Hoyer’s spot as Pelosi heir challenged by younger reps

Hoyer’s spot as Pelosi heir challenged by younger reps
© Greg Nash

Rep. Steny HoyerSteny Hamilton HoyerBuzzFeed story has more to say about media than the president Dems revive impeachment talk after latest Cohen bombshell Laura Ingraham: Dems 'are all going to have to kiss Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez's ring' MORE (D-Md.) is facing rare new challenges to his leadership aspirations as Democrats eye a House takeover and a younger crop of lawmakers grows increasingly restless for changes atop the party.

Hoyer, who’s stood comfortably — if not contentedly — behind Rep. Nancy PelosiNancy Patricia D'Alesandro PelosiSunday shows preview: Shutdown negotiations continue after White House immigration proposal Rove warns Senate GOP: Don't put only focus on base Senate to take up Trump's border-immigration plan next week MORE (D-Calif.) for the last 15 years, has long been viewed as the heir apparent if Pelosi were to retire. Yet the influx of newer members over recent cycles — combined with the lengthy leadership bottleneck — has only stoked the simmering frustrations of a younger generation of Democrats seeking a chance to climb into the leadership ranks.

Interviews with more than a dozen Democrats across the demographic spectrum suggest that the shifting winds within the party have made Hoyer’s progression a less certain bet.

“If you had asked me five years ago, ‘God forbid, if Nancy got hit by a bus, what would happen?’ I’d say to you Steny steps right in and wins. There’s just no question. Everyone thinks he’s earned it, they like him — no one could gainsay that,” said one veteran Democrat, speaking anonymously on the sensitive topic. “The problem is with time has come [the thought], ‘Now maybe we need them all to kind of [move on].’ ”

“It’s not about generation change. It’s longevity in office. Could we possibly benefit from some fresh ideas?” the lawmaker added. “There are a lot of people — I put myself in their numbers — who are pretty frustrated at the lack of opportunity to move up. So I don’t think it’s as sure a thing as it once was, with Steny. Not because of any antipathy to him personally. But because he’s older than Nancy.”

Rep. John Larson John Barry LarsonConservative leader Meadows condemns King comments 'in strongest sense' Influx of women in Congress can improve women’s retirement security The 116th Congress can improve Medicare and Social Security MORE (D-Conn.), the former head of the House Democratic Caucus, delivered a similar message. Larson praised Hoyer as “the loyal lieutenant … who’s maybe our best spokesman on the floor.”

“But,” he quickly added, “there is a generational fervor that’s going on within our caucus and outside of here, and that outside game will have a lot of influence.”

“Steny will have his fans, and I count myself among them because of what he’s been able to do. But ... there is this underpinning of the need for a generational change.”

One gauge of the shifting politics is Rep. Bill PascrellWilliam (Bill) James PascrellOcasio-Cortez sparks debate with talk of 70 percent marginal rate House Dems offer bill to require presidents to release tax returns Dems look to chip away at Trump tax reform law MORE. The 11-term New Jersey Democrat has long embraced the notion that Hoyer should succeed Pelosi — but not this year.

“While I think Steny is the most articulate person for the Democratic Party, at this time, when I look at all the qualities that I think are necessary in leadership, in terms of going forward, I would pick Joe CrowleyJoseph (Joe) CrowleyA vacuum being filled by the inexperienced Ocasio-Cortez quotes Rorschach from 'Watchmen' in response to Dem criticism Top House Dem to Ocasio-Cortez: ‘Don’t attack your own people’ MORE,” said Pascrell, referring to the 56-year-old New York Democrat.

A fourth Democrat, a member of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus, said Pelosi stepping down would spark “a freewheeling free-for-all” for new leadership across the board, and Hoyer’s spot is “not guaranteed after that.”

“It would have been two years ago,” the lawmaker said.

Hoyer’s office offered a one-sentence statement, saying Hoyer “is focused on taking back the House in November.”

First elected in 1981, the 78-year-old Hoyer is racing to get ahead of any upstart movement that might threaten his aim to succeed Pelosi whenever — and however — she steps out of her leadership spot.

A tireless campaigner, Hoyer is scouring the country to stump with Democrats on “listening tours” and fundraising events that have hauled in more than $5.5 million this cycle, according to his office — money he’s showering on sitting incumbents and aspiring new candidates alike.

He keeps religiously to a schedule of huddling with reporters each week for intimate talks, even after his Republican counterparts — former Rep. Eric CantorEric Ivan CantorOusted GOP lawmaker David Brat named dean at Liberty University business school Trump, GOP seek to shift blame for shutdown to Pelosi Hoyer: Ryan’s legacy a mix of decency and debt MORE (R-Va.) and the current majority leader, Rep. Kevin McCarthyKevin Owen McCarthySteve King fundraising off controversy surrounding white supremacy comments House rejects GOP measure to pay workers but not open government McCarthy, allies retaliate against Freedom Caucus leader MORE (R-Calif.) — all but abandoned that process.

Hoyer’s weekly sparring matches with McCarthy on the House floor offer a regular exposition of his rhetorical dexterity. And his reputation as the go-to leadership figure for rank-and-file Democrats has won him widespread popularity within the party.

“Members still believe that Hoyer is the members’ member — that he is the kind of guy who represents the members and protects them,” said Rep. Emanuel Cleaver (D-Mo.). “So I think there would be a lot of members lining up right behind Hoyer, if for no other reason [than] loyalty.” 

A freshman Democrat who supports Hoyer described the minority whip as “a good bridge” between Pelosi and the next generation of Democrats, who may still need some grooming before taking the reins of the party.

“He knows he’s not going to be here forever,” the freshman said.

Another supporter said Hoyer’s relative anonymity is also an asset. Unlike Pelosi, who’s been made a target in campaigns around the country, Hoyer isn’t susceptible to national attacks condemning his liberalism.

“I don’t see that dynamic is really at all about anybody other than Pelosi,” the lawmaker said.

Indeed, Hoyer has carved a reputation as a centrist compromiser, well-liked even among Republicans, who will reach across the aisle in search of a deal. In the eyes of his supporters that profile is a compelling strength, one that allows Hoyer to speak to voters in districts where the more liberal Pelosi is toxic. But it could also hurt him in the liberal-heavy Democratic Caucus, where many members don’t necessarily want a moderate dealmaker negotiating on their behalf.

“There’s a lot of us who haven’t been around that long; we don’t have the same loyalties, maybe, but also the same need to continue what’s happened for 15 years,” said a liberal Democrat who requested anonymity to speak frankly. “The realization is being made that we need to move on. The problem is no one is saying the alternative is the guy who’s a year older than [Pelosi].”

“He’s been part of that leadership team forever and people want to kind of give us a better, fresh face.”

Democratic leaders are no stranger to criticisms that their long grip on the caucus has limited the chances of newer lawmakers to emerge as leaders, prompting some members to leave the House altogether for other opportunities. Pelosi and Hoyer, both 78 years old, have led the party since 2003, and Rep. James Clyburn (D-S.C.), 77, has been in the third-ranking spot since 2006.

Predicting the Democrats’ post-election leadership roster remains a purely speculative exercise, given the numerous wildcards sure to sway the debate. Chief among them is the question of whether the Democrats will win back the House after eight years in the minority, and — likely just as important — whether Pelosi decides to keep her leadership spot in the next Congress. The answer to the second question could very well hinge on the first.

“If we win, then the leadership is going to have a great case to be made about how they brought us back,” Larson said. “If we lose, ‘Katy, bar the door.’ ”

There are also questions about which younger lawmakers — if any — might step up to take on the more seasoned leaders. After the 2016 elections, Pelosi beat back such a bid from Rep. Tim RyanTimothy (Tim) John RyanHow Pelosi is punishing some critics while rewarding others Dem leaders avert censure vote against Steve King McCarthy rejects idea of censuring Steve King MORE (D-Ohio), and there was initial talk — quickly abandoned — of fielding a broader slate to challenge Hoyer and Clyburn, as well.

Ryan said he won’t run again this year — but would like to see others do so.

“I did what I did last [cycle], so I’m pretty clear as to where I stand,” Ryan said.

Crowley, the chairman of the Democratic Caucus, has not publicly announced his intentions regarding the elections, but he’s positioning himself to move up the chain and perhaps challenge Hoyer, according to several lawmakers.

Crowley declined to weigh in on the issue, saying the focus on leadership is “a distraction” from the more important task of winning back the chamber.

“My focus is on winning back the House,” he said. “I think our entire leadership team is focused on that.”

Amid the whirlwind of uncertainty, Rep. Bennie ThompsonBennie Gordon ThompsonSunday shows preview: Shutdown negotiations continue after White House immigration proposal Last-minute deal extends program to protect chemical plants Trump’s polls sag amid wall fight MORE (D-Miss.) said the only sure bet is that “every position … will have opposition.” And no one, he said, is a shoo-in for a leadership spot — not even Hoyer.

“You’ve got to earn it, and if he thinks he’s earned it then he’ll run for it,” Thompson said.

“I hear more discussions about our leadership now than I have … since I’ve been here,” he added.

“And if that condition continues at the level that it is, I think it would mean some changes.”