By Aaron Blake - 05/31/06 12:00 AM EDT
An overwhelming number of Democratic incumbents running in congressional districts that President Bush won in 2004 would support the ascension of Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) to Speaker should Democrats capture a majority of seats in November.
But a handful of Democratic challengers running in Republican-leaning congressional districts are much more cautious than their party’s incumbents.
When asked if he would support Pelosi for Speaker if the opportunity arises after the election, Gary Trauner, the Democratic nominee for Wyoming’s at-large congressional seat, told The Hill, “I can’t go there until I get there. I can’t say what I’d do.”
Trauner also indicated that he believes he would be better served if Pelosi did not come to his Wyoming district — where Bush won 69 percent of the vote — during the campaign — at least for now.
“At this point in time, I think it’s important to show Wyoming that I’m an individual thinker,” he said. “From a competitive standpoint, I’m better served to run my own race.”
Gabrielle Giffords, a Democratic candidate for the seat being vacated by retiring Rep. Jim Kolbe (R-Ariz.), declined to comment through her spokesman. Bush won Kolbe’s 8th District, 53-46 percent.
Harry Mitchell, who is challenging Rep. J.D. Hayworth (R-Ariz.), said he hadn’t thought about the issue and offered tepid support when he did. Asked if he would support Pelosi, he said, “I guess so. I wouldn’t vote for a Republican.”
These challengers’ cautious responses, however, stand out as the exception to the rule. In an informal survey of Democratic candidates conducted by The Hill, the vast majority of incumbents and challengers asked said they would vote for Pelosi as Speaker if Democrats take the majority. The candidates expressed strong support for Pelosi in spite of an ongoing effort by the National Republican Congressional Committee (NRCC) to vilify her as a San Francisco liberal who would push the party to the left.
So far, the NRCC effort appears to be getting little traction nationwide. A recent Newsweek poll showed that 51 percent of respondents had never heard of her and that, among those who had, 21 percent approved and 20 percent disapproved of her job performance. Some political experts argue that for Pelosi to become a liability for the party at least 60 percent of the public would need to recognize her.
“Republicans’ worst fear is that a churchgoing mother of five and grandmother of five will become the first woman Speaker of the House if Democrats win in November,” Pelosi spokeswoman Jennifer Crider said.
Perhaps more important, the effort has not generated fear among incumbent Democratic lawmakers who represent Republican-leaning congressional districts. When The Hill surveyed Democratic candidates, even some challengers less familiar with Pelosi’s leadership style emphatically offered their support.
When asked, Democratic Reps. Sanford Bishop (Ga.), Darlene Hooley (Ore.), Dennis Cardoza (Calif.), Mike Ross (Ark.), Tim Bishop (N.Y.), Henry Cuellar (Texas), Bob Etheridge (N.C.), John Spratt (S.C.), Stephanie Herseth (S.D.), Alan Mollohan (W. Va.), Nick Rahall (W.Va.) and Rick Boucher (Va.) all said they would support Pelosi for Speaker.
Democrat Steve Filson, who is running against Rep. Richard Pombo (R-Calif.), even scoffed at the question.
“Yes. She’s the leader of the party,” he said.
All but one Democratic incumbent, Rep. Gene Taylor (D-Miss.), voted for Pelosi for Speaker after Minority Leader Dick Gephardt (D-Mo.) stepped down in 2003. Instead, Taylor cast his vote for Rep. John Murtha (D-Pa.); he did so again in 2005. But when asked, Taylor said he would support Pelosi for the leadership’s top post in 2007.
It is unlikely that Democrats, like Republicans, would abandon their leader after a historic election. After winning the House for the first time in 40 years in 1994, Rep. Bob Michel (R-Ill.), who had served as the GOP’s minority leader, did not run for reelection that year, and his exit made way for the revolutionary Rep. Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.), who had served as the minority party’s fiery whip, to become speaker.
And after the overwhelming GOP victory, Sens. Richard Shelby (Ala.) and Ben Nighthorse Campbell (Colo.) switched parties, as did Reps. Billy Tauzin (La.), Nathan Deal (Ga.), Jimmy Hayes (La.) and Mike Parker (Miss.).
When asked, lawmakers said they weren’t aware of anyone who intends to contest Pelosi for Speaker. Minority Whip Steny Hoyer (Md.) told The New York Times that he would not challenge her, the paper reported yesterday.
If Democrats win the majority, there would be intense pressure among Democrats to support Pelosi, and there would be every incentive to do so. As the newly elected Speaker, she could play an influential role in withholding prized committee assignments, steer campaign contributions elsewhere in the next election cycle or deny a host of congressional perks.
Considering what’s at stake, it’s not surprising that lawmakers heap praise on their leader — despite some recent tension she’s encountered with the Congressional Black Caucus over her call for Rep. William Jefferson (D-La.) to resign his committee post last week in the wake of a growing scandal.
Hooley, whom election handicappers regularly name as top Republican target, said supporting Pelosi would be an easy decision if Democrats win the House.
“She’s going to be the one who got us there,” Hooley said. “People try to make something out of her that she’s not, saying she’ll do this if she’s Speaker or do that if she’s Speaker.”
Rahall called Pelosi an “energetic, strong and effective leader.”
Some conservative Democrats are not worried that Pelosi would push the party to left.
“She has provided excellent leadership, and she has been sensitive to diversity within the caucus, particularly the Blue Dog Democrats,” Bishop said. “On that, Nancy Pelosi deserves kudos.”
“If you don’t moderate, and if you go too much to the extreme, then that could affect us down the line,” Cuellar said. “But I feel that she would be a moderate, and I look forward to working with her.”
Rep. Alan Boyd (D-Fla.) said he is working with Pelosi to win the House, but he would not commit to voting for Pelosi as speaker given the opportunity.
“I see where you’re going with that question, and I won’t answer it. It’s not a relevant question on May 25,” he said.