Coloradans may figure in Nancy Pelosi’s future

Authors: Washington Examiner, Colorado Politics - September 13, 2018 - Updated: September 27, 2018


By Laura Barrón-López, Washington Examiner  

For Democrats in the U.S. House of Representatives, the August recess was all about November. After eight years in the minority, Democrats are in their best position to retake the House, and they’re trying not to mess it up.

But the August recess was also about Democrats’ longtime leader: Nancy Pelosi.

House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi speaks at the Public Policy Institute of California Aug. 22, 2018, in San Francisco. (AP Photo/Eric Risberg)

Aware of the threat to her 16-year reign, the Democrat from San Francisco made the media rounds, providing interviews to the New York Times, Associated Press and NPR. She blasted out op-eds and articles about her tenure to her members, reminding them why she’s needed at the helm. And she’s raised nearly $91 million for the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee this cycle, CNN reported in August.

Simultaneously, one of her deputies, Rep. Jim Clyburn, D-S.C., began a campaign of his own, pitching himself as a potential “bridge” leader should Pelosi fall short of the votes needed to become speaker.

Some see Clyburn’s move as an attempt to push House Minority Whip Steny Hoyer, D-Md., out of the picture. Hoyer has long presented himself as a possible bridge to the new generation. And others speculated Clyburn’s posturing is a signal from the Congressional Black Caucus that it expects to be included in any conversation about a new leader.

Challenges to Pelosi’s leadership aren’t new, but this time, members say, is different. Democrats are clawing their way back from the abyss, and those calling for her ouster have steadily increased in number.

Not only are current members daring to open their mouths where in the past they’ve shied away from the topic, but they’re drawing strength from the several dozen Democratic candidates who have said, if elected, they’d vote against Pelosi.

In August alone, there were at least 10 articles about Pelosi’s leadership across publications with a strong presence on Capitol Hill. Then there are the op-eds: “Who’s Afraid of Nancy Pelosi?”; “Make Way for Young Leaders”; “Pelosi’s been good for the Democrats. Don’t toss her without a backup plan.”

“I can take the heat and that’s why I stay in the kitchen,” Pelosi told AP.

Pelosi’s quest to hang onto her leadership post or rise to speaker may face opposition from Colorado.

U.S. Rep. Ed Perlmutter, D-Arvada, in late 2016 backed U.S. Rep. Tim Ryan of Ohio against Pelosi. This time around, the New York Times reports that Perlmutter is among a group of “old-guard lawmakers” who “have been holding meetings and carrying on text-message conversations about spurring change after the midterms, according to several participants in the conversations.”

And NBC News, in a recent Pelosi scorecard, lists both Perlmutter and 6th Congressional District candidate Jason Crow as opposing Pelosi for speaker should Democrats capture the House.

Perlmutter “does not support Pelosi for speaker and has been vocal about it since 2016,” a spokesperson tells the network.

“I won’t be supporting Nancy Pelosi,” Crow told The Denver Post in July. ” … I want new leadership to set up and move this country forward.”

Other Colorado Democrats — those in office and those hoping to be — aren’t saying yet whether they’re for or against Pelosi.

“We have not discussed the topic. She is very focused on getting Democrats elected first and foremost,” Shawn Morris, spokesperson for U.S. Rep. Diana DeGette, told Colorado Politics’ Ernest Luning. (The Denver Democrat is also seeking support from colleagues for a potential bid to be chosen as House whip, the party’s No. 3 leadership post, the National Journal reports.)

Joe Neguse, the Democrat seeking to succeed Jared Polis as 2nd Congressional District representative, hasn’t taken a position yet on Pelosi, staffers say. And NBC quotes 3rd Congressional District candidate Diane Mitsch Bush as saying: “I will give careful thought to all of my Democratic colleagues” as a future House leader.

No one really knows what is going to happen. If Democrats fail to take the majority, all three Democratic leaders will likely be booted. If Democrats win, it becomes a numbers game.

“She has to compete like everyone else,” said Rep. Brenda Lawrence, D-Mich. “Obviously [Pelosi] has experience and skills, but she’s got to compete.” But there’s one critical question that no one is answering: Who can replace Pelosi?

U.S. Rep. Ed Perlmutter, D-Arvada, “does not support Pelosi for speaker and has been vocal about it since 2016,” a spokesperson says. (AP Photo/David Zalubowski, file)

The agitators

In the two years since Ryan, the Ohio Democrat, challenged Pelosi and lost, a small group of members have been on a mission to oust the California Democrat, bringing more of their colleagues into the fold and sowing doubt about her leadership whenever possible.

Reps. Kathleen Rice, D-N.Y., and Seth Moulton, D-Mass., are open about their desire for a new leader. The two are often singled out by other members as the head provocateurs of the eff ort to whip people against Pelosi.

Moulton is spreading his message outside of Washington. The Marine veteran has taken a number of Democratic House candidates under his wing, and though he swears they are all independent thinkers, many have taken his lead on calling for new leadership.

Those who’ve joined the chorus against Pelosi, including Moulton, have shown frustration with the GOP’s ability to paint her as a coastal liberal, making her into a villain on the campaign trail. But the effectiveness of those attacks are somewhat outweighed by Trump’s own negatives.

As talk of a leadership race intensifies, Ryan has encouraged Moulton to use his growing number of recruits as leverage. If Pelosi or Clyburn want the support of Moulton’s expanding coalition, they must give concessions.

Then there’s Ryan himself. After insisting he wouldn’t challenge Pelosi again, Ryan reversed course in July. The defeat of New York Democrat Joe Crowley changed everything. Crowley, the caucus chairman, was considered by many the heir apparent. His surprising loss to the 28-year-old Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez rattled the entire caucus, leaving a void that has yet to be filled.

With Crowley out, Ryan is again mulling a challenge to Pelosi. In August, he told the Washington Examiner that he’d only jump in if he thinks he can win.

“We’ve not closed the door on the leader race but the key is to get more members of the House elected that represent districts like the one I represent so we can have enough political push to get the kind of economic stuff done that we need done,” Ryan said.

Though openly mulling a bid, Ryan is also boosting Clyburn. He says he won’t sacrifice himself to make way for Clyburn, who like Pelosi is nearing 80, but it’s one scenario that isn’t too farfetched. If Ryan runs against Pelosi and she doesn’t secure the votes necessary in the private caucus vote set for December, it would provide an opening for Clyburn to step forward without directly challenging her.

“If anybody is going to be the bridge, it’s going to be Jim Clyburn,” said Ryan. “Jim brings change.”

But it’s unclear if Clyburn would be a consensus candidate in the way many saw Crowley to be.

Diana DeGette, D-Denver, has “not discussed the topic” of Pelosi’ leadership, an aide says. (AP Photo/Zach Gibson, File)

‘A real leap of faith’

The first speaker Rep. Yvette Clarke, D-N.Y., ever voted for was Pelosi. That was in 2007, after Democrats retook the House for the first time in 12 years.

“I don’t personally see a reason why she would not continue to be a good speaker,” Clarke said.

No one, Clarke said, has demonstrated an ability to step into the top leadership role with the experience necessary to fight Trump. “It would be a real leap of faith,” Clarke said, to put her support behind someone else.

For all the speculation and posturing by members, Pelosi is the only declared candidate in the hypothetical speaker race. And shortly after Clyburn began positioning himself in the press as a possible successor to Pelosi, she pounced.

“If people want to be the bridge that I’m building toward, they have to show what’s on the other side of the bridge,” Pelosi told the Times during a Texas campaign swing in August.

So far, Ryan, who garnered 63 votes in the 2016 caucus vote, is the only one who has come close to entertaining a direct challenge. Next, is Clyburn and Hoyer. Clyburn’s campaign to be the bridge to new leaders is supported by a number of Congressional Black Caucus members, but not all. Others in the caucus would rather see someone like Rep. Hakeem Jeffries, D-N.Y., take the helm. But Jeffries, like Clyburn, won’t run against Pelosi.

Clyburn’s willingness to keep the conversation concerning Pelosi’s future alive, however, highlights the eagerness within the caucus to envision a future without their longtime leader.

Hoyer has remained quiet on the topic, saying his singular focus is on winning back the House. But Hoyer’s allies say it’s unlikely the Maryland Democrat, who has waited in the wings for 16 years, will sit idly by if Clyburn attempts to leapfrog over him. If Pelosi can’t secure the votes, Clyburn and Hoyer could go head to head for the top spot.

And should Pelosi somehow fall short, creating the opening for Hoyer and Clyburn, there’s a very real chance a third member jumps in.

Someone who doesn’t have to sell themselves as a “bridge” to a new generation but who is the new generation. Why kick out Pelosi to see another near 80-year-old replace her? The names circulating include Jeffries, Reps. Karen Bass, D-Calif., Cheri Bustos, D-Ill., and Cedric Richmond, D-La.

“I haven’t ruled anything in, I haven’t ruled anything out,” Jeffries said about running for a spot in party leadership. Speaking to reporters before the August recess, Jeffries said his focus is on winning back the majority.

The best vote-counter

“If there ever was a time it’s now to have a member of the black caucus as speaker of the House,” said Rep. Filemon Vela, D-Texas, one of Pelosi’s loudest critics.

“My position is I don’t give a s— what they do in caucus,” Vela said. “I’m going to go to that House floor and vote no.”

Democrats hold 195 seats in the House, two of which are vacant due to a death and a resignation. The two vacant seats are safe blue districts. If Democrats hold all 195 and flip 32 GOP-held districts they would have a 227-seat majority, which according to Vela’s math, still isn’t enough to make Pelosi speaker.

“I am confident, it does not matter what happens in the caucus because there are 11 of us who are going to go to the House floor and vote for somebody else, at which point she can’t get the numbers she needs on the House floor,” said Vela.

If Vela’s bold prediction plays out, there could be chaos among House Democrats. At the start of every Congress, the speaker is elected on the chamber floor and needs a majority of the House, or 218 if everyone votes. Republicans are expected to vote for a GOP member only.

It would happen like this: Pelosi wins in the caucus, a secret-ballot vote that’s postponed until December, and then falls just shy of the 218 votes needed in the public vote on the chamber floor in January. It would send Democrats scrambling to find a fix.

Few believe Pelosi would ever put herself in that position. She’s widely hailed, even by her enemies, as the best vote counter in a generation. To think that she wouldn’t know she’s short of votes is unfathomable.

“I’m a numbers person when it comes to counting votes for legislation,” she told NPR during the recess. “Passing the Affordable Care Act, the Recovery Act, the list goes on — Wall Street reform and the rest. And I’m a numbers person when it comes to my own possibilities in Congress.”

Democrats have a 77 percent chance of winning the House with an average gain of 35 seats, according to FiveThirtyEight’s forecast. Still, a blue wave is not assured.

Winning just the 23 necessary to flip control is a gargantuan task. If Democrats win the majority by anywhere from 23-32 seats, Pelosi could be in danger, especially if the incoming freshman Democrats are those who have publicly said they would oppose her. If Democrats gain 35 or more seats, Pelosi should have plenty of breathing room depending on the composition of that freshman class.

Because for every candidate like West Virginia’s Richard Ojeda — “I’m not a fan,” he said of Pelosi — there’s a Katie Hill.

“[Pelosi] has got more done than anyone,” said Hill, who is running against incumbent Republican Steve Knight in California. “I don’t see somebody who is in a position, or is prepared to jump in and immediately start getting the stuff done that needs to happen.”

Then there’s Pelosi’s ability to win over incoming freshmen by dangling attractive committee assignments, and reminding them of her fundraising prowess and ability to help with their reelection.

“Let’s not — and I never have — underestimate the staying power of Nancy Pelosi,” said former Rep. Nick Rahall, a West Virginia Democrat who served for 38 years under three Democratic leaders. “She is as energetic a leader as I have ever seen of our party; a fundraiser like I’ve never seen.”

That Democrats are more vocally positioning themselves and crunching the numbers could spell trouble for Pelosi. But if past is prologue, Pelosi will know how many votes she has and when she has them. It will be a numbers game, made a bit more complicated by a freshman class that appears ready to shake up the Democratic establishment and demand fast results.

“The wider the margin, the less that Nancy’s leadership is going to be challenged or at risk,” said Rep. Anthony Brown, D-Md., “And I’m confident that we are going to — because people are working hard, we got great candidates, we’re organizing, we’re mobilizing — have a pretty sizable margin.”

Ernest Luning and Mark Harden of Colorado Politics contributed to this story.

Washington Examiner

Washington Examiner

Colorado Politics

Colorado Politics

Colorado Politics, formerly The Colorado Statesman, is the state's premier political news publication, renowned for its award-winning journalism. The publication is also the oldest political news outlet in the state, in continuous publication since 1898. Colorado Politics covers the stories behind the stories in Colorado's state Capitol and across the Centennial State, focusing on politics, public policy and elections with in-depth reporting on the people behind the campaigns — from grassroots supporters to campaign managers and the candidates and issues themselves.