Pelosi needs big cushion to return as Speaker

Pelosi needs big cushion to return as Speaker
© Greg Nash

The fate of House Minority Leader Nancy PelosiNancy PelosiBrown says Biden's first moves as president should be COVID relief, voting rights Sunday shows - Spotlight shifts to positive tests among Pence aides Pelosi dismisses talk of White House compromise on stimulus: They 'keep moving the goal post' MORE (D-Calif.) could hinge on one number: how many House seats Democrats win back in November.

Pelosi, who has led the Democrats since 2003, has given no indication she intends to relinquish her position, regardless of the midterm outcomes. But winning the 23 seats Democrats need to seize the House majority may be no guarantee that Pelosi can gather the 218 votes she’d need to retake the Speaker’s gavel, which she lost after Republicans captured the chamber in a 2010 wave.


A few centrist incumbent Democrats have habitually bucked Pelosi’s leadership in the biennial Speaker’s vote on the House floor. Now they could be joined by a growing number of Democratic candidates who have promised voters they’ll reject Pelosi if they’re sent to Washington — a strategy largely designed to counter the Republicans’ escalating campaign of linking Democratic hopefuls to their party’s liberal leader.

Those dynamics mean that Pelosi’s Speaker bid may hinge on Democrats going several seats beyond the 23-seat minimum required to retake the House, creating a cushion for Pelosi to overcome the detractors in her own ranks. 

“I think the magic number is somewhere between 29 and 34,” said one Democratic lawmaker who wants Pelosi replaced and asked for anonymity to speak on the sensitive topic of leadership. “She has to probably get to 34 seats to guarantee she can still be Speaker."

“It’d be great — we’d love to have that,” the lawmaker added. “But it’s a big number.”

Pelosi enjoys widespread support in the liberal-leaning caucus, despite the murmurings of insurrections. And Pelosi’s supporters insist she’ll be the Speaker even if the Democrats win by only a small margin, for the simple reason that no other potential contender is more popular. 

Rep. Steny HoyerSteny Hamilton HoyerTop Democrats introduce resolution calling for mask mandate, testing program in Senate Trump orders aides to halt talks on COVID-19 relief This week: Coronavirus complicates Senate's Supreme Court fight MORE (D-Md.), the minority whip who’s long had eyes on the top spot, hasn’t waged a challenge since losing a contest to Pelosi in 2003. Rep. Joseph Crowley (N.Y.), the Democratic Caucus chairman who’s positioning himself to move up the leadership ladder, has said he won’t take on Pelosi if she decides to stay. And Rep. Tim RyanTimothy (Tim) RyanNow's the time to make 'Social Emotional Learning' a national priority Mourners gather outside Supreme Court after passing of Ruth Bader Ginsburg Lincoln Project hits Trump for criticizing Goodyear, 'an American company' MORE (D-Ohio) was defeated soundly when he challenged Pelosi for the leadership position in 2016 and says he has no intentions of another run.

“The problem that Pelosi complainers have is that there’s no one that can beat her. And that continues to be the case,” one Pelosi ally said Monday. “Who’s going to beat Nancy Pelosi? There’s no one that can. So she’ll win in the Caucus, and then she’ll win on the floor.”

Still, a growing number of Democrats — veterans and newcomers alike — think Pelosi’s path to the Speakership would prove tougher this year amid a rising internal clamor for generational change and a blizzard of Republican attacks that have led some Democratic candidates to distance themselves from their own party’s leader.

Pelosi’s success, these voices say, will pivot on the appearance — and the size — of a blue wave in November.

“If it’s a comfortable majority, I think everybody’s reelected,” said a veteran Democratic lawmaker, referring to the Democrats’ current leadership team of Pelosi, Hoyer and Rep. James Clyburn (S.C.). “If it’s a very narrow win, then that becomes a very different situation, because you’ve got a number of candidates — including people who are already in office now — who wouldn’t vote for Nancy. So now I think it becomes much more difficult for her. And if she doesn’t have the votes, then you have a race to succeed her.”

The veteran lawmaker declined to commit to supporting Pelosi if she vies to remain at the top of the party in 2019.

“I guess it depends who’s running, who’s running against her,” the lawmaker said.

Speculation about Pelosi’s future is hardly new to Capitol Hill, but it’s intensified in recent years as her tenure has lengthened and a younger crop of greener lawmakers has grown increasingly frustrated with the leadership bottleneck at the top of the party.

Rep. Linda Sánchez (Calif.), the vice chairwoman of the House Democratic Caucus, made waves in October when she endorsed a complete overhaul of the party leadership next year.

Republicans, meanwhile, aren’t helping Pelosi’s future leadership ambitions. While they’ve used Pelosi as a campaign punching bag for years, the issue of her leadership spot has been magnified significantly this cycle in the face of personal attacks coming from President TrumpDonald John TrumpFox News president, top anchors advised to quarantine after coronavirus exposure: report Six notable moments from Trump and Biden's '60 Minutes' interviews Biden on attacks on mental fitness: Trump thought '9/11 attack was 7/11 attack' MORE, the millions of dollars the GOP’s campaign arm is pumping into anti-Pelosi ads and the number of swing districts that are up for grabs in the volatile 2018 cycle.

With the exit of President Obama, Pelosi is now the Democrats’ most prominent national figure — a liberal lion of San Francisco who both energizes the base and alienates many voters in the more conservative-leaning districts the Democrats are hoping to pick up in November.

Rep. Conor Lamb (D-Pa.), who won a special election last month in a district Trump carried by 20 points, made headlines when he aired a campaign ad disavowing Pelosi, saying he will not support her for leader. And while Pennsylvania redistricting would put Lamb in a more Democratic district next year, meaning he may be clear to abandon that pledge, a number of Democratic hopefuls around the country are making similar promises, including Paul Davis in Kansas, Andrew Janz in California, Brendan Kelly in southern Illinois and David Kim in Georgia. 

“[Russian] President [Vladimir] Putin probably has a better approval rating in Georgia than Nancy Pelosi,” Kim told McClatchy early in his campaign. 

Such sentiments pose no immediate threat to Pelosi’s leadership future, as many of those candidates have yet to survive tough primary contests, let alone November’s general elections. And there are signs, even outside of Lamb’s victory, that the GOP’s strategy may simply not work. A Washington Post-ABC News poll released last week found that only 35 percent of voters deem a candidate’s views on Pelosi as “important.”

But if voters do send those no-Pelosi Democrats to Washington, they’d be under intense pressure to make good on their campaign vows in their very first vote on the floor. And their numbers could grow as the primaries end and more Democratic candidates are asked to clarify their positions on the Democratic leader in the general contests.

“At the end of the day our candidates need to determine what their positions are on the major issues, including the issue of leadership,” Ryan said. 

Complicating forecasts, the process for picking leadership involves not one vote, but two.

The first is a secret ballot among the Democrats, including new arrivals, with the winner decided by a simple majority. Pelosi has easily fended off two challenges in the past decade, most recently defeating Ryan by a lopsided 134-63 caucus vote in 2016. If those trends hold, Pelosi could likely keep her place atop the party even if the Democrats fail to win back the chamber.

The second contest will take place in January — a public vote for Speaker on the House floor, where Democrats have traditionally banded overwhelmingly behind Pelosi as a show of unity. After the divisive Pelosi-Ryan contest, only four Democrats — Reps. Jim CooperJim CooperHouse Democrat to DeJoy: 'Is your backup plan to be pardoned like Roger Stone?' House Democrats call on State Department for information on Uighur prisoner Ekpar Asat Pelosi weighing bringing House back from August recess early over USPS issues: reports MORE (Tenn.), Ron KindRonald (Ron) James KindDemocrats, GOP fighting over largest House battlefield in a decade Republican fears grow over rising Democratic tide Wisconsin Rep. Ron Kind wins primary MORE (Wis.), Kyrsten Sinema (Ariz.) and Kathleen RiceKathleen Maura RiceHillicon Valley: Simulated cyberattack success | New bill for election security funding | Amazon could be liable for defective products Lawmakers introduce bill to help election officials address cyber vulnerabilities House lawmakers to launch probe into DHS excluding NY from Trusted Traveler Program MORE (N.Y.) — bucked Pelosi in the Speaker’s vote. And Sinema, who’s running for Senate, won’t be around to air her grievances after November.

Those dynamics have led many Democrats to predict that even Pelosi’s loudest detractors will rally behind her if they’re needed to get her to 218.

“If she wins the Caucus significantly, people are going to be hard pressed to — what? — allow the Republicans to choose our Speaker?” said Rep. Raúl Grijalva (D-Ariz.). 

“There’s people that are going to be off the hook because of their [campaign] pledge,” he added. “But there’s others that, while they’ve intimated they wouldn’t [support Pelosi] — especially some of her opposition that’s here now — they’re going to be hard-pressed.”