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Dems struggle with unity amid leadership tensions

Dems struggle with unity amid leadership tensions
© Greg Nash

House Democrats are struggling to show a united front as the shocking ouster of their Caucus chairman rekindles tensions about the future of the party — and who is best suited to lead it into the crucial 2020 cycle.

Energized by the constant turmoil surrounding the Trump administration, Democrats of all stripes are bullish about their chances of flipping the House in this year's midterm elections. And the last thing they want is a nasty internal leadership fight heading into November. 

Yet last month's stunning primary defeat of Rep. Joseph Crowley (N.Y.), the Democratic chairman, to a young liberal activist with no political experience, has created an unexpected void in the higher ranks of the party; injected new life into the longstanding campaign for fresher faces at the leadership table; and sparked a renewed interest in insurgent challenges to the current party brass.

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“It was a shock to everyone,” said Rep. John YarmuthJohn Allen YarmuthDems eye ambitious agenda if House flips Top House Budget Dem warns deficits, debt must be addressed soon Budget hawk warns 'Tax Cuts 2.0.' would balloon debt MORE (D-Ky.), “and that shock lasted about three or four minutes before everyone started plotting.”

The shake-up has transcended thoughts of merely replacing Crowley as Caucus chairman, as some Democrats are now weighing runs at the very top of the party, where Reps. Nancy PelosiNancy Patricia D'Alesandro PelosiPelosi meets with Parkland students and parents, says gun control would be atop Dems’ agenda The Hill's Morning Report — Presented by the Coalition for Affordable Prescription Drugs — Health care a top policy message in fall campaigns Election Countdown: O'Rourke goes on the attack | Takeaways from fiery second Texas Senate debate | Heitkamp apologizes for ad misidentifying abuse victims | Trump Jr. to rally for Manchin challenger | Rick Scott leaves trail to deal with hurricane damage MORE (Calif.), Steny HoyerSteny Hamilton HoyerDems damp down hopes for climate change agenda On The Money: Stocks slide for second day as Trump blames 'loco' Fed | Mulvaney calls for unity at consumer bureau | Pelosi says Dems will go after Trump tax returns Pelosi: Trump tax returns ‘one of the first things we’d do’ if Dems win House MORE (Md.) and James Clyburn (S.C.) have reigned for a dozen years.

Rep. Tim RyanTimothy (Tim) John RyanSenior Dem says Pelosi will be Speaker for as long as she wants House Dems punt action on rule change for Speaker nominee Hoyer questions feasibility of new threshold for Speaker nomination MORE (D-Ohio), who challenged Pelosi unsuccessfully after the 2016 elections, had previously ruled out another attempt this year. With Crowley’s loss, he’s now rethinking his options.

“I got a lot of calls from members, I got a lot of calls from activists … and donors from around the country. So I think there’s some interest in re-evaluating things at this point,” Ryan told The Hill, without committing to a challenge. “It’s certainly got everybody talking, because a lot of people were of the mindset that Joe was going to be the person moving forward that had a lot of support in the Caucus.

“Now that’s all being shook up.”

Highlighting the discontent among some newer Democrats, Rep. Linda Sánchez (D-Calif.), the vice chairman of the Caucus, is amplifying her previous calls for an overhaul of the top three leaders next year, citing a desire for younger lawmakers with fresh ideas to take the reins of the party.

“I think it’s time for that generational change,” Sánchez told reporters Wednesday on Capitol Hill. 

Sánchez, 49, declined to say whether she’ll seek to replace Crowley as Caucus chairman, but made clear she’s hoping to climb up the leadership ladder whenever the opportunity arises. 

“Whether there’s transition or not [next year] remains to be seen,” she said. “I want to be part of that transition, because I don’t intend to stay in Congress until I’m in my 70s.”

The comments prompted an immediate repudiation from the office of the 78-year-old Pelosi, which issued a one-sentence statement warning that internal divisions will only hurt the Democrats at the polls in November.

“House Democrats are focused on winning in November and if you are rowing in the opposite direction, you are only helping Republicans,” Pelosi spokesman Drew Hammill said in an email.

The back-and-forth is exactly the type of internal sniping that Democrats are scrambling to avoid heading into the elections, and most Democrats are being highly cautious in their approach to the leadership question. Democrats should focus first on winning back the House in November, these voices argue, and dive into the leadership debate after the dust has cleared.

“With Crowley being gone, it creates a vacuum and people are going to move to fill it,” said Rep. Peter WelchPeter Francis WelchDems damp down hopes for climate change agenda Electric carmakers turn to Congress as tax credits dry up One Vermont Republican wins statewide nomination in six races MORE (D-Vt.). “[But] in my view, we should spend a lot less time in the next several months focusing on the leadership speculation.”

Rep. Gerry ConnollyGerald (Gerry) Edward ConnollyTrump more involved in blocking FBI HQ sale than initially thought: Dems Dems damp down hopes for climate change agenda Virginia Dem rips administration on Khashoggi MORE (D-Va.) echoed that message, saying the leadership debate has been limited to “subterranean conversations” for that very reason.

“Those conversations are muted, largely because most of my colleagues in the caucus really are focused on the main thing, which is not the leadership race, it is ensuring that we win the majority,” he said. 

“If we win the majority, everything’s on the table.” 

For all the talk of Crowley’s defeat, it’s done nothing to alter the most significant — and unknowable — factor likely to dictate the Democrats’ leadership team next year: namely, the outcome of November’s midterms. 

In conversations with more than a dozen Democratic lawmakers and aides, the common sentiment is that Pelosi’s future in Congress will depend on whether she can steer the Democrats into the majority, as she did in 2006 — and by how many seats. Clyburn, for one, has already asserted that a failure to win back the gavel after eight years in the minority wilderness would mean he, Pelosi and Hoyer should all step aside. 

“It all still hinges on Pelosi. If she stays, everybody stays. If she’s got to go, I think most people think everybody’s got to go,” said a Democratic aide. “In that respect nothing’s changed.”

Aside from Sánchez and Ryan, Rep. Barbara LeeBarbara Jean LeeWorking together to improve diversity and inclusion The Hill's Morning Report — How will the Kavanaugh saga impact the midterms? Live coverage: Senate Judiciary to vote on Kavanaugh confirmation MORE (D-Calif.) is also exploring a run at leadership next year. Lee, 71, a former head of the Congressional Black Caucus (CBC), had lost a narrow contest to Sánchez for vice chairman and now has her eyes on Crowley’s spot. 

For openly discussing her intentions, Lee is an anomaly among the Democrats. Yet numerous sources said the absence of public debate is no indication that lawmakers aren’t working the phones behind the scenes to position themselves for a leadership run, just in case the opportunity emerges.  

“I would assume that anybody from Linda Sánchez down on the leadership rung, … if they’re not making calls now, are thinking about how to proceed pretty quickly here,” said the Democratic aide.