Nancy Pelosi led her party to a historic victory on Election Day. And yet she still faces real hurdles to reclaiming the speaker’s chair after an eight-year absence.
The minority leader formally began her bid to become speaker in the 116th Congress on Wednesday night, sending letters to each Democratic incumbent and member-elect asking for their vote.
My vision for the next two years is to restore the House to the role it should have as a strong and independent voice for the American people, and maximize the ability and the creativity of our entire Caucus,“ Pelosi said.
“In that spirit, I am writing to respectfully request your support for Speaker, and do so with confidence and humility.“
With that announcement, Pelosi kicked off a whip operation that will last through the Democratic leadership elections — expected to take place Nov. 28-29 — into the new Congress, when a speaker will be chosen Jan. 3 on the House floor.
But these aren’t the halcyon days of 2006, when Democrats had just won a House majority and Pelosi, at the height of her power, glided into the speakership unchallenged.
A cluster of Democratic candidates who either vowed to oppose Pelosi or had called for “new leadership” won on Tuesday. And some of her critics inside the House Democratic Caucus have argued that it’s time for new blood to take the reins of the party and have already begun organizing to oust her.
So far, these disgruntled Democrats don’t have anyone to run against her, which makes it hard to see how they can block her return to power.
But Pelosi, who has led the caucus for 16 years, will have to maneuver delicately in the coming days to convince 218 Democrats to support her during that January roll-call vote. And that will take all of the political skills Pelosi has mastered during her 31 years in Congress.
Outwardly, Pelosi is expressing nothing but confidence. Her track record makes clear that it’s a bad idea to bet against her. During a news conference Wednesday, she bristled at questions over whether she had the needed votes to reclaim the gavel.
“I think I am the best person to go forward to unify and negotiate,” Pelosi said. “I am a good negotiator, as anyone can see in terms of how we have won every negotiation so far.”
Pelosi added: “I am not going to answer any more questions on that subject.”
Pelosi’s bid for the speakership comes as her fellow septuagenarians declared their own bids to reclaim years-old positions in the majority. House Minority Whip Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) announced that he would seek the majority leader position around the same time Assistant Democratic Leader Jim Clyburn (D-S.C.) declared he’s running for whip.
Clyburn, however, faces a challenger this year: Rep. Diana DeGette of Colorado also has declared for the position. Contenders for other lower-level spots in leadership also began making calls. The race for caucus chair between California Democrats Rep. Barbara Lee and Linda Sánchez is heating up.
Most eyes, however, are focused on Pelosi.
So far, no Democrat is challenging her, though those who want to drive her from Washington are organizing to try to block her ascent. And yet, many of these critics appear to be waiting to hear from the incoming freshman class, hopeful that the new candidates will take the lead.
With some Election Day votes still being counted, it’s also unclear how large the Democratic majority will be and what kind of cushion Pelosi will have.
Pelosi opponents are ready to shepherd the political newcomers and plan to reach out to Tuesday’s Democratic winners who have publicly expressed opposition — either directly or indirectly — to voting for Pelosi as party leader, according to some sources.
They’ll frame their pitch as a bid to save the House in 2020, arguing that forcing some of these Democrats from red districts to vote for Pelosi will make them vulnerable next election.
Rep. Tim Ryan said as much Tuesday night in a brief interview. The Ohio Democrat who unsuccessfully challenged Pelosi two years ago said Democrats have a responsibility to protect the “majority makers” from GOP attack ads that will highlight their votes for Pelosi.
Ryan said he wasn’t currently looking at challenging Pelosi again, though he did not rule it out. “At the end of the day it’s got to be about these new candidates,” Ryan said. “They need to advise us as to what direction they want to go in. … they won in red districts.”
Ryan added: “I think it’s important that we listen to them for the next few days as to what the leadership needs to look like for them… they should have a big say in this.”
While a number of House races had yet to be called Wednesday morning, about a dozen candidates who have demanded “new leadership” or said they won’t vote for Pelosi, won. It is unclear, however, how many are willing to actually vote against her on the floor.
Pelosi allies have suggested some of these new members could simply vote against her in the private caucus meeting in late November, when Pelosi only needs a majority, and then back her on the floor on Jan. 3, the first day of the new Congress. Other possibilities being discussed include asking opponents to vote “present” or skip the vote entirely, which would allow Pelosi to take the gavel without their help.
But some candidates have confirmed they won’t go for that, including Conor Lamb, Abigail Spanberger and Jason Crow.
Yet for all the complaints from her Democratic critics, Pelosi has enormous advantages heading into this fight:
· Pelosi has been the only party leader for a generation of Democrats. She’s led them in the majority, in the minority, and now in the majority again. They know her and they are used to her.
· Pelosi is a fundraising juggernaut who raised tens of millions of dollars for Democratic challengers and incumbents this cycle. That buys a lot of goodwill.
· A historic number of women candidates won election, which Pelosi will use to her advantage. Her allies wonder how these women could actually vote against the first female speaker.
· Pelosi will have committee assignments, commission posts, and other perks to divvy out in return for support.
Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee Chair Ben Ray Lujan downplayed suggestions that swing-district victors would be attacked in the future by Republicans if they backed Pelosi after suggesting they would not. Those who called for “new leadership,” he argued, already having delivered by becoming leaders in their own right and coming to Washington.
The New Mexico Democrat, who is running to be assistant democratic leader, also argued that constituents don’t care about the Pelosi question as much as policy issues that impact them.
“What’s most important is that we work to deliver on commitments made to the American people… an infrastructure package, cleaning up Washington D.C. and helping lower the costs of prescription drug prices across America,” he said. “I really believe that if we delivered on those commitments, that that’s how our colleagues will be measures.”
For their part, President Donald Trump and GOP congressional leaders are already acting as if Pelosi will be speaker next year.
Trump has said he wants to work with Pelosi on boosting infrastructure spending and lowering prescription drug prices, two rare policy stances of agreement.
“I think she’s a very smart woman. She has done a very good job,” Trump said at a press conference Wednesday, adding that the two didn’t discuss the prospect of impeachment in a phone call.
“A lot of people thought I was beings sarcastic or joking, I wasn’t,” Trump added, in reference to a tweet saying Pelosi deserved to be speaker. “There was nothing sarcastic about it, it was really meant with good intentions.”