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Tim Ryan ponders Pelosi challenge

Tim Ryan ponders Pelosi challenge
© Greg Nash

Rep. Tim Ryan on Monday confirmed he’s weighing a challenge to Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi after a disastrous election for the party, which lost the White House and gained just six seats in the House. 

The results have left Democrats returning to Washington on Monday clambering for answers as they prepare for the Donald TrumpDonald John TrumpJudge rules to not release Russia probe documents over Trump tweets Trump and advisers considering firing FBI director after election: WaPo Obama to campaign for Biden in Florida MORE administration. 

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“While he has not made any decisions about a leadership run, he strongly believes that the American people are asking for big changes and we need to figure out how best to deliver on their requests,” spokesman Michael Zetts said of Ryan, a seven-term congressman from Ohio.

Pushing back, a senior Democratic aide expressed doubts that Ryan would launch any serious leadership run against Pelosi (Calif.). The aide suggested Ryan has his eye on Ohio’s governor’s mansion and is just trying to raise his profile.

“This is a publicity stunt,” the aide said.

The internal sniping highlights the frustrations felt by the Democrats following their election drubbing, which has led to plenty of finger-pointing about why the party’s message failed to resonate more broadly, particularly with working-class white voters. 

In the eyes of some lawmakers, Democrats have no one to blame but themselves.

“I don’t think we had any teeth in the message,” said Rep. Bill Pascrell (D-N.J.). “We failed to understand that white men — basically labor people, working people — have to be part of our universe. And if we don’t make them a part of our universe, we’re going to continue to have a difficult time.”

Democrats have long stressed diversity as one of their chief strengths, frequently highlighting their stark numbers advantage among minority and female lawmakers while focusing much of their outreach on African-Americans, Hispanics and women. But Pascrell said the elections reveal those efforts can come at a price if they alienate the white, working-class men who have gravitated in higher numbers to the Republican Party in recent years.

“We think we can make up for those shrinking numbers over the past 10 years through this group or that group, and my response to that is: We should be out for everybody,” Pascrell said. “We cannot simply think that we’re smarter than [everyone] else ... and think that we can do this without white working men. We can’t, and the Democratic Party better wake up and understand it.”

Most Democrats were never expecting to flip the 30 seats needed to retake the House this year. But with Trump at the top of the ticket, Democrats had hoped at least to get close. 

Rep. Gerry ConnollyGerald (Gerry) Edward ConnollyIRS closes in on final phase of challenging tax season Virginia voter registration website back up after outage on last day to register Judge issues nationwide injunction against Postal Service changes MORE (D-Va.) listed several reasons why Democrats came nowhere near that number. He cited the party’s failure to turn out its base and blamed the news media for giving unprecedented attention to Trump’s every move. 

But he also echoed Pascrell’s critique that Democrats’ overarching economic message simply lacked punch. 

“We didn’t really have a really cogent, focused, economic message,” Connolly said. “We decided to focus on the foibles and outrages of the other candidate, assuming everybody would have the same reaction we did. And I think we needed more than that. We needed an economic message that discredited his.”

Some Democrats are urging a change in leadership. 

Pelosi and her top lieutenants — Reps. Steny Hoyer (Md.) and James Clyburn (S.C.) — have been atop the party for roughly a decade, preventing younger members from climbing up the leadership ladder. Previous grumbling about the bottleneck at the top has led nowhere: Pelosi’s last challenge came in 2010, and she won an easy 150-43 victory over former Rep. Heath Shuler of North Carolina in the liberal-heavy caucus. 

But Tuesday’s elections have exacerbated frustrations about Democrats’ minority status, leading to some calls for a changing of the guard.

“This was supposed to be the Republican Party’s time to soul search, and now we are left in the abyss with no House, Sen, [White House],” one Democratic chief of staff lamented in an email. “I just think the party has a lot of thinking to do and that it is time for the old guard — all of them — to move on and let new blood in. The Dem message and outreach failed to reach white working class voters.”

It’s unclear if those frustrations will lead to new challenges this week. Ryan remains undecided about his run, and no contenders have emerged to challenge Hoyer or Clyburn. 

Democrats are scheduled to hold their leadership elections on Thursday. But more than two dozen in the party are urging a delay until after the Thanksgiving break. In a letter spearheaded by Rep. Seth Moulton (D-Mass.), the lawmakers want Democratic leaders to leave more time to discuss the party’s strategy for defending President Obama’s legacy and boosting their chances at the polls in 2018. Roughly 25 lawmakers have endorsed the letter, Moulton’s office said Monday.

Ryan, 43, had initially signed on to the Moulton letter, but removed his name amid “rumors” that he’s eyeing a leadership bid “in order to keep that issue separate from any specific challenge that may happen,” Zetts said.

Instead, Ryan on Sunday night sent Pelosi “a personal note” asking for a similar delay.

Ryan “has the highest respect for Leader Pelosi,” considering her “a friend and mentor,” Zetts said. But he’s also concerned that “many traditional Democrats” have left the party and “that if changes aren’t made we will be in the political wilderness for many years to come.”

“Congressman Ryan is flattered that a growing number of members of the Democratic caucus have called on him to run for leader,” Zetts said. “He understands that many members are deeply concerned about the future of the Democratic Party and caucus.”