Rep. Tim Ryan (D-Ohio) launched a long-shot challenge to House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi’s reign atop the Democratic caucus, sending a letter to lawmakers Thursday telling them that last week’s elections were a call to “bring a new voice into leadership.”
The secret-ballot election, set for Nov. 30, will test Pelosi’s public declaration of victory Thursday when she said at a news conference that she has more than two-thirds support in the Democratic caucus. It also shapes up as a test of just how strong her hold is on a caucus that has been so supportive that she’s only faced one nominal challenge, after the disastrous 2010 midterm elections, in the past decade.
Ryan, 43, a seven-term lawmaker, has never held a leadership position within the party and acknowledged that he lacked the sort of profile that would have prompted others to look at him as a successor to Pelosi or any other senior Democrat.
But the elections, in which Democrats gained just six seats after Pelosi predicted a more than 20-seat gain, turned sharply against Democrats across the Midwest.
“While having a position in Democratic leadership has never been my life’s ambition, after this election I believe we all need to reevaluate our roles within the caucus, the Democratic Party, and our country. That is why I am announcing my run for minority leader,” Ryan wrote in his letter.
Ryan’s district, anchored in Youngstown, an old steel manufacturing town, is emblematic of the appeal of President-elect Donald Trump to white working-class voters. President Obama won Mahoning County in 2012 by more than 30,000 votes, with more than 63 percent, but Hillary Clinton won by less than 3,000 votes and did not even reach 50 percent in the Northeast Ohio county.
Ryan is not running as an ideological moderate — he hails from the union-friendly corner of the caucus — but he and his small band of supporters are upset that the political focus in the final weeks of the 2016 campaign was on cultural issues related to Trump’s fitness for office. Instead, this group of Democrats wanted a core economic message that could have resonated in industrial-centric districts.
As speculation built that she might face a challenge, Pelosi brushed off the threat and said the party needed to come together to fight Trump’s agenda.
“Without even asking anybody for a vote, I have over two-thirds of the caucus supporting me. When — it’s a funny thing in a caucus or any place, when somebody challenges you, your supporters turn out both internally in the caucus and in the country,” she told reporters.
Pelosi remains a dominant figure, and her ability to raise money from deep-pocketed liberals, ranging from Silicon Valley to Hollywood to trial lawyers, is unmatched by anyone in her party on Capitol Hill.
In the third quarter of 2016, Pelosi’s aides said she raised $35 million for Democratic candidates and committees. In his eight campaigns for Ohio’s 13th Congressional District, Ryan has never raised more than $1.4 million in a single tw0-year period.
But a new generation of Democrats, elected in the past four years and having never served in the majority, are adding energy to the usual group of Pelosi antagonists.
“I think that it’s very healthy for there to be competition for leadership,” said Rep. Beto O’Rourke (D-Tex.), who was first elected in 2012. He added that a full debate about the caucus’s direction was “desperately needed.”
Pelosi defended her bullish predictions that Democrats were on their way to large gains and possibly the majority, telling reporters that she has told her caucus the elections were changed by the letter sent by FBI Director James B. Comey less than two weeks before Election Day. The letter said that agents were reviewing new material in their previously closed case examining Clinton’s email security while she served as secretary of state.
“We could just see it in the numbers, you know? We thought we were like at 20 (pickups) and trying to go for more,” Pelosi said, pointing upward to show the direction Clinton was headed before the Comey letter.
Pelosi wanted to wrap up the leadership elections by Thursday, but a revolt Tuesday within the caucus demanding more introspection over the elections led her to delay the vote until Nov. 30. That led to two days of rolling speculation about other lawmakers jumping in to challenge her.
Rep. Joseph Crowley (D-N.Y.), a junior member of leadership, spent Wednesday and early Thursday contemplating a bid. His state’s large delegation, plus his track record as a good fundraiser, made him a more legitimate threat to Pelosi, but by Thursday afternoon, he backed down and reconfirmed his plans to run for chairman of the caucus, the No. 4 leadership post.
Ryan’s challenge is Pelosi’s first since 2010, when a conservative Democrat, then-Rep. Heath Shuler (N.C.), ran an ideological challenge from her right after the party lost 63 seats and the majority in that year’s midterm elections.
She routed Shuler, winning 150 votes to his 43, and has not faced a challenge since.
Some Democrats privately see her proclamation of already having more than two-thirds of the votes as a true test for her strength within the caucus — should she exceed that number, she remains truly powerful. If someone like Ryan gets a surprisingly large share of the vote, Pelosi’s grip on power may be less than believed, even if she wins another term atop the caucus.
That would show that some people lied to her, telling her that she has their support but voting against her in the secret ballot.
Here is Ryan’s letter in full to the caucus:
Dear Democratic Colleague,
Last Tuesday’s election will forever be remembered as a major turning point for the United States of America. Like many Americans I was disheartened by the results, but I also realized that Democrats must not let this opportunity for change pass by without a fight.
I have spent countless hours meeting and talking to members of our caucus, and the consensus is clear. What we are doing right now is not working. Under our current leadership, Democrats have been reduced to our smallest congressional minority since 1929. This should indicate to all of us that keeping our leadership team completely unchanged will simply lead to more disappointment in future elections.
Over the last 18 years, Democrats have only been in the majority of the House of Representatives for two terms, and last week’s election results set us back even further. We have lost over 60 seats since 2010. We have the fewest Democrats in state and federal offices since Reconstruction. At this time of fear and disillusionment, we owe it to our constituencies to listen and bring a new voice into leadership.
The American people need to know we understand that they elected us to fight for economic opportunity for all. We need to create America 2.0 — a multicultural, progressive, and innovative country that fights every day for ordinary people.
While having a position in Democratic leadership has never been my life’s ambition, after this election I believe we all need to reevaluate our roles within the caucus, the Democratic Party, and our country. That is why I am announcing my run for minority leader of the Democratic Caucus and humbly request your support.
In the days and weeks ahead, I will put forward policies and ideas to help us energize the diverse base of our party, and fight the intolerance and dangers that President-elect Trump represents. I expect the entire caucus to hold me accountable. That is why if I am successful, I will not serve again without the support of two-thirds of the caucus.
We need more voices at the Democratic leadership table. Every member of our caucus must play an important role in the future of our party and our country. Vote for me and I will dedicate all of my energy to lead us back into the majority. Our constituents deserve nothing less.
Thank you for your support.
This post has been updated.