The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

How the opposition to Pelosi as speaker compares to the rest of the Democratic caucus

After pushing off questions about Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi until after the election, many non-incumbent Democrats are still dodging questions about her. (Video: JM Rieger/The Washington Post)

At the heart of the political debate over who will lead the Democratic House caucus next year is a fight over how the party responds to the surge in energy seen in the midterm elections that brought it to the majority. There are other issues and other concerns, but a significant part of the question of Democratic leadership hinges on the same sort of dissatisfaction with the establishment that completely reshaped the Republican Party from 2010 to 2016.

That is not necessarily, though, the way that the fight is shaping up among those in the caucus who will actually be voting on who will serve as House speaker.

On Monday, a group of Democrats published a letter expressing their opposition to House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) serving in the position. Signed by 14 elected members of the Democratic caucus in the upcoming congress and two candidates whose race has not been called (one of whom — Ben McAdams in Utah — seems unlikely to win), the letter marks the most significant obstacle to Pelosi’s election as speaker — though not an insurmountable one. Add in those elected members who are included in The Washington Post’s tally of opposition to Pelosi, though, and there are 22 opponents to her assuming the position. That could potentially be enough to block her election.

So who are these opponents? For the most part, they represent more moderate House districts than the average Democrat, even excluding McAdams' 4th District in Utah. (As of writing, McAdams is trailing, so he is excluded from the analysis.) Using Cook Political Report’s Partisan Voting Index, a measure of how House districts voted in prior presidential elections, the average Democratic district gets a score of D+12, meaning Democrats have a 12-point partisan advantage. Among the 22 members on The Post’s list of Pelosi opponents, the average PVI score is D+4 — closer to the midpoint.

Pelosi’s opponents also differ from the rest of the caucus in other ways.

The incoming Democratic caucus is much more diverse than the Republican caucus, with white men making up 89 percent of the Republicans elected to the 116th Congress and making up only 38 percent of the Democrats who won this month.

Among those who oppose Pelosi, though, most are white men — more than two-thirds. White men are the largest demographic group in the Democratic caucus, and the most likely to have offered opposition to her assuming the speakership.

The next largest group is white women — though most of the Pelosi opponents in that group didn’t sign the letter.

Much of the debate about party leadership is framed in the context of age. Age is, after all, a handy guide to duration of political service and, therefore, to the party. Pelosi, born in 1940, is older than most of those who will join her in the House Democratic caucus next year — but the median birth year of those who oppose her taking the gavel is substantially lower than the caucus on the whole.

As we noted at the outset, the reasons for opposing Pelosi’s assuming the speakership are myriad, even if they often stem from an interest in reflecting the new energy in the Democratic Party.

Most of those who signed the letter or who have expressed opposition to Pelosi have already served in the House with her. Those newly elected members, several of whom — like Max Rose (D-N.Y.) or Anthony Brindisi (D-N.Y.) — expressed opposition to Pelosi specifically to improve their chances in more moderate districts, will soon find themselves in a whole different world of political pressure.

And if there’s one thing at which Pelosi has proven adept, it’s cajoling reticent Democrats.