House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (Calif.), who built and then lost the largest Democratic majority in a generation, is considering ending her historic 10-year reign as Democratic leader after the second disappointing election in a row for her caucus.
Pelosi told reporters Tuesday that she would announce her decision during a Wednesday morning press conference. She has not signaled whether she intends to remain atop a caucus that she has ruled with a near-iron fist, including four years as the first female House speaker and six years in the minority.
Her advisers said Monday that Pelosi, 72, is involved in the normal decision-making process about her future, and is reaching out to congratulate Democrats who won and consoling those who lost.
“She’s talking with members. When she’s ready to make an announcement, she will do so,” said Drew Hammill, Pelosi’s spokesman.
Guessing Pelosi’s intentions has been a fool’s errand for Democrats for years. When the party lost 63 seats and its majority in 2010, almost every Democratic lawmaker and strategist expected her to step down. Instead, she stayed on and fought to reclaim the House, believing that Democrats could ride President Obama’s coattails to the majority.
Some House races are not officially decided, but Democrats are expected to gain about seven seats when all the votes are tallied — a disappointment in a year in which Obama and Senate Democrats performed so well.
One option for Pelosi, according to some lawmakers, would be for her to announce that she will serve one more term as leader, setting off a two-year succession race within the Democratic caucus.
Waiting in the wings are a pair of 70-somethings and a younger generation of Democrats, all quietly angling to grab new seats at the leadership table should she step down. Minority Whip Steny H. Hoyer (Md.), 73, with whom Pelosi has had a strained relationship over the years, is the front-runner to succeed her as minority leader. His office declined to comment on his intentions.
Before Congress adjourned in September for the campaign season, Hoyer hosted a series of meetings with rank-and-file Democrats. While he did not specifically ask for support in a leadership race, the lawmakers got the impression that he was shoring himself up in case Pelosi stepped down, according to senior aides familiar with the discussions.
Rep. James E. Clyburn (S.C.), 72, holds the No. 3 position, known as assistant to the leader. Clyburn, who has made calls to lawmakers in recent days, would like to succeed Hoyer as whip, the post he held for the four years when the Democrats were in the majority.
But in an Election Day interview on MSNBC, Clyburn reiterated what almost everyone in his caucus believes: Pelosi has a deep enough reservoir of goodwill among liberal lawmakers that she can stay in power as long as she wants.
“It all depends on what Nancy wants to do. If she wants to run for reelection, I guarantee you she will get reelected,” Clyburn said. “She has the votes to do that.”
Leadership elections are held by secret ballot, with a bare majority needed for victory. Two years ago, in a move to snuff out any opposition, Pelosi held leadership elections less than two weeks after the midterm vote. She faced token opposition and won election to minority leader. This year, she scheduled the elections for the week after Thanksgiving, leading some to speculate that she is buying time for challengers to mount campaigns against Hoyer or others.
Pelosi’s office denied that is the case.
Four years ago, Pelosi seemed poised to lead the Democrats for years to come. They reclaimed the majority in 2006 and, after the 2008 elections, held nearly 260 seats — the biggest majority either party had claimed since the early 1990s. She spoke of establishing a lasting Democratic majority, only to see that vision crash in 2010. Most of the Democrats who lost, however, were from the moderate Blue Dog Coalition, strengthening the influence of Pelosi’s liberal base.
Hoyer’s voting record is that of a mainstream liberal, although his most loyal allies hail from the moderate wing of the caucus. If Pelosi steps down, few Democrats believe that a younger challenger to Hoyer and Clyburn would be successful.
But if she decides to stay in the job another two years, younger Democrats are likely to demand a wholesale change in leadership, according to several lawmakers and aides.