The urgency came as Pelosi all but declared victory to another two-year term atop the caucus that she has ruled with a strong grip since her historic elevation to become the first female congressional caucus leader after the 2002 midterm elections.
Until the election results came in, however, Pelosi appeared to be on path to winning another leadership term without any challenge. Ryan, 43, first elected in 2002, was a backbench Democrat with no particular perch of power and not someone whose name came up when other rank-and-file Democrats discussed the next generation of leaders. But the election results have thrown that order upside down and left some lawmakers searching for a completely new face, particularly after the disastrous outcome across the industrial Midwest.
“You can’t fall off the floor,” Ryan said, dismissing some of his colleagues calling for immediate party unity rather than a divisive internal feud. “We don’t have the House. We don’t have the Senate. We don’t have the presidency.
“I mean, we are in the worst shape we have been in since I first got here,” Ryan said, noting that in 2003, Republicans also controlled all levers of power. “This is not fun anymore. This is not fun to wallow in the minority.”
After 14 years as either House speaker or Democratic minority leader, Pelosi has made her share of enemies within the caucus. She had talked about potentially winning back the majority and just weeks before the elections guaranteed a pickup of at least 20 seats that would leave Republican control in the “single digits.” Instead, the Democrats have gained just six seats so far, with one race left outstanding.
Later Wednesday morning Pelosi officially announced her bid for minority leader in a letter to the entire Democratic caucus, declaring she had already won the race: “I am pleased to report the support of more than two-thirds of the Caucus.”
Some of those most resistant to her leadership style are privately wondering whether turning over the reins to an unproven lawmaker is the right call at such a precarious moment.
Ryan’s consideration of a leadership challenge got a jolt Tuesday when, amid a widespread display of deep disapproval with last week’s results, Pelosi gave in to the caucus and delayed leadership elections that were originally slated for Thursday. That time frame allows for Democrats to have some soul-searching meetings, such as Wednesday’s meeting at the Democratic National Committee to review the election outcomes and a special closed-door huddle Thursday to be held in place of the originally planned leadership elections.
But the end of this week, Congress departs for a Thanksgiving break and isn’t slated to return until the evening of Nov. 29, just ahead the newly scheduled leadership elections. These types of congressional elections are often won and lost on issues of personality and trust, loyalty or long-standing rivalry, and those relationships often need to be determined in face-to-face discussions.
House Democrats met Wednesday morning for a post-election review at Democratic Party campaign headquarters. At the meeting Rep. Ben Ray Lujan (D-N.M.), who headed House Democrats’ campaign arm, downplayed the losses, according to a memo obtained by the Washington Post.
Lujan told members that the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee protected all but one incumbent but they suffered from a major downdraft from Clinton’s sinking support, according to a copy of the memo. House Democrats had long expected that their success depended on Clinton winning at least 50 percent of the vote in any given congressional district.
Ryan acknowledged that one idea under consideration is running a ticket of Democrats from across the ideological spectrum of the caucus that might also include groups from the Congressional Hispanic Caucus and the Congressional Black Caucus. Such a move would try to reassure those key groups that the Ryan movement wasn’t meant solely as a way to placate white working-class voters in the Rust Belt.
“Those discussions are happening now,” he said.
His own district in eastern Ohio, anchored around the much-fabled former manufacturing center of Youngstown, was the location of one of the more significant shifts in voters’ feelings toward the party. While Mahoning County still tilted toward the Democratic ticket, it shifted hard right.
In the 2012 election, President Obama won Mahoning County with 63 percent of the vote, with about 75,000 total votes. Four years later, Hillary Clinton barely won, receiving 50 percent to Donald Trump’s 47 percent, and she got almost 20,000 fewer votes than Obama did.
“A lot of them went to Trump. His economic message resonated,” Ryan said of the drop-off for Clinton.
Ryan said he plans to spend Wednesday in long discussions with other Democrats before making his final decision, but he said one certainty was that the party would have a deeper conversation about its disappointing results last week.
“The party is strong enough to handle a major family discussion,” he said.