Dems face choice of unseating Pelosi

Insurgent House Democrats hoping to shake up the party will get their chance on Wednesday when the caucus will cast secret ballots to decide if Rep. Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) should keep her top spot in the next Congress.

Pelosi has led the party for 14 years, and she’s widely expected to beat back a challenge from Rep. Tim Ryan, a 43-year-old Ohio Democrat just elected to his eighth term.

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But Ryan’s pitch that the Democrats need a new message — and fresh messengers — after a string of election losses has resonated among a number of junior members, stirring resentments within the rank and file that have stewed since the Republicans won the majority six years ago.

“This is an issue about the future of the caucus,” Rep. Ruben Gallego, a 37-year-old Arizona Democrat, said Tuesday in an interview from his Longworth office on Capitol Hill. “The structural reforms we need aren’t there right now, and I don’t think we have the leadership to do it, either.”

Ryan’s argument hinges largely on the message that Pelosi and her top deputies — all in their 70s, all hailing from coastal states — are out of touch with rural middle-class voters, including the Rust Belt workers Ryan represents in his Youngstown district. Pelosi, a liberal San Franciscan, simply doesn’t speak to that demographic, Ryan says, and she’s therefore the wrong figure to broaden the Democrats’ appeal to the middle-of-the-country voters who propelled Donald TrumpDonald John TrumpBooker hits Biden's defense of remarks about segregationist senators: 'He's better than this' Booker hits Biden's defense of remarks about segregationist senators: 'He's better than this' Trump says Democrats are handing out subpoenas 'like they're cookies' MORE to an upset victory in the presidential election.

“We don’t have a robust economic message, we don’t have a message that ties all of the different interest groups together,” Ryan said Tuesday on CNN’s “New Day” program. “I know I can go anywhere in the country and campaign for Democrats on the issues.”

Ryan is confronting long odds in his bid to unseat Pelosi, a political powerhouse and legendary fundraiser who’s faced only one other challenge since 2003 and has strong support within the liberal-leaning caucus. Pelosi appears to have the backing of a vast majority of female Democrats, after a group of 50 women signed a letter touting Pelosi’s experience as a necessary defense against the incoming Trump administration. President Obama has endorsed the incumbent Democratic leader. And on Tuesday, Pelosi won the support of most of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus.

Still, Wednesday’s contest will be decided by secret ballot — a dynamic that lends anonymity to members who want to buck Pelosi, even if only to send a message that something needs to change in the party’s leadership structure.

Pelosi last week proposed a series of reforms aimed at empowering younger lawmakers by creating new leadership posts and reserving more positions for junior members. Ryan and his supporters have hammered the changes, saying they would merely grant more authority to Pelosi — a charge she adamantly denies.

Gallego was part of a group of frustrated young lawmakers who had pushed successfully to delay the leadership elections to this week — two weeks beyond Pelosi’s preferred timeline — and both he and Rep. Seth Moulton (D-Mass.) stuck their necks out Tuesday to endorse Ryan.

“The fresh, inclusive and accountable leadership Tim offers will put us in the best position to fight for working families and regain the trust of the American people,” Moulton said.

Gallego is also taking aim at the staff of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee (DCCC), accusing aides in the office of adopting “outdated, antiquated” methods that have only contributed to the party’s misfortunes.

“They … have become very bureaucratic in nature and are not accountable to the caucus, and I think that causes them to focus more on their own job retention instead of winning seats,” Gallego said.

Ten other Democrats had come out publicly in favor of Ryan as of Tuesday evening, including Reps. Jim Cooper (Tenn.), Kurt Schrader (Ore.), Marcia FudgeMarcia Louise FudgeFederal employees turn their backs on Agriculture secretary after relocation plans announced Federal employees turn their backs on Agriculture secretary after relocation plans announced Lawmakers clash after Dem reads letter on House floor calling Trump supporters 'racist,' 'dumb' MORE (Ohio), Alcee Hastings (Fla.), Beto O’Rourke (Texas), Ed Perlmutter (Colo.), Kathleen Rice (N.Y.), Stephen Lynch (Mass.), Dan Lipinski (Ill.) and Tim Walz (Minn.).

Ryan and his supporters aren’t quite predicting victory, but they sense a groundswell of discontent after four straight election cycles have left the Speaker’s gavel in the hands of Republicans.

“It will be a surprising number,” said Gallego, an Iraq War veteran who was just elected to his second term. “I can’t predict a victory or not, because it’s a secret ballot. But talking to a lot of members there is unease about the direction of the caucus.”

Ryan, for his part, said Tuesday that he’s “within striking distance.”

There are 198 Democrats eligible to vote in Wednesday’s leadership races, including almost 30 newly elected members who haven’t yet been sworn in, as well as four delegates. Lawmakers who are retiring or lost their reelection bids don’t get a vote.

Some Democratic strategists have said that Pelosi made an unforced error when she claimed the support of “more than two-thirds” of the caucus, because anything less than that number will be interpreted as a disappointing result.

Others strongly disagree, saying the leadership votes are quickly forgotten.

“Those who would think that this vote total is [significant] beyond that day would be making a mistake,” said a former Democratic lawmaker.

The only other contested leadership race pits Rep. Linda Sanchez (D-Calif.), the head of the Hispanic Caucus, against Rep. Barbara Lee (D-Calif.), who formerly led the Black Caucus, to replace Rep. Joe Crowley (D-N.Y.) as the caucus’s vice chairman.  Crowley, for his part, is running uncontested to become the party’s chairman.