House Dems brace for Wednesday’s secret ballot

House Democrats return to Washington on Tuesday grappling over the best course for the party’s future.

Rep. Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), facing a challenge from Rep. Tim Ryan (D-Ohio), is seen as the heavy favorite in elections on Wednesday to keep her top leadership spot, where she’s been perched for the past 14 years. 

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Democrats will decide on their new leader in a secret ballot vote that highlights the caucus’s restlessness and resurrects internal tensions that have simmered since Democrats lost control of the lower chamber in 2010.

While House Democrats gained at least six seats this cycle — several contests remain too close to call — that figure was a far cry from the 25 pickups Pelosi had predicted. Seeking more accountability for the dismal results, dozens of restive lawmakers successfully delayed the party’s leadership elections to this week to allow more time for reckoning. But in the eyes of Ryan and his supporters, nothing short of a change at the top will get the party back on a winning track.

“The level of frustration in our caucus is as great as I have seen it,” Ryan said Sunday on NBC’s “Meet the Press.” 

It’s a battle few envisioned just a few weeks ago as Democrats headed into the elections with high hopes that Donald TrumpDonald John TrumpTom Arnold claims to have unreleased 'tapes' of Trump Cohen distances himself from Tom Arnold, says they did not discuss Trump US military indefinitely suspends two training exercises with South Korea MORE’s incendiary presidential campaign would be a curse on vulnerable Republicans, leading to big gains for Democrats in the House. 

Instead, Trump’s message drew droves of white, working-class voters to the polls, bolstering down-ballot Republicans while leaving Pelosi and the Democrats to ponder what went wrong and plot a path out of the minority wilderness.

Ryan’s challenge hinges largely on the argument that Pelosi, a San Francisco liberal widely despised in conservative circles, simply projects the wrong image for a party hoping to broaden its appeal to the Rust Belt voters who flocked to Trump.

“We have got to have the right messenger,” he said. “We have got to have someone who cannot just go on MSNBC, but go on Fox and Fox Business and CNBC and go into union halls and fish fries and churches all over the country and start a brush fire about what a new Democratic Party looks like.”

The elections have also heightened long-standing aggravations among newer members that the long reign of Pelosi and her top deputies — all of whom are in their mid-70s — has prevented other members from rising through the leadership ranks.

“Leader Pelosi is an incredibly strong fundraiser, she’s an incredibly dynamic leader, she gets out there and gets the caucus to do things together that most other leaders would have a very hard time doing. But that’s come at an expense,” a former Democratic leadership aide said Monday. 

“There’s a generation of Democratic leaders who have been stymied or held down or even cut off at the knees to keep her and [Maryland Rep. Steny] Hoyer and others in power,” the former aide added. 

“So you have a number of members who look at the agendas and question why, when the country is worried about the economy and jobs, the Democrats are out talking about women power and some of the core liberal issues that aren’t going to play well in the places that Democrats have to win if they’re going to take back the majority.”

Sensing that unrest, Pelosi last week proposed to carve out several new leadership posts and make some of them eligible only to newer members. The changes are designed to empower the next generation of Democratic leaders, but there’s been some early pushback, as members of the Congressional Black Caucus are warning they would erode the power of African-American lawmakers. Ryan, for his part, said the proposals “will only serve to further consolidate her power over the caucus.”

Among other things, Ryan is pushing to make the chairmanship of the Democrats’ campaign arm an elected position, rather than an appointed post. 

Ryan faces long odds against Pelosi, the first woman elected Speaker and a juggernaut of Democratic politics whose support in the liberal-heavy caucus runs deep. A group of 50 Democratic women is urging colleagues to back Pelosi, saying her long experience will be vital in the coming fights against the Trump administration. And President Obama took the rare step of entering a leadership debate last week when he endorsed Pelosi as “a remarkable leader” of “extraordinary political skill.”

Pelosi also has a huge advantage when it comes to fundraising, having hauled in more than $141 million for the party this cycle alone, according to her office. Ryan, by contrast, raised less than $1 million — far less than the average member, according to the Center for Responsive Politics.

One former House Democrat, speaking anonymously on the sensitive subject, said by that measure alone Pelosi deserves to remain in place.

“The most important messenger in American politics is money, and the ability to get on the air, get on social media, get on media that are relevant to voters is really expensive, and she has done a phenomenal job at giving us that opportunity,” the former lawmaker said Monday. “I don’t think there’s anyone who can come close to matching what she has done.”

Ryan has rejected that argument, saying the focus on campaign cash is misguided.

“If money was the answer, Hillary ClintonHillary Diane Rodham ClintonHouse Judiciary Committee subpoenas FBI agent who sent anti-Trump texts Clapper: Trump was serious when he said he wants citizens to act like North Koreans do for Kim Hillary Clinton: Fundamental rights are 'under assault like never before' MORE would be president and we would be in charge of the House of Representatives right now,” Ryan told “Meet the Press.”

Even before Ryan launched his challenge, Pelosi said she had a victory secured, boasting the support of “more than two-thirds” of the caucus. Ryan doubts that figure, saying he’s in position to shock the political world with an upset win on Wednesday. Aside from scouring the cable news circuit, the Ohio Democrat is reaching out to colleagues via Hustle, a texting app put to successful use by Sen. Bernie SandersBernard (Bernie) SandersSen. Sanders: 'Hypocrite' Trump rants against undocumented immigrants, but hires them at his properties On The Money — Sponsored by Prudential — Trump floats tariffs on European cars | Nikki Haley slams UN report on US poverty | Will tax law help GOP? It's a mystery Nikki Haley: 'Ridiculous' for UN to analyze poverty in America MORE (I-Vt.) during his presidential run.

“We’re going to surprise a lot of people,” Ryan told “Meet the Press” host Chuck Todd.

Playing to Ryan’s favor, Wednesday’s leadership races will be decided by secret ballot, empowering members to buck Pelosi — even just to send a protest message — without fear of reprisal.

For that reason, the former lawmaker warned that whip-count claims from both candidates are dubious.

“It’s a secret ballot. Those commitments are pretty meaningless,” the Democrat said. “I’ve seen it so many times, where people tell both sides what they want to hear.”