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Why 63 House Democrats voted to oust Nancy Pelosi

Speaking to reporters after Democrats voted to reelect Rep. Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) as leader Rep. Tim Ryan (D-Ohio) says his "message resonated" with America (Video: The Washington Post, Photo: Bill O’Leary/The Washington Post)
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House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) just survived her most serious leadership challenge in more than a decade.

Rep. Tim Ryan (D-Ohio) got 63 votes Wednesday from House Democrats in his bid to unseat Pelosi, which as my colleague Paul Kane points out is a not-insignificant amount. (Though Pelosi did meet her self-set expectation of winning two-thirds of the caucus, which is also a not-insignificant amount.)

It's not a coincidence Ryan's challenge came after yet another disappointing election for House Democrats, who will spend another two years in the minority.

The challenge for Pelosi going forward is that she didn't just take heat from younger members like Ryan (who is 43, compared to Pelosi's 76). Heading into Wednesday's secret ballot, some of her most reliable allies — like members of the Congressional Black Caucus (CBC) — expressed doubt about her leadership. Which means Pelosi is going to have to try to assuage a wide array of grievances from a growing number of House Democrats.

Rep. Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) was reelected as House minority leader on Nov. 30, 2016. (Video: Bastien Inzaurralde/The Washington Post, Photo: Bill O’Leary/The Washington Post)

Let's break some of those grievances down. Here are the five main reasons that House Democrats who voted against Pelosi gave:

1. Change: This is the chief reason given by those who voted for Ryan over Pelosi: House Democrats are in a funk (they've been in the minority for six years and counting), so changing up their leadership is the logical step to try to get out of it.

“Change is necessary. And the only way we’re going to survive is to get change; they’re connected,” Rep. Emanuel Cleaver II of Missouri, an undecided voter going into the leadership vote, told Politico. “We’ve never changed anything since I’ve been here.”

2. Accountability: This is an extension of the “change” argument. Pelosi is known (and admired) in Congress for keeping a tight grip on her members. But what has she got to show for it? Certainly not the majority in Congress. So why should she continue to lead Democrats when they've been in the minority eight of the 12 years she's been in charge?

“I think people want to see some accountability … and not just have something coming down from on high when, in the end, it doesn’t make our caucus stronger,” Rep. Ruben Gallego of Arizona, a Ryan supporter, told Politico.

And here's Rep. Seth Moulton of Massachusetts explaining Wednesday why he wouldn't be voting for Pelosi:

In other words: If House Democrats aren't doing well, their leader shouldn't be rewarded for it.

3. Too much change: In response to some of the criticisms outlined above, Pelosi released a plan the week of Thanksgiving to give newer and younger members more say in how she runs the caucus. Among other proposals, she suggested creating leadership spots in committees specifically designed for newer members and making some appointed leadership positions elected.

But wait a second, say some members of the CBC. Opening up leadership positions to newbies could undermine their leaders, who have toiled for years (and in some cases, decades) to rise to the top. In particular, they're bristling at Pelosi's suggestion that when her assistant leader (and Congressional Black Caucus member) Rep. James E. Clyburn of South Carolina steps down, his position will be an elected one.

As Buzzfeed's Darren Sands reports: “One Democrat said Pelosi’s suggested proposal is akin to putting Clyburn on 'retirement watch.'”

The ballots cast are secret, but we know a notable supporter of Ryan is an influential CBC member: Rep. Marcia L. Fudge of Ohio. The former chair of the CBC, Fudge stood behind Ryan in solidarity at his news conference after the leadership election.

4. Losing: “What's wrong with your current leadership?” NPR's Steve Inskeep asked Ryan in a recent interview. “Well, they keep losing,” Ryan replied.

Or, at least, House Democrats keep underperforming expectations. In three out of the past four elections, House Democrats have failed to pick up as many seats as political analysts predicted they would. (This November, they picked up six seats in a cycle where Pelosi had predicted they'd get at least 20.)

Since President Obama's election, Democrats have lost more than 60 House seats. They've been in the minority since 2010 — and all but four of the last 22 years — with no end in sight.

Why down-ballot Democrats could be in the minority for years to come

As Ryan told MSNBC earlier this month: “We have the smallest minority since 1929 in our caucus. If you take state, federal officials, we have the smallest numbers since Reconstruction. If that's not a call for doing something differently, I don't know what is.”

Pretty much anyway you calculate it, House Democrats are not winning. Here's Rep. Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona declaring that reelecting Pelosi is akin to doubling down on a “failed strategy.”

5. It's not fun anymore: The House is a majority-rules chamber: What the majority wants, it can usually get. So being in the minority just plain stinks. As Ryan told my colleague Paul Kane recently: “I mean, here we are in the worst shape we have been in since I first got here. This is not fun anymore. This is not fun to wallow in the minority.”

It's not clear what role, if any, Pelosi directly played in Democrats' electoral struggles. And it's not even clear how much power a House Democratic leader has to change her caucus's electoral fate. Redistricting has played a big role in the political makeup of Congress, and redistricting takes place outside Washington, in the states.

But as Wednesday's leadership challenge proves, a growing number of House Democrats are so sick of being legislative and political outcasts in Congress that they are willing to cross Pelosi on a vote they know they can't win.

Pelosi may have held onto her leadership post this time. But she's got to deal with all these grievances if she wants to keep it.