A clutch of House Democrats opposed to seeing longtime leader Nancy Pelosi as speaker are scrambling to organize the resistance and force a leadership shake-up before the party takes control in January.
They are especially focused, according to aides and members familiar with their conversations, on a sizable group of incoming Democratic freshmen who expressed opposition to Pelosi (Calif.) on the campaign trail.
Some of those members have said they will not vote for Pelosi under any circumstance, whether in an internal party vote this month or in the January floor vote to choose a speaker. Others have been more circumspect, calling for new leadership but stopping short of ruling out support for Pelosi.
But arithmetic is everything: With Democrats on track to claim a roughly 12-seat majority as votes continued to be counted Thursday, those members — and their resolve in demanding new leadership — could be decisive.
Jason Crow, who beat Rep. Mike Coffman (R-Colo.) on Tuesday and insists he will not vote for Pelosi, said that he was perplexed that Democrats are expecting the freshmen to renege on their campaign rhetoric.
“That’s kind of a reflection of the current expectations of elected officials and what’s wrong with politics in D.C. — that people actually expect people to change their position after an election,” he said. “But it’s not going to happen for us. We keep our word, we keep our promises, and I hope people find that refreshing.”
In a CNN interview Thursday, Pelosi expressed “total” confidence she would be elected speaker. “A hundred percent,” she said.
In past elections, Pelosi has been able to rely on the niceties of Capitol Hill politics, which dictate that after an internal party vote, lawmakers drop objections they might have and cast their votes for their colleagues’ choice. In 2016, for instance, 63 Democrats opposed Pelosi in the closed-door caucus, but only four did so on the House floor.
But that scenario might not occur this time. The anti-Pelosi faction, led by Democratic Reps. Seth Moulton (Mass.), Kathleen Rice (N.Y.), Tim Ryan (Ohio) and others, say that at least a dozen incumbent Democrats would vote to oppose Pelosi on the floor and that about as many freshmen could be persuaded to join them.
Pelosi allies, however, doubt that tally and say only a handful will ultimately oppose her — especially with no declared alternative. While Republicans spent tens of millions of dollars highlighting Pelosi in attack ads, they note, Democrats are on track to win a comfortable majority.
“The other side has thrown everything but the kitchen sink at her, and she’s still standing,” said Rep. Richard E. Neal (D-Mass.), the likely next chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee. “And I think a lot of people have lost a lot of money betting against her.”
About 10 of the critics discussed how to avoid falling short once again in a Wednesday conference call, according to people familiar with it. Among the topics was whether to send a letter publicly opposing her as leader, the people said, but that notion was temporarily shelved as the size of the majority remains in flux.
Instead, they are focusing on how to best support new members — who are set to arrive in Washington next week to start their orientation process — and help them stand up to an expected onslaught of lobbying.
“The bottom line is, they won tough races in tough districts,” Ryan said Thursday. “It’s about building a long-term durable majority, and that starts with protecting these members. . . . Being in the majority is a thousand times better, and we want to keep it this way.”
What they will be up against is the rest of the Democratic caucus, ranging from veteran lawmakers who will soon be holding committee gavels to junior members who have secured positions of prominence due to Pelosi, not to mention a lobbying infrastructure that is invested in maintaining the current leadership.
Pelosi will be making her own case. In a letter sent to Democratic lawmakers Wednesday, she said she intends to speak personally with every member.
“My vision for the next two years is to restore the House to the role it should have as a strong and independent voice for the American people, and maximize the ability and the creativity of our entire caucus,” she said.
Her allies will also be leaning on the newcomers. Rep. Adriano Espaillat (D-N.Y.) issued a public statement backing Pelosi on Thursday and said in an interview that Democrats couldn’t afford to put a leader with a “learning curve” in charge, sitting down with President Trump and Republican congressional leaders. That, he said, ought to outweigh the campaign rhetoric of the incoming freshmen.
“Maybe they made those statements under different circumstances that are now vastly different” after the election, he said. “I would ask them to take a second look — to be fair, open and flexible.”
Meanwhile on Thursday, Democrats maneuvered for position in down-ballot races, hoping to claim a sliver of power in the party’s first majority in eight years.
A closely watched race for Democratic caucus chairman was upended by the entry of Rep. Hakeem Jeffries (D-N.Y.), a young Brooklyn congressman eager to climb the leadership ranks, while Rep. Linda T. Sánchez (D-Calif.) dropped out after her husband was indicted on federal corruption charges. Sánchez was not implicated in any wrongdoing but said in a statement that she needed to focus on family matters.
Jeffries faces Rep. Barbara Lee (D-Calif.), an outspoken liberal and fellow member of the Congressional Black Caucus, in the leadership race set for the end of the month.
In another contested race, Rep. Diana DeGette (D-Colo.) is challenging Rep. James E. Clyburn (D-S.C.), the current assistant Democratic leader, for the No. 3 majority whip post.
In an interview, DeGette said she was concerned about moving legislation in what could be the narrowest Democratic majority in decades.
“I have a lot of respect and affection for Jim, and I think he’s a wonderful moral compass for our caucus,” she said. “It’s really about who can do this very specialized and important job in an effective way.”
Clyburn was not available for comment, but an aide said that the congressman previously held the whip position when Democrats were in the majority from 2007 to 2011.
“He never lost a single vote on a Democratic priority when Democrats were in the majority,” said the aide, who was not authorized to comment publicly and spoke on the condition of anonymity. “He knows how to whip.”
Erica Werner contributed to this report.