Wounded Dems look for answers

Stung by this week’s heavy defeat at the polls, Democrats on Capitol Hill are aching for leaders to find a new direction in the next Congress.

The party suffered a long and painful night Tuesday as a GOP wave swept away its control of the Senate and carried Republicans toward their largest majority in the House in almost a century.

Democratic leaders have blamed the results on a perfect storm of circumstances that conspired to make this a historically tough election cycle.

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Some rank-and-file members, however, are citing another factor: the timidity, as they see it, that has been shown by Democrats when it comes to confronting Republicans on the most pressing policies of the day.

The agitated lawmakers have stopped short of calling for a new crop of leaders — so far — but they do want to see the party take a new, more aggressive tack in the next Congress and beyond. 

“We spent six years dancing in the middle and not providing an assertive contrast to the Republicans, and we’re paying the price for it,” Rep. Raúl Grijalva (D-Ariz.), head of the Congressional Progressive Caucus, said Wednesday by phone. 

“There has to be an attitude change and a strategy change. I don’t know if that necessarily involves leadership,” he added. “We’re always playing on the defensive.” 

Rep. Bill Pascrell agreed, saying there’s “no doubt” Democrats “need to do something different.” 

“To continue on the same pace that we’ve been going is like ignoring what everybody sees,” he told The Hill Wednesday, “and that’s not very healthy for our party.”

The New Jersey Democrat insists he’s not promoting any specific leadership changes — “We’re not against anybody here; we’re trying to get a new path” — but he is in the process of urging fellow members of his party to support a delay in this year’s leadership votes in order “to take inventory” of the party’s future.

“It’s time to take a deep breath in our party, and I would not be so anxious to take a vote and get it over with [this month]. I think that would be a big, big mistake. ... If you’ve got to come back in December, so be it,” Pascrell said.

“Most of them agree,” he said of his colleagues’ response to his suggestion, “but I don’t know if they have the political courage to stand up.” 

Tuesday’s election results seemed to catch even the most pessimistic Democrats by surprise. 

In the Senate, Democrats lost at least seven seats, with three others hanging in limbo Wednesday evening. Still, outgoing Senate Majority Leader Harry ReidHarry ReidIowa poll: Clinton up 14 on Trump, Grassley in tight race with Dem Lynch meeting with Bill Clinton creates firestorm for email case The Hill's 12:30 Report MORE (D-Nev.) didn’t hesitate in announcing his intent to remain atop the party next year.

“Sen. Reid will run for minority leader,” spokesman Adam Jentleson said Tuesday night.

In the House, Democrats fared better, relatively speaking. While they lost at least 13 seats — with several others still too close to call — that’s roughly half the average number (29) historically lost by the president’s party in a sixth-year midterm.

“In short, it could have been worse,” said Rep. Steve Israel (N.Y.), head of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee.

Still, House Democratic leaders had hoped to keep their losses in the single digits, and the GOP gains are on track to give the Republicans their largest numbers advantage since 1929.

“It may be a hundred-year majority,” Rep. Greg Walden (Ore.), head of the Republicans’ campaign arm, said Wednesday.

House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (Calif.), who’s steered the Democrats since 2003, announced late Wednesday afternoon that she would like to keep that role for at least two more years.

In a letter to House Democrats, she announced a new initiative to promote voter participation, adding, “This basic and even non-partisan challenge, which many of you told me you share, has convinced me to place my name in nomination for Leader when our Caucus meets.”

There’s very little doubt that both Pelosi and Reid can keep their leadership positions in next Congress — with good reason. Both leaders are prodigious at raising funds and have been highly effective at uniting their diverse members during even the toughest legislative battles.

Grijalva, for one, said he would readily support Pelosi as head of the party next year. 

“She can provide [an] attitude change as easily as anybody else can, if not better,” he said. “You don’t throw out somebody’s that been through these battles.”

One former House Democrat, a strong Pelosi ally, said Wednesday that those blaming party leaders for Tuesday’s election results “misunderstand” the real reason behind the Democrats’ tough outing.

“We did as badly as we did yesterday because of where we had to run,” the Democrat said.

Thomas Mann, congressional expert at the nonpartisan Brookings Institution, said there’s “no gain” for the Democrats in replacing Reid and Pelosi just as the focus is shifting to the newly empowered Republicans.

“Reid and Pelosi are both skillful leaders,” Mann said. “It’d be silly to change leadership now.”

Still, a Democratic strategist said Wednesday that the window on the current crop of party leaders might be nearing a close, especially in the House, where a younger group of up-and-coming lawmakers is itching to get onto the leadership ladder. 

The strategist predicted the generational shift will gain momentum over the next two years and emerge in full after the 2016 elections.

“There’s a growing appetite for new voices at the table making decisions,” the strategist said.

A Democratic leadership aide said Wednesday that no timeline has been set for this year’s leadership elections. 

Pascrell, meanwhile, says he’ll continue to push for a delay in that vote for the sake of a more deliberative process. Until those discussions happen, he said, he’s not ready to rubber-stamp anyone.

“I believe that Nancy Pelosi is a patriot and a great American. It’s time to take a deep breath, that’s what I’m saying,” he said.

“She may, at the end of the breath, come up the leader,” he added. “But not yet; not yet.”