By Mike Lillis - 11/07/12 03:00 PM EST
House Republicans easily kept control of the lower chamber on Tuesday, a result that will only intensify questions about the political future of Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi.
The California Democrat had worked tirelessly this election cycle — including a torturous, non-stop run over the last 100 days — to bring the Speaker's gavel back into Democratic hands, visiting scores of battleground districts and raising tens of millions of dollars for struggling members of her party.
Speculation has swirled all cycle about what Pelosi would do if the Democrats took the House, or lost seats, or managed something in between. The California liberal shrugged it all off, insisting she would decide her political future only after Tuesday's elections.
With those elections having come and gone, there will be no absence of interest in that decision, as a growing list of ambitious Democrats, from old bulls like Reps. Steny Hoyer (Md.) and James Clyburn (S.C.) to younger up-and-comers like Reps. Chris Van Hollen (Md.) and Debbie Wasserman Schultz (Fla.), are eager to jump into the leadership shuffle that would occur if Pelosi stepped out of power.
To be sure, Pelosi, the first female Speaker of the House, is a historic figure who commands an enormous degree of respect from her caucus, and she would likely have an easy time remaining atop the party next year if she wants to stay there — a dynamic that other leading Democrats readily accept.
"It all depends on what Nancy wants to do," Clyburn told MSNBC Monday. "If she wants to run for reelection, I guarantee you she will get reelected. She has the votes to do that."
It wouldn't be the first time she defied the odds in the wake of disappointing election results. Pelosi surprised many observers at the end of 2010 when she announced that she'd stay on as party leader even after the Democrats were pummeled that year at the polls, losing 63 seats and sending control of the chamber back to the GOP after just four years in the majority. She faced a minor challenge from Blue Dog Rep. Heath Shuler (D-N.C.), but had no trouble beating it back.
Yet there have been hints that the 72-year-old Pelosi — a proud grandmother who celebrated her silver anniversary in the House this year — has been eyeing an exit from Capitol Hill to focus more attention on her family.
Last December, her daughter Alexandra fueled that speculation when she said her mother "would retire right now" if it weren't for "an obligation" she felt to the party and its donors.
"She has very few days left," Alexandra told the conservative Big Government blog at the time. "She's 71; she wants to have a life; she's done."
Pelosi's office was quick to dispute that she was eyeing the door, and her daughter walked back her remarks, but the episode raised new questions about what a post-Pelosi Democratic Party would look like after a decade under her leadership.
Recent redistricting might also affect Pelosi's decision, as political experts maintain that the newly drawn lines strongly favor Republicans, leaving Democrats little chance of retaking the House absent a huge wave. It's another dynamic Democrats seem well aware of.
"Most members on the Democratic side understand exactly what we're up against," Clyburn said Monday. "We have redistricting that went really against us in a really bad way."
As of Wednesday morning, the Democrats had picked up just one House seat on the Republicans, with 12 contests still undecided, according to The New York Times. The results ensure that Washington will remain politically split next year, with President Obama remaining in the White House and the Democrats retaining control of the Senate.
Still, the rise of the Tea Party has left Boehner struggling, despite his decisive majority, to rally the support of his troops on many proposals, particularly spending bills. It's an odd dynamic that's given Pelosi a power and leverage that's rare for the minority leader in the House — power she would likely retain if she chooses to remain leader next year.
With a crucial fight looming over a long list of fiscal cliff issues, many dear to Pelosi's heart, the enticement of playing a role in that debate might also play a role in her decisionmaking.
Meanwhile, other Democratic leaders have shown no signs of impatience with Pelosi's silence on her future. Indeed, it's been nothing but effusive praise for her fight this election season.
"I've been at this for some period of time," Hoyer said Tuesday night at a Democratic gathering near Capitol Hill in Washington. "I have never seen anybody with more energy, more focus, more self-discipline and more effectiveness in conveying the message of our party."