Suddenly, it’s Pelosi who’s facing questions

Suddenly, it’s Pelosi who’s facing questions
© Greg Nash

House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi on Tuesday pushed her party’s leadership elections past Thanksgiving, relenting to pressure from frustrated members who are questioning the Democratic Party’s direction after a disastrous election result.

The delay heightens the chances that Pelosi could face a rare challenge to her long tenure atop the party.

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The California Democrat had scheduled the elections for Thursday, but she got an earful Tuesday morning from a long list of lawmakers urging a longer timeline to allow “an internal conversation” about the party’s path back to power, in the words of Rep. Seth Moulton (D-Mass.), who led the charge.

“The American people cried out last week and we’ve got to listen,” Moulton said, following a closed-door meeting in the Capitol. 

The outcry led Pelosi to reschedule the elections for Nov. 30.

“We don’t want to rush a vote to leadership for them to think that everything is business as usual,” said Rep. Ruben Gallego (D-Ariz.), another vocal proponent of delaying the vote. “Everything is not good. Business as usual is no longer going to work.”

The riled-up lawmakers stopped short of calling for a change in leadership, but the two-week delay conceivably gives time for a challenger to emerge and lobby for support.

Rep. Tim Ryan (D) is weighing such a challenge. The 43-year-old Ohioan said Democrats need more regional diversity in leadership to appeal to a broader swath of the electorate — particularly the rural working-class voters whose steady shift toward Republicans in recent cycles helped lift Donald TrumpDonald John TrumpLev Parnas implicates Rick Perry, says Giuliani had him pressure Ukraine to announce Biden probe Saudi Arabia paid 0 million for cost of US troops in area Parnas claims ex-Trump attorney visited him in jail, asked him to sacrifice himself for president MORE to victory.

States like Ohio, Michigan and Wisconsin “don’t have a lot of representation” relative to the coastal states, Ryan said.

“We lost those voters and we’ve gotta find a way to get them back in, and that starts with a message that resonates in the flyover states,” he said.

Ryan declined to say if he’d launch a leadership challenge, saying the first step in any decision was to delay the elections.

“We’re all having a conversation,” he said.

Pelosi would be the heavy favorite if a challenger emerged. She’s been Democratic leader since 2003, and her rise to Speaker in 2007 made her the most powerful elected woman in the nation’s history. She’s raised hundreds of millions of dollars for the party — money that trickles down to scores of rank-and-file members — and her reputation for uniting the party is unmatched.

Her last test came in 2010, when she easily beat back former Rep. Heath Shuler (D-N.C.), a Blue Dog Democrat who questioned the wisdom of leaving Pelosi in place after the Democrats lost 63 seats and the House gavel. The vote was a lopsided 150-43.

Pelosi has also secured early support from dozens of lawmakers. A letter from female Democrats is circulating with the message that Pelosi is the “battle-tested” voice the party needs to counter the Trump White House. Spearheaded by Rep. Doris Matsui (D-Calif.), it had attracted 50 signatures as of Tuesday night.

Still, the two-week delay gives a potential challenger time to rally support and gain some momentum. And there are already signs that Pelosi supporters might think twice about supporting her if regional concerns intervene.

Rep. Marcy Kaptur (D-Ohio), for one, has signed on to Matsui’s letter. But on Tuesday, she said she might reconsider “if someone from our region were to get into the race.”

Rep. Brendan Boyle (D-Pa.) said it would be “more than a little unfair” to blame Pelosi and the current leadership team for last week’s election results, which were largely swayed by the presidential candidates at the top of the ballot. But, noting that Trump’s win in his home state of Pennsylvania was the first victory for a Republican presidential candidate since 1988, Boyle said the party needs a sweeping self-examination that stretches back well before the 2016 cycle. 

“This is part of a larger trend for us,” Boyle said. “I know everyone’s ... focused on our specific leadership. ... My point is ... that it’s a much bigger issue than just who the specific leaders may be at a certain period of time.”

A number of lawmakers left Tuesday’s meeting voicing strong confidence in Pelosi and the current leadership team. 

Rep. G.K. ButterfieldGeorge (G.K.) Kenneth ButterfieldHouse poised to hand impeachment articles to Senate Democrat makes case for impeachment in Spanish during House floor debate Democrats likely to gain seats under new North Carolina maps MORE (D-N.C.), chairman of the Congressional Black Caucus, said Pelosi “enjoys great respect and support” among caucus members, and the delay in the elections “has no reflection on her leadership at all.”

The delay makes sense, Butterfield said, “because we just got a shellacking.”

“We got an unexpected defeat, and we’ve got to recalibrate, and decide how we go forward,” he said. “It’s just like death: There are different stages of grief that you go through.”

Initially it appeared House Democrats would vote on Thursday to decide whether to go forward with their elections that same day. Then, in a shift, Pelosi decided simply to delay the elections to Nov. 30. A similar vote to delay the leadership elections in 2010 was shot down by an overwhelming margin. 

There’s some dispute over what spurred Pelosi’s change of heart. 

One aide in the room said she told lawmakers she had initially intended the elections to be held after Thanksgiving, but moved them forward after being criticized for a “delay.”

“Many of the members were saying: Why are you delaying the elections?” Pelosi said, according to the aide. “And the press was picking that up. ‘Why are you delaying the elections.’ I’m not delaying it.”

Referring to the timeline, Pelosi told lawmakers, “I don’t care,” according to the aide. “I’m agnostic.”

But a second aide said Pelosi initially pushed back hard against the notion of moving the elections beyond this week, arguing that “we have an emergency” and therefore need to proceed. 

Pelosi was “really angry,” the second aide said, telling her troops that the debate was “not worth it” and “not productive” and that “we need to end this meeting” — and kick the election to later.