Democrats who have pushed for Rep. Nancy Pelosi’s ouster as House minority leader are standing down — at least until after November’s midterm elections.
Republican Speaker Paul D. Ryan’s surprise announcement last week that he would retire at the end of his term boosted Democrats’ hopes that they could wrest back control of the House this fall. The possibility of majority control also gave new life to a looming question: Will Pelosi, or someone else, lead the party?
Democrats say they are focused on one task — winning — and have clamped down on talk of replacing Pelosi (D-Calif.), who has guided the party for 17 years, served as speaker from 2007 to 2011 and is intent on reclaiming the gavel.
“We have one North Star: 218 seats. Period,” said Rep. Denny Heck (D-Wash.), the chairman of recruitment at the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee.
Several Democrats have called for a new, younger leadership team, helmed by someone other than the 78-year-old Pelosi. The prodigious fundraiser, who says she has raised more than $49 million for Democrats in this election cycle alone, turned back challenges in 2011 and 2015.
Even Pelosi’s fiercest critics in the Democratic ranks grudgingly say she will be the presumptive candidate for speaker for the next seven months.
“We can look at the other side and see the chaos that happens when a leader exits,” said Rep. Ruben Gallego (D-Ariz.), who opposed Pelosi’s last leadership bid. “This whole election is about Trump. We can worry about the leadership situation later.”
Numerous Democratic candidates seeking seats in the House have said they would prefer new leadership, as Pelosi’s resilience remains a source of frustration to those who want her out.
Rep. Kathleen Rice (D-N.Y.) pointed out that Ryan (R-Wis.) arrived in Congress the same year, 1999, as Rep. Joseph Crowley (N.Y.), the Democratic conference chairman. She threw up her arms and pretended to be climbing a ladder, to demonstrate how long Crowley has been trying to rise in the party’s leadership.
“Republicans know how to do turnover. We don’t,” said Rice. “Paul Ryan took the job on his own terms, and he’s leaving on his own terms.”
Not since 1954 and Sam Rayburn has a former speaker of the House stayed on as minority leader, then returned to power. No minority leader has presided over four losing elections and then become speaker, though Democrats did shrink the Republican majority in 2012 and 2016.
Crowley recently said Pelosi was “soon to be speaker again.” Minority Whip Steny H. Hoyer (D-Md.), who spent the two-week Easter recess on the road with incumbents and candidates, is seen as offering himself as a “bridge” between Pelosi and a younger leader. (Hoyer will turn 79 this summer.)
Pelosi allies point out that Hoyer has raised $5.5 million for Democrats in the 2018 cycle so far, while Pelosi raised $4.5 million just last week. In The Washington Post’s latest polling, Pelosi’s net negative rating had fallen since 2010, with 32 percent viewing her favorably and 44 percent unfavorably. Pelosi has not become more popular, but fewer voters had a strong opinion of her; 58 percent of voters said Pelosi would not be a factor for them in the midterms.
Democrats expect House candidates to run against both Republicans and Pelosi, neutralizing a predictable attack by saying they will back a leadership contest if Democrats win the House. Pelosi has not made loyalty to her a litmus test for candidates; neither have the PACs and committees tasked with electing a Democratic majority.
“It’s not Pelosi versus Paul Ryan anymore, and that does change the dynamic a little bit,” said Rep. Tim Ryan (D-Ohio), who challenged Pelosi for leadership after the party’s 2016 defeats.
Pelosi has emphasized that the party’s candidates “have their own purpose” and are doing and saying what works in their districts.
“When a president is below 50 percent one year before the election, that means he gets the retirements and we get the A-team,” Pelosi said. “Their purpose, their authenticity, their connection to their own constituents is what this is about.”
The dynamic has no real precedent — an election for the House in which many candidates hope to win a majority, then reject the party leader who presided over those wins.
Until last Wednesday, when Ryan made his announcement, Democrats had been ramping up a campaign against the speaker, whose national approval rating had sunk under 30 percent.
Rep. Conor Lamb (D-Pa.), whose win last month rattled Republicans, had opposed both Ryan and Pelosi, attacking the Republican speaker in TV ads over his promise to cut programs such as Social Security and Medicare after the passage of the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act. In Arizona’s 8th Congressional District, where early voting is underway in an April 24 special election, Democratic nominee Hiral Tipirneni has run against Social Security and Medicare cuts without attacking Ryan specifically.
“Talking about Ryan’s agenda gave more coherence to the Republican leadership than actually existed,” Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) said in an interview. “With Donald Trump in the White House, changing directions on an hourly basis, the only plan the Republicans seem to have is chaos, chaos and more chaos.”
Democrats saw a potentially winning template in Lamb’s race. Two months before the election, Lamb announced that he would not back Pelosi if he got to Washington. The Congressional Leadership Fund, the National Republican Congressional Committee and other GOP groups went ahead with an anti-Pelosi message, which hurt Lamb on the margins — less than 30 percent of the district’s voters viewed her favorably — but not enough to rescue the seat.
Many Democratic candidates are taking the same approach to Pelosi, with no consequences from national donors. In Texas’s 7th District, one of 23 Republican-held districts that backed Hillary Clinton for president, Democratic lawyer Lizzie Fletcher has refused to endorse Pelosi for speaker but has still won support from Emily’s List and other national Democratic groups.
Her opponent in a May runoff, Laura Moser, said last year that she would support Pelosi. But after the DCCC attacked Moser’s candidacy, she switched.
“It’s time for a generational changing of the guard,” Moser said. “I’m running against the entire establishment, whether I want to or not.”
Other candidates have preemptively rejected Pelosi from the left. James Thompson, whose closer-than-expected loss in a special House election in Kansas last year was seen as an early sign of Republican struggles, said that he, too, opposed Pelosi.
“They painted me with the Nancy Pelosi brush during the special election,” said Thompson, who is running again for the nomination in Kansas’s 4th District. “I like Nancy. She was perfectly nice to me after I lost the special election, which was the first time I ever spoke to her. But I think that we need new, fresh leadership in there that has a progressive vision, and Nancy’s a corporate centrist.”