In a blow to House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) – and a win for the seniority system – House Democrats on Wednesday chose Rep. Frank Pallone (D-N.J.) to be ranking member of a powerful energy committee in the next Congress.
Although Pallone was next in line to replace retiring Rep. Henry Waxman (D-Calif.) on the Energy and Commerce panel, Pelosi had come out in strong and vocal support of his challenger, Rep. Anna Eshoo (D), a fellow Californian and close friend to the minority leader.
Eshoo had won a Tuesday evening vote by members of the Democrats' Steering and Policy Committee, which is heavily in Pelosi's camp because the minority leader hand-picks the leaders.
But Pallone's 100-90 victory within the broader caucus sends a message that Pelosi's word is not final, particularly amid grumbling from some rank-and-file members that the party needs a new direction following the midterm rout.
"I think this was a way for folks to show that we need to pause, and before we go on to the future we'd better know where we are," Rep. Bill Pascrell (D-N.J.), a Pallone supporter, said after the vote.
Both Pallone and Eshoo were quick to downplay the role that party leaders played in the race, which had split Pelosi and her top deputy, Rep. Steny Hoyer (D-Md.).
"Regardless of where leadership stood in this race, the bottom line is that the members in there were voting for what they thought was the best," Pallone said afterwards. "And it was a very close race."
Eshoo delivered a similar message, arguing that the race was in no way an indication that Pelosi's influence on the caucus is waning.
"We've got the best damn leadership team that's come to the Congress for a century or more," she said.
Pelosi issued a statement after the vote congratulating Pallone for "a hard fought campaign" and praising Eshoo "for raising the issue of innovation to a level that all members appreciate."
Hoyer said he was pleased with the outcome.
"I thought that the caucus made the right decision," he said.
Going into the vote, both sides were confident they had the support to win – a dynamic that sometimes accompanies the secret-ballot process, which allows members to commit to both candidates beforehand for reasons of political expediency.
Seniority appeared to play a significant role in Pallone's victory.
The Congressional Black Caucus (CBC) had lobbied hard behind the notion that seniority should be the chief factor in deciding ranking member spots. And a number of lawmakers leaving Wednesday's vote said it was a key issue, particularly because Pallone and Eshoo are both well-respected members with near-identical policy views.
"It was unspoken – publicly unspoken – but I think clearly it played a role," Rep. Richard Neal (D-Mass.) said. "It certainly caught me."
Another wildcard might have revolved around the race for ranking member of the House Veterans' Affairs Committee, where Rep. Corrine BrownCorrine BrownDemocrats offer double-talk on Veterans Affairs House Democrats have opportunity for redemption in selecting VA Cmte Leader Women make little gains in new Congress MORE (D-Fla.), a member of the CBC, is facing a challenge from Rep. Tim Walz (D-Minn.).
Brown is next in line to fill the seat being vacated by the outgoing Rep. Michael Michaud (D-Maine), who lost his race for governor, and some Democrats say CBC members threw their support behind Pallone in order not to undermine the seniority argument ahead of her race.
"The CBC felt under attack and went to bat for one of their own - and not being for Pallone was seen as weakening Brown's candidacy," said a senior Democratic aide.
The vote took on an additional layer of intrigue in recent days after Rep. Tammy Duckworth (D-Ill.), an Iraq War veteran and double amputee who backed Pallone, had requested permission to vote from afar because her pregnancy prevented her from traveling to Washington.
Behind Pelosi, Democratic leaders had denied the request, leading to charges from some Democrats that the minority leader was trying to protect Eshoo.
In the end, Pallone didn't need Duckworth's vote to secure a win. And both he and Eshoo are vowing to work closely on behalf of the party in the next Congress.
"Both sides really worked hard to make it positive in the sense that we were talking about what we could contribute rather than being critical of the other member," Pallone said. "We always were friends, and we'll continue to be friends, and we're going to work together to make the Energy and Commerce committee the best possible."
This story was updated at 3:20 p.m.