On The Trail: How Nancy Pelosi could improbably become president

When voters head to the polls in November to choose the path for the next four years in a deeply divided nation, they will choose between President Trump and former Vice President Joe Biden.

But in what has already been a one-of-a-kind 2020, an improbable figure could also become president.

The path for Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), who is second in line of succession to the presidency, to succeed Trump is quite implausible. But it is not impossible.

The first step is a tie in the Electoral College. And that tie is indeed possible.

If Trump loses Michigan, Pennsylvania and Nebraska’s 2nd Congressional District to Biden and holds everything else he won in 2016, the two candidates would be deadlocked at 269 electoral votes a piece.

A few other results could also end in a tie, though perhaps they are even more unlikely.

A tie could result if Biden manages to win Arizona and Iowa, but loses Wisconsin and Michigan. Or if Biden rebuilds the northern Blue Wall, recapturing Pennsylvania, Michigan and Wisconsin, but somehow manages to lose Colorado’s nine votes.

Assuming none of the electors who eventually cast their ballots breaks ranks, a tied Electoral College then heads to the House, in which each state gets one vote, regardless of its size.

Today, even though Democrats hold a majority of the 435 seats in Congress, the makeup of the House would still favor Trump — but not by much.

Republicans control majorities of House delegations in 26 states. Democrats have a majority in 22 plus the District of Columbia. Two states, Michigan and Pennsylvania, have equal numbers of Democrats and Republicans. 

But Democrats appear set to gain House seats this year, for the second straight election cycle, and that could change the balance of power between the delegations. 

If Democrats pick up Pennsylvania’s 10th District, where Rep. Scott Perry (R) faces state Auditor Eugene DePasquale (D), or Michigan’s 3rd District, where attorney Hillary Scholten (D) and businessman Peter Meijer (R) are battling for the right to replace retiring Rep. Justin Amash (I), Democrats would swing an entire delegation to their column. 

Among the Republican-controlled delegations, Democrats’ best shot at winning a new majority is in Montana, where Rep. Greg Gianforte (R) is running for governor. Former state Rep. Kathleen Williams (D) and state Auditor Matt Rosendale (R) are fighting a heated battle for Gianforte’s seat — and, by proxy, the entire vote of the Montana delegation in a hypothetical Electoral College dispute.

If both of those scenarios come to pass, Republicans and Democrats would each hold 25 delegations, with one split. Assuming again that no partisan breaks ranks, the House would cast divided ballot after divided ballot.

But not to worry, the vice president would ascend to power if the House cannot pick a president — unless, of course, the Senate that is supposed to choose a vice president is also hopelessly deadlocked. And that scenario is even easier to imagine.

Today, Republicans hold 53 seats, Democrats hold 45, plus the allegiance of Independents Angus King (Maine) and Bernie Sanders (Vt.). Democrats are in good position to pick up seats in Arizona, Colorado, North Carolina and Maine; Republicans appear set to win the seat held by Sen. Doug Jones (D-Ala.). A tied Senate, divided equally between Democrats and Republicans, seems more plausible than an evenly divided House.

In this nightmare scenario, an equally divided House and Senate return to Washington just after the new year, only weeks before President Trump’s term expires. They vote and vote and vote, but the deadlock endures. The House cannot pick a president, the Senate cannot choose a vice president.

The 20th Amendment is clear on what comes next: Trump’s term expires at noon on Jan. 20, 2021. So does Vice President Pence’s. The next officeholder in line, under federal law, is the Speaker of the House of Representatives. And that is Nancy Pelosi.

The scenario here is improbable, to say the least. To be clearer, it is fantastical, the political equivalent of shooting the moon in Hearts or threading an impossibly small needle with an impossibly thick rope. It is not going to happen.

A Pelosi spokesman, asked to respond to the longest of long-shot scenarios, said the Speaker is confident Biden will be sworn in as president on Jan. 20.

But if the impossible became possible, it would not be entirely out of place in 2020, would it?

On The Trail is a reported column by Reid Wilson, primarily focused on the 2020 elections.

Tags Angus King Bernie Sanders Donald Trump doug jones Greg Gianforte Joe Biden Justin Amash Mike Pence Nancy Pelosi Scott Perry

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