The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

House win unleashes majority-size ambitions among younger Democrats

House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) and Rep. Ben Ray Luján (D-N.M.), Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee chairman, celebrate a projected Democratic takeover of the House on Tuesday in Washington. (Brendan Smialowski/AFP/Getty Images)

An ambitious crop of younger Democrats are reaping the spoils of victory in the House.

After years of grumbling about House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi’s hold on power, the new majority has opened up leadership posts with real responsibility, and the next generation is seizing this moment.

More than a dozen Democrats have launched bids for six leadership positions, with almost every contender a junior lawmaker who has served fewer than four terms. Most of these Democrats have never been in the majority, but they have all viewed themselves as heirs to the trio who have run the caucus for almost 16 years.

With a fresh majority, they have a chance to claim lower-level leadership posts that have some actual power. The question for Pelosi is whether this new dynamic might also help relieve the pressure on Pelosi and her top lieutenants, Reps. Steny H. Hoyer (D-Md.) and James E. Clyburn (D-S.C.).

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All three are looking to grab the top three positions — speaker, majority leader, majority whip — in the face of resistance from some internal Democratic critics.

Those rebels continue to try to find a way to topple Pelosi, but their biggest problem is the lack of any challenger so far in the Democratic vote, slated for Nov. 28.

Once 10-term Rep. Joseph Crowley (D-N.Y.) lost his primary in June, the field of potential Democratic leaders quickly lost gravitas.

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Instead, the up-and-coming Democrats are scrambling for positions that will give them the chance to impress colleagues and then run for the top spots once Pelosi, 78, Hoyer, 79, and Clyburn, 78, inevitably head off to retirement.

“I’m running for this leadership position because, as someone who comes from a district that voted for Donald Trump, I live and breathe this every day of my congressional career,” Rep. Cheri Bustos (D-Ill.) said Friday in a statement launching her bid to chair the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee. “The most effective way I can improve the lives of hard-working Americans is by helping secure our new Democratic majority.”

Bustos, 57, just got elected to serve her fourth term in a somewhat rural district in western Illinois. A former reporter and editor for the Quad-City Times, she has been widely seen as one of the party’s most effective communicators, particularly on economic issues relating to middle-class wage stagnation.

But there’s no such thing as a free pass, so Bustos is probably squaring off against a pair of Washington Democrats, Reps. Denny Heck, 66, and Suzan DelBene, 56, who have held deputy positions at the caucus’s political arm the past few years.

All three contenders were first elected to Congress in 2012.

“These were not wallflowers. These were not people who were content to be backbenchers,” former congressman Steve Israel (D-N.Y.) said.

As chairman of the DCCC in 2012 and 2014, Israel helped recruit those three and knows many of the other relative newcomers in leadership races.

At least one Democrat is angling for one of the top spots as 61-year-old Rep. Diana DeGette (Colo.) is challenging Clyburn for majority whip.

Two other key contests are for assistant Democratic leader and the chairman of the Democratic Caucus.

Pelosi created the first position after the 2010 midterms threw Democrats out of the majority, giving Clyburn a soft landing because the minority traditionally has one fewer leadership position.

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He’s running for his old job of majority whip, creating a contest to replace him as assistant leader that will test the ideological and political geographic bounds of the caucus: Rep. Ben Ray Luján (N.M.) vs. Rep. David N. Cicilline (R.I.).

Luján, 46, is coming off a four-year run as DCCC chairman, from the disappointing 2016 election to Tuesday’s romp over Republicans. Cicilline, 57, is a senior member of the Progressive Caucus, co-chair of the LGBT Equality Caucus and two years ago won election as co-chair of a policy committee.

The caucus chair contest is a generational clash within the Congressional Black Caucus: 72-year-old Rep. Barbara Lee (Calif.), a 20-year veteran, against 48-year-old Rep. Hakeem Jeffries (N.Y.), first elected in 2012.

Pelosi does not wield the same clout inside the caucus as she did eight years ago, so she is focused entirely on her own bid to lock down the votes to become the first person to return to the speaker’s rostrum since 1955.

That means these down-ballot races are even more wide open, unlike in previous post-election seasons of defeat and recrimination. After those losses, Pelosi would tamp down rebellion by creating new leadership posts, some of which had real clout, some of which were just window dressing.

The biggest wild card, for the speaker election and other posts, will probably be the incoming freshman class, which will at least number 54. That’s about 20 percent of the vote in the secret-ballot races.

“We keep our word, we keep our promises, and I hope people find that refreshing,” Rep.-elect Jason Crow (D-Colo.) told The Washington Post’s Mike DeBonis on Thursday in insisting he won’t vote for Pelosi.

Crow and several others pledged during their campaigns not to back Pelosi. It’s unclear how many will vote against her during the internal vote later this month and then say that they have to vote for her in the public roll call Jan. 3 in the full House, rather than do anything to help Republicans.

A final spoil of victory are committee assignments, which grow substantially for the majority party.

Only 14 Democrats are returning next year who currently serve on the Ways and Means Committee, the panel that oversees health, trade and tax issues. The next speaker will be able to add about 10 new members to that committee.

There will be about 10 more spots, combined, on the powerful Appropriations and Energy and Commerce committees.

Pelosi will no doubt try to win over holdouts with promises of support for getting those lawmakers onto the key committees of their choice.

Should she win, however, even close allies believe that she won’t remain speaker for long. Israel said that once these junior Democrats get into the somewhat powerful leadership posts, they will soon view the top posts as theirs for the taking.

This group will be content in these lower-level spots “for the time being,” he said. “Those positions will be steppingstones.”

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