House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (Calif.) won an eighth term leading the Democratic caucus Wednesday, 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.
But Pelosi’s margin of victory, 134 votes to 63 for Ryan, signaled a large degree of discontent with her leadership after 14 years atop the caucus and, more broadly, with the Democratic policy agenda that many lawmakers say 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 these next two years would have to be Pelosi’s last as leader. Ryan’s 63 votes marked the largest bloc of opposition Pelosi has faced since winning a deputy leadership position 15 years ago that set her on a course to become the first female House speaker.
Although they came up well short, Ryan and his band of supporters declared a symbolic victory in prompting Pelosi to propose elevating junior lawmakers and lead a more inclusive leadership table. They also declared that the party’s economic agenda, at times neglected by their presidential nominee, Hillary Clinton, would move to the front and center alongside the cultural issues that dominated the 2016 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.
Afterward, Pelosi publicly congratulated Ryan and acknowledged that he had run “a very aggressive campaign.” She told reporters that it forced her to work harder than two previous challenges to lead the caucus.
“I quite frankly feel more liberated than I ever have,” she said.
After gaining just six seats in the November elections — despite Pelosi’s proclamation they would gain more than 20 — she was left more vulnerable than at any moment in her leadership tenure, more so than in 2010, when she oversaw the loss of 63 seats and the majority.
She began the campaign in a boastful mode, declaring that she had “more than two-thirds” of the votes locked up, but she ended issuing a series of letters that amounted to concessions to an anxious rank-and-file looking for new ideas if not new leaders.
Pelosi tried to placate junior lawmakers by offering 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 have 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.), 44, credited Ryan’s challenge with forcing those proposals. “That’s partly a response to the competition in the caucus for votes, and that’s a healthy thing,” O’Rourke, first elected in 2012, said.
At 76, Pelosi is 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 Wednesday for their reelection, and the caucus elevated Rep. Joseph Crowley (D-N.Y.) to the No. 4 post of caucus chairman, and Rep. Linda T. Sánchez (D-Calif.) became the first Latina in leadership as caucus vice-chairman.
Republicans, after years of vilifying Pelosi’s West Coast liberalism, were gleeful at the stasis among Democratic leaders. The National Republican Congressional Committee immediately hung a “Congrats Nancy!” poster atop a “Hire Pelosi” banner that had been affixed to Republican National Committee headquarters this week.
Others remain upset at Pelosi’s control of the House campaign arm, the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, which has overseen a series of poor election performances. “We should have been recruiting earlier, we should have better targeting. I think our messaging was off,” Rep. Ruben Gallego (D-Ariz.) said Tuesday in an interview.
Some of Pelosi’s biggest detractors fear that the results will only empower the more coastal liberal wings. “Nothing’s going to change anytime soon. We’re going to be in the minority for the next 15 years,” said Rep. Kurt Schrader (D-Ore.), co-chairman of the Blue Dog Coalition, a centrist group. He added that Democrats need to develop “a farm team that’s not just the socialist side of our party.”
Some longtime critics supported her but in a fashion that suggested that she has less leeway than in the past. “If I think changing engines is going to get us there faster and more efficiently and effectively, I would do that. I’ve told that to Nancy,” said Rep. Bill Pascrell Jr. (D-N.J.), who helped nominate Pelosi on Wednesday.
Pelosi’s most loyal backers reminded detractors that House Democrats are now in a comeback situation facing President-elect Donald Trump, who will employ an aggressive set of media skills unlike any recent president.
“The role of leader is one of tactician, of negotiator, of knowing all the rules, of having all the tools to stand up when necessary to Donald Trump,” said Rep. Jan Schakowsky (D-Ill.). “She’s effectively done that and is ready for this fight.”
Mike DeBonis contributed to this report.