stand against any policies that will hurt the American people.”
“We are a tough bunch,” she said. “We have been on the mountain top and we’ve fallen.”