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Democrats opposed to Pelosi lack challenger to topple her

Democrats opposed to Pelosi lack challenger to topple her
© Greg Nash

Democratic insurgents hoping to topple House Minority Leader Nancy PelosiNancy PelosiFive takeaways on the House's return to budget earmarks Pelosi mocks House GOP looking for 'non-threatening female' to replace Liz Cheney Caitlyn Jenner: California needs a 'thoughtful disruptor' MORE (D-Calif.) lack a key ingredient in their master plan: a formidable challenger.

Pelosi’s detractors have argued for years that Democrats need an image overhaul by empowering newer members at the very top of the party. But they suffered a big setback when Rep. Joseph Crowley (D-N.Y.), thought by many to be Pelosi’s heir apparent, was unseated himself in an astonishing primary defeat earlier this year.

Crowley's downfall has left Pelosi critics scrambling in search of another challenger bearing the requisite combination of experience, gravitas, popularity — and not least, interest — to take on Pelosi, a political juggernaut who's led the party for the past 15 years. 

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As the midterms inch closer, many Democrats on and off of Capitol Hill say there’s simply no standout figure to fill the vacuum. 

“You can’t beat somebody with nobody,” said a former senior Democratic aide, who worked for a frequent Pelosi critic. “And they have nobody right now.” 

Rep. Raúl Grijalva (D-Ariz.), who heads the Congressional Progressive Caucus, echoed that message, expressing some frustration that none of Pelosi’s critics have stepped forward to launch a challenge.  

“There’s no real obvious pretender to the throne right now. You hear supposition and rumor that so-and-so is interested, and that Pelosi is the one under scrutiny by everybody,” he said. “It would be good to get a name that people can also begin to provide that same kind of scrutiny. 

“I would want to know.”

To be sure, the opposition to the 78-year-old Pelosi within the caucus has been growing over the years, as old bulls have retired and newer members have entered the ranks, often to become frustrated with the leadership bottleneck at the very top of the party. 

Heading into November, Pelosi’s critics see an opportunity to build on the growing unrest. They’re calling for “generational change” to refresh the caucus leadership with new faces and ideas. And they’ve been encouraged by the dozens of Democratic candidates across the country who are vowing to oppose Pelosi as leader if voters send them to Washington.

“The fact that our top three leaders are in their late 70s — I don’t care who those leaders are — that is in fact a problem,” Rep. Jim HimesJames (Jim) Andres HimesHouse panel spars over GameStop frenzy, trading apps COVID-19 could complicate Pelosi's path to Speaker next year Democrats debate fate of Trump probes if Biden wins MORE (D-Conn.) told CNN last month. 

Complicating the efforts of Pelosi’s critics, Democrats are within striking distance of taking back the House in November’s midterms. And Pelosi has been a key factor in that push, touring constantly around the country in support of Democratic candidates while raising more than $90 million in the process — by far the largest haul of anyone in the party. Such a victory would demolish a years-old attack line against Pelosi: Namely, that the party simply can’t win with her at the helm.

“It’s going to be pretty difficult to say, ‘We win the House back, … and she just traveled all around the country and got us reelected,’ and — what?” said Rep. John Larson John Barry LarsonTo encourage innovation, Congress should pass two bills protecting important R&D tax provision Democrats have a growing tax problem with SALT On The Money: Social Security gives IRS data for COVID-19 relief checks | Senate passes bill heading off Medicare cuts MORE (Conn.), the former chairman of the Democratic Caucus. 

“It’s a very tough case to make.”

Said the former Democratic aide: “If the only knock on Nancy Pelosi is that she’s too old and we need new leadership and she’s been around too long … they need to get another narrative.”

“My experience is that winning cures all,” the aide said.

Perhaps recognizing the difficulties in ousting Pelosi, a group of her critics this week launched an effort that eases the process for doing so. Headed by Reps. Ed PerlmutterEdwin (Ed) George PerlmutterDemocrats urge Biden to take executive action on assault-style firearms Colorado governor, spouse test positive for COVID-19 Rep. Rick Allen tests positive for COVID-19 MORE (D-Colo.) and Kathleen RiceKathleen Maura RiceHouse GOP campaign arm adds to target list Lawmakers brace for bitter fight over Biden tax plan NY House Democrats demand repeal of SALT cap MORE (D-N.Y.), the 11-member coalition has proposed to change caucus rules to create a new threshold of 218 votes to nominate a Speaker candidate in the private Democratic ballot that precedes the public floor vote — a sharp jump over the current requirement of a simple majority. 

Their petition will prompt “a discussion and debate” on the rule change in the caucus meeting next week, though it remains to be seen if it will get a vote, according to a senior Democratic aide.

Even if the amended rule receives a vote, it’s widely expected to fail, according to numerous aides. A second senior Democratic aide suggested the effort reveals the desperation of those hoping to topple Pelosi without a prominent challenger.

“It’s the clearest demonstration of the weakness of their position,” said the second aide.

The offices of Perlmutter, Rice and several other signers of the letter either did not respond or declined to comment on Thursday.  

The search for a challenger has been further complicated by the ambitions of some of the younger up-and-coming members, who appear to be positioning themselves to run for higher offices outside the House. 

Rep. Tim RyanTimothy (Tim) RyanDemocrats confront difficult prospects for midterms Tim Ryan touts labor support in Senate bid Democratic leaders push to boost congressional staff pay MORE (D-Ohio), who challenged Pelosi unsuccessfully in 2016, has left open the idea of trying again, but he’s also not ruling out a shot at the White House in 2020. Rep. Seth MoultonSeth MoultonOvernight Defense: Iran talks set up balancing act for Biden | Pentagon on alert amid Russian saber rattling | Lawmakers urge Pentagon to be pickier about commanders' requests for more troops Is it okay to waste infrastructure dollars? Lawmakers want Pentagon, DOJ to punish current, former military members who participated in riot MORE (D-Mass.), another frequent Pelosi critic, has been circling the country ceaselessly to help House candidates, fueling speculation that he, too, is eyeing a presidential run. Rep. Eric SwalwellEric Michael SwalwellGOP struggles to rein in nativism Personal security costs for anti-Trump lawmakers spiked post-riot Trump knocks CNN for 'completely false' report Gaetz was denied meeting MORE (D-Calif.), a Pelosi supporter who’s seen as another rising star in the party, said last month that he’s “going to consider” a White House bid after the midterms. And Rep. Joe KennedyJoseph (Joe) Patrick KennedyFive centrist Democrats oppose Pelosi for Speaker in tight vote LIVE COVERAGE: House votes to name Speaker Government spending bill to include bipartisan energy provisions MORE III (D-Mass.), a scion of the political dynasty, has said he’s interested in eventually pursuing a Senate seat — a spot that could open as early as 2020, if Sen. Elizabeth WarrenElizabeth WarrenBiden backs COVID-19 vaccine patent waivers Schumer works to balance a divided caucus's demands DNC gathers opposition research on over 20 potential GOP presidential candidates MORE (D-Mass.) launches her own campaign for the presidency.

“Even with all the general discord: who’s challenging someone? … Who’s her opponent?” asked Larson.

Another Democratic lawmaker, who requested anonymity to speak frankly on the sensitive topic, said the list of names being discussed constitutes “an absurd roster” because it leans too heavily toward newer members. 

“None of these people have legislative chops. None of them,” the lawmaker said. “I think the media is barking up the wrong tree.”

Yet there doesn’t seem to be much appetite among the more veteran Democrats to launch themselves into the leadership fray. 

Rep. Emanuel Cleaver (D-Mo.), in his seventh term, said he arrived in Washington “during the glory days,” when an “all-star cast” — including Pelosi and her two lieutenants, Reps. Steny HoyerSteny Hamilton HoyerThe Hill's 12:30 Report - Presented by ExxonMobil - Trump moves to his own blog as Facebook ban remains in place Hoyer: GOP lawmakers mad at Cheney because she 'believes in the truth' Five takeaways on the House's return to budget earmarks MORE (D-Md.) and James Clyburn (D-S.C.)— were running the show and “none of us were even remotely thinking about trying to surpass those icons.” Cleaver, who’s the ranking member of a subcommittee on housing policy, said those of his era have been largely content to make their mark on the committee level.

“My classmates, many of us have reached a point where our leadership is as significant nationally as anything here on the Hill,” he said. “Those are the people out there in the trenches everyday, and who obviously love to be in the trench because they’re not trying to get out.”

Pelosi is hoping to quell any uprising by vowing to use a majority next year to spread power around the caucus, not least by returning to a system of “regular order” that places legislative decisions in the hands of the committees.

“She’s lining up her ducks to empower her chair members,” said the former Democratic aide. “She’ll weaken herself to strengthen herself.”

Some Democrats, meanwhile, are airing another reason to keep Pelosi in place: The party needs her experience, these voices say, to take on President TrumpDonald TrumpCaitlyn Jenner on Hannity touts Trump: 'He was a disruptor' Ivanka Trump doubles down on vaccine push with post celebrating second shot Conservative Club for Growth PAC comes out against Stefanik to replace Cheney MORE.

“I’ve been in a lot of alley fights here, … and every time, on the big ones — whether it’s health care, immigration, some of the environmental things — Nancy’s been there. And she brings a knife to the fight,” said Grijalva. 

“I’m gonna vote for Pelosi. The alley fighter.”