After midterms, Dems face leadership election scramble
House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi appears supremely confident that she will lead the Democratic Party back to the majority in the House.
The regular season is over as the Boston Red Sox captured their ninth World Series. Now baseball enters its second season: free agency.
Where will Manny Machado go? Does Bryce Harper re-sign with the Nationals? Is Harper truly worth a mega-contract after a disappointing season?
Congress kind of has two seasons, as well. The midterm elections are Tuesday – kind of the World Series. And then, House Republican and Democratic leadership elections.
Yet who will be what in the House in the 116th Congress is as muddled as it’s been in decades.
Let’s turn to the Democrats.
As is the case with the Republicans, which Democrats emerge as leaders in the new Congress hinges on the party in the majority – and by how much.
House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi D-Calif., has long wanted to return to the speaker’s suite after serving as the nation’s first female speaker from 2007 to 2011. Criticism of Pelosi intensified among some rank-and-file Democrats over the past few years. They pushed for new blood and complained that the old guard of Pelosi, House Minority Whip Steny Hoyer, D-Md., and Assistant Minority Leader Jim Clyburn D-S.C, blocked a new generation from climbing the leadership ladder. Restless Democrats blasted Pelosi after she failed to return Democrats to the majority after the 2010 midterms. The calls by some to dump Pelosi only escalated after Democrats failed to win a string of competitive special elections last year.
Republicans have long demonized Pelosi in House races across the country – with great success. There are dozens of House Democratic candidates who say they will either oppose or won’t commit to Pelosi as Speaker in the new Congress. Whether they adhere to those promises is unclear. It takes 218 votes on the House floor to become Speaker. It’s the first item of business when the House meets to launch the 116th Congress at noon on Jan. 3, 2019.
Let’s say Democrats win the House by five or six seats. New House Democrats will face immense pressure going into the leadership contests. Do they support Pelosi? Or do they cast a vote for someone else? After all, these are the very Democrats who propelled the party into the majority. “Majority makers,” as they’re often called. These Democrats won election into the House in battleground districts. Those same districts will likely be competitive again in 2020. Do those freshman members immediately renege on a key campaign promise to oppose Pelosi and cast a ballot for her on their very first vote in Congress in January?
That said, the House Democratic Caucus could see an influx of liberal newcomers who actually bolster Pelosi’s chances. Conversely, progressive Democrats could balk at Pelosi and push for someone new and to the left of the San Francisco Democrat.
However, Pelosi is Pelosi. No one raises more money for Democrats than Pelosi. Few can match her legislative legacy and political acumen.
Consider what one senior House Democrat told Fox News last year when asked about Pelosi.
“She’s like Trump,” said the Democrat who asked to not be identified. “She could shoot somebody in broad daylight on Fifth Avenue and nothing would happen.”
The consensus is that Pelosi stays if Democrats win the House by a lot. All bets are off for Pelosi if Democrats emerge with a small majority.
How will we know if Pelosi has the votes to prevail? As argued in this space last year, we’ll know when Pelosi knows. No one on Capitol Hill is as good a vote counter as Pelosi.
Rep. Tim Ryan, D-Ohio, challenged Pelosi for minority leader two Novembers ago. Days before the vote, I asked Pelosi to handicap her support in the leadership contest as she made her way to the Democratic Cloakroom just off the House floor.
It was hard for me to hear what Pelosi said to me as she stepped into the cloakroom over the din in the hallway. I thought Pelosi predicted she would command the votes of “three-fourths” of House Democrats. I hollered a follow-up question at Pelosi just to be clear.
“Three-fourths?” I inquired as Pelosi slipped behind the cloakroom door.
Pelosi immediately peaked through the doorjamb.
“Two-thirds, Chad,” replied Pelosi, wagging her index finger. “Two-thirds.”
Pelosi vanquished Tim Ryan in the leadership vote a few days later – with precisely 67 percent of the vote.
In other words, Pelosi will know if she lacks the votes ahead of time. Therefore, it’s plausible she could step aside in advance.
It’s hard to see how Pelosi could return as minority leader if Democrats fail to capture the House. There could also be recriminations – or opportunities – for Hoyer and Clyburn. If Pelosi disappears, Hoyer and Clyburn, and others could make a charge to become the top Democratic leader. But the triumvirate of Pelosi, Hoyer and Clyburn form a symbiotic bond which represents various constituencies in the House Democratic Caucus. The presence of each member of the trio at the leadership table gives a voice to various Democratic factions.
If Democrats again fail to win the House, it could be anybody’s ballgame.
This is complicated by the June primary defeat of House Democratic Caucus Chairman and Rep. Joe Crowley (D-NY). Crowley was seen as the most-feasible figure to matriculate in leadership from the “next generation” of Democrats. But Crowley’s loss to Democratic New York Congressional nominee and progressive favorite Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez changed all of that. Crowley’s exit muddied the future Democratic leadership picture.
So what’s next?
Steny Hoyer won’t challenge Pelosi directly for any slot. But it’s unclear if Hoyer could command the votes he needs for speaker or minority leader. Like Pelosi, Hoyer is also a legislative master, sharp vote counter and is politically shrewd. But Hoyer’s most obvious rival behind Pelosi is Jim Clyburn. In 2006, Hoyer toppled Pelosi’s favored candidate for majority leader, the late Rep. John Murtha D-Pa., Hoyer also withstood a potential squeeze play from Pelosi, and, to some degree Clyburn, for the whip position when Democrats lost the majority in the fall of 2010. Clyburn’s core support emanates from the Congressional Black Caucus (CBC) and prospectively, other minority caucuses on the Democratic side of the aisle. If Pelosi is out of the way, many CBC members will tell you privately they think it’s “Clyburn’s time.”
Democrats would relish selecting the first African-American speaker of the House – particularly in the age of President Trump.
Pelosi still wields a lot of support among Democrats, even if she steps down. It’s possible Pelosi could help select her successor, granting that prospective leader a sought-after blessing.
But after the troika of Pelosi, Hoyer and Clyburn, it’s a free-for-all for House Democrats.
Here are some names which will emerge for possible leadership bids, in no particular order: House Democratic Caucus Vice Chairwoman and Rep. Linda Sanchez, D-Calif.; Rep. Barbara Lee, D-Calif.; CBC Chairman and Rep. Cedric Richmond, D-La.; Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee (DCCC) Chairman and Rep. Ben Ray Lujan, D-N.M.; Reps. Cheri Bustos, D-Ill., David Cicilline D-R.I., Hakeem Jeffries, D-N.Y., Adam Schiff, D-Calif., Marcia Fudge, D-Ohio, Mark Pocan, D-Wis., Seth Moulton, D-Mass., Pete Aguilar, D-Calif., Debbie Dingell, D-Mich., Jackie Speier, D-Calif., Ruben Gallego, D-Ariz., Katherine Clark, D-Mass., Derek Kilmer, D-Wash., Dan Kildee, D-Mich., Elijah Cummings, D-Md., and the aforementioned Tim Ryan.
Frankly, most of these Democrats could be viable for any position once you whittle through the top tier.
It’s kind of like what humorist Will Rogers once said: “I am not a member of any organized party. I am a Democrat.”
Democrats stand their best chance to win back the House for the first time in years Tuesday night. But which Democrats serve in leadership next year is anybody’s guess.
Capitol Attitude is a weekly column written by members of the Fox News Capitol Hill team. Their articles take you inside the halls of Congress, and cover the spectrum of policy issues being introduced, debated and voted on there.