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House Democrats’ down-ballot leadership races offer a look at a post-Pelosi future

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) speaks to reporters about the presidential election results and the coronavirus pandemic during a news conference at the Capitol on Thursday.
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) speaks to reporters about the presidential election results and the coronavirus pandemic during a news conference at the Capitol on Thursday. (Hannah Mckay/Reuters)

House Democrats head into next week’s leadership elections without any competition in the top posts that a trio of octogenarians have comfortably held for more than 15 years, but several down-ballot races serve as the latest phase in the jockeying to succeed those elderly leaders.

Moreover, after a hugely disappointing election that has shrunk their majority, House Democrats face these contests amid another round of existential questioning of their political standing across the nation. Moderates and liberals are battling over which side is to blame for the party’s historically incongruous loss of seats as their presidential nominee, Joe Biden, racked up the second largest margin of victory in the popular vote this century.

Each of the contested races to serve in House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s leadership team pits competing wings of her caucus against each other, sometimes along the lines of ideology, race and ethnicity, sexual orientation and geography.

Commentators were overcome with emotion on Nov. 7, as news broke that Joe Biden and Sen. Kamala D. Harris (D-Calif.) had won the 2020 election. (Video: The Washington Post)

How these races shape up will reveal where the House Democrats see the future of the national Democratic Party, as it prepares to work with Biden’s incoming administration knowing that the 77-year-old Democrat once suggested a Biden presidency would serve as its own transition to the party’s next-generation leaders.

These lower-level races will not weaken the hand of Pelosi (D-Calif.), but they could begin to point the Democratic caucus toward its post-Pelosi future. At 80, Pelosi is followed by Majority Leader Steny H. Hoyer, 81, and Majority Whip James E. Clyburn, 80.

Pelosi and Hoyer (D-Md.) have held the top two posts for 18 years, while Clyburn (D-S.C.) has been right behind them for 15 years. Despite this year’s political disappointment, all three are expected to win another two-year term by acclamation in next week’s secret ballot. Because of the pandemic, the elections will probably be conducted virtually.

No one knows when the trio will step aside, but it is now accepted conventional wisdom that whenever Pelosi leaves, the other 80-somethings will also step aside and allow the next generation to take the reins. In a recent interview, Hoyer told The Washington Post he could be content leaving at the end of 2022 knowing he spent two decades as the No. 2 Democrat, without ever becoming speaker in his own right.

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In a bid to beat back a moderate rebellion two years ago, Pelosi even suggested she would only serve until the end of 2022, but that pledge came alongside a recommendation to impose term limits on other leadership posts and on committee chairs — a proposal that only grew dust as it was cast aside without consideration.

The two biggest races are for the slots of assistant speaker, which is technically considered the No. 4 position, and chair of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, which runs the political arm.

Rep. Katherine M. Clark (D-Mass.), who holds a more junior leadership post, has emerged as the front-runner to win the assistant speaker race, but first must defeat Rep. David N. Cicilline (D-R.I.), a senior member of the Congressional Progressive Caucus and one of the caucus’s most prominent gay lawmakers.

In September, as she launched her bid for a promotion, Clark sent a letter to all Democrats that, in retrospect, hit the precise tone for what turned out to be tumultuous political times — a Biden victory, a hung verdict in the Senate until January runoff elections in Georgia, and a House majority shrunken by close to 10 seats.

“The challenges and opportunities facing our caucus and our country are unprecedented and will require that we leverage the talent and expertise of our members, unite behind our shared values, and deliver results for all communities,” Clark wrote.

She currently serves as vice chairwoman of the caucus, the deputy to Rep. Hakeem Jeffries (D-N.Y.), who is the caucus chairman. If Clark wins, she would technically bump ahead of Jeffries, but his position comes with a bigger portfolio and a larger budget.

Combined with his prominent role as a House manager in President Trump’s impeachment trial in the Senate, Jeffries has positioned himself as the most prominent leader of the younger Democratic generation — putting him on a potential path to become the first Black speaker of the House.

Jeffries and Clark have worked seamlessly together, according to both their camps, and whenever the leadership turnover comes, it would be easy to see Clark running alongside Jeffries to become majority leader — if she holds on to defeat Cicilline.

The Democratic class of 2012, which included more than 40 members, many of whom with deep ambition, continues to position its members for future power. Jeffries was elected that year, while Clark joined that group later in 2013 when she won a special election to her seat outside Boston.

The DCCC race pits two members of the 2012 class, Reps. Tony Cárdenas (D-Calif.) and Sean Patrick Maloney (D-N.Y.), against each other in what is likely to be the most agonizing race — not because of the combatants, but because the contest comes amid the ongoing what-went-wrong discussion about the 2020 campaign.

The victor will succeed Rep. Cheri Bustos (D-Ill.), another from the 2012 class, whose rocky early tenure overseeing the campaign arm built to what seemed like a solid path to going north of 240 seats following Democrats’ 40-seat gain for the majority in 2018.

“House Democrats are poised to further strengthen our majority — the biggest, most diverse, most dynamic, women-led House majority in history,” Pelosi said at an Election Day briefing, with Bustos at her side.

Instead, by Monday afternoon this week, Bustos had stepped down from the DCCC without having knocked off a single Republican incumbent.

Now, the choice between Cárdenas, a prodigious fundraiser for the Congressional Hispanic Caucus, and Maloney, whose district supported Trump four years ago, serves as its own microcosm of party politics. Democrats were alarmed by Biden’s relatively weak showing with Latino voters in some regions, while House Democrats lost two of their own seats with large Hispanic populations in South Florida and failed again to win a South Texas district that is majority Mexican American.

Maloney led the review of the 2016 campaign, after which Democrats gained six seats behind Hillary Clinton, amassing a leading margin of nearly 3 million votes in the national presidential ballot, but came up short in many races they could have won.

Ultimately, as party insiders say, these races can all turn on an interlocking dynamic, the results of one prompting another to go in a different direction.

Should Clark dispatch Cicilline, some Democrats may feel inclined to support Maloney, who is gay, and if Cárdenas were to lose, that could give a boost to another Hispanic caucus member, Rep. Peter Aguilar (D-Calif.), who is running to succeed Clark as vice chairman.

If all those dominoes fell together, the ranks behind the 80-something leaders would be fairly representative of the new Democratic coalition: A Black man (Jeffries), a White woman (Clark), a Latino (Aguilar) and a gay man (Maloney).

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