House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (Calif.) on Wednesday won the race to lead the Democratic caucus for an eighth term, prevailing in a contest that became a vote of confidence in her continued stewardship and an early proxy battle over the future of the Democratic Party.
Pelosi easily toppled Rep. Tim Ryan (D-Ohio), a seven-term lawmaker who launched an upstart bid to lead House Democrats two weeks ago in response to the party’s disappointing November election results.
But Pelosi’s margin of victory, 134 votes to 63 for Ryan, signaled a large degree of discontent with her continued leadership after 14 years atop the caucus and, more broadly, with the Democratic policy agenda that many lawmakers feel has grown stale. While she cleared her self-declared margin of victory, a two-thirds majority, many Democrats were stunned that almost a third of the caucus was willing to vote for a backbench lawmaker with no major policy or political experience.
Many were left wondering whether a more seasoned Democrat could have actually toppled Pelosi, with several privately suggesting this would have to be Pelosi’s last term as leader. Ryan’s 63 votes marked the largest number of opposition votes Pelosi has faced in any leadership race since winning a deputy leadership position 15 years ago that set her on a course to become the first female House speaker.
Though they came up well short, Ryan and his band of supporters declared a symbolic victory in prompting Pelosi to make a series of proposals to elevate junior lawmakers and lead a more inclusive leadership table. They also declared that the party’s economic agenda, at times ignored by their presidential nominee, Hillary Clinton, and other Democrats, would move to the front and center to appeal across the country alongside the cultural issues that dominated the campaign.
“We’re going to win as Democrats if we have an economic message that resonates in every part of the country,” Ryan told reporters after his defeat. “We are disappointed because I like to win … But the party is better off,” he added.
An hour later, Pelosi appeared and publicly congratulated Ryan on running a good race. But, she said, “I think we’re at a time that is well beyond politics. It’s about the character of America.”
After gaining just six seats in the November elections —- after Pelosi publicly and privately suggested a gain of more than 20 — there will be 194 members of the House Democratic caucus. Four nonvoting delegates, including Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-D. C.), were allowed to vote in Wednesday’s caucus elections.
Pelosi had set the expectations bar high by publicly declaring she has “more than two-thirds” of the votes locked up. She cleared that threshold on Wednesday, but Ryan’s tally will not go unnoticed.
His supporters believed that the closer Ryan got to between 60 and 80 votes, the more direct the signal to Pelosi that the rank-and-file is ready for her to develop a transition-of-power plan. At 76, she’s one of three septuagenarians leading the caucus, followed by 77-year-old Rep. Steny H. Hoyer (D-Md.), the minority whip; and 76-year-old Rep. James E. Clyburn (D-S.C.), the assistant to the leader.
Hoyer and Clyburn were unchallenged on Wednesday.
Republicans have vilified Pelosi in the past, believing that her West Coast liberalism does not translate into political victories. Party leaders were so gleeful that the National Republican Congressional Committee immediately hung a “Congrats Nancy!” poster atop a “Hire Pelosi” banner that has been affixed to Republican National Committee headquarters this week.
Pelosi tried to placate some of the angst among junior lawmakers by offering a series of new or modified positions, including the new position of “vice-ranking member” on the more than 20 standing House committees and reserving it for lawmakers who served four terms or less. A policy leadership position would be divided into three co-chairmen and reserved for those who have served five terms or less.
Rep. Beto O’Rourke (D-Tex.) credited Ryan’s challenge with forcing Pelosi to take the unrest among colleagues more seriously.
“That’s partly a response to the competition in the caucus for votes, and that’s a healthy thing,” he said.
Others remain upset at Pelosi’s control of the House campaign arm, the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee. She has proposed leaving Rep. Ben Ray Luján (D-N.M.) as DCCC chairman for another term, despite 2016 elections that saw just a six-seat gain after Pelosi personally predicted a gain of more than 20 seats.
“We should have been recruiting earlier, we should have better targeting. I think our messaging was off,” Gallego said in an interview on Tuesday. “I think we are focused so much still on TV instead of looking at new methods of communications and/or even old methods of communication — canvassing and digital buys.”
A 37-year old former Marine corporal, Gallego was especially critical of what he considered the DCCC’s staff work trying to please Pelosi, calling them “bureaucratic in nature.”
Some Democrats want the position to be contested rather than be a rubber stamp of whoever top Democrats select.
Pelosi’s backers reminded detractors that House Democrats are now in a “comeback situation” without a Democratic president in office — a dynamic similar to 2000 when Bush took office after a fiercely partisan, closely contested election. Over six years, Pelosi served as Bush’s main partisan foil and ultimately led a campaign that regained House control.
Supporters also acknowledged, however, that after 14 years atop the party, Pelosi is nearing her political twilight.
“This is probably her last go,” said one member who requested anonymity to speak frankly about caucus dynamics. “She’s coming to terms with the idea that people want her to move on. The opposition is so public now, and I only see that growing, not diminishing.”
The prospect of Pelosi’s departure and the likely exit of Hoyer and Clyburn, would create an incredible leadership vacuum.
But in a few years, “I don’t see an 80-year old new minority leader,” the member said.
Mike DeBonis contributed to this report.