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 PelosiBiden blasts Trump, demands he release transcript of call with foreign leader Pelosi wants to change law to allow a sitting president to be indicted Overnight Health Care — Presented by Partnership for America's Health Care Future — Walmart to stop selling e-cigarettes | Senators press FDA to pull most e-cigarettes immediately | House panel tees up e-cig hearing for next week 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 HimesRising star Ratcliffe faces battle to become Trump's intel chief Democrats express private disappointment with Mueller testimony Live coverage: Mueller testifies before Congress 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 LarsonWhy young people should support expanding Social Security Trump's latest plan to undermine Social Security The Social Security 2100 Act is critical for millennials and small business owners 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 PerlmutterMarijuana industry donations to lawmakers surge in 2019: analysis Appetite for Democratic term limits fizzling out Hillicon Valley: Lawmakers struggle to understand Facebook's Libra project | EU hits Amazon with antitrust probe | New cybersecurity concerns over census | Robocall, election security bills head to House floor | Privacy questions over FaceApp MORE (D-Colo.) and Kathleen RiceKathleen Maura RiceMarijuana industry donations to lawmakers surge in 2019: analysis Pelosi backers feel vindicated after tumultuous stretch Democrat offers measure to prevent lawmakers from sleeping in their offices 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) John RyanThe Hill's Campaign Report: De Blasio drops out | Warren gains support from black voters | Sanders retools campaign team | Warning signs for Tillis in NC Williamson: Climate change result of an 'amoral' economic system Overnight Energy: Top presidential candidates to skip second climate forum | Group sues for info on 'attempts to politicize' NOAA | Trump allows use of oil reserve after Saudi attacks 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 MoultonMarkey fundraises ahead of Kennedy primary challenge The Hill's Campaign Report: De Blasio drops out | Warren gains support from black voters | Sanders retools campaign team | Warning signs for Tillis in NC Young insurgents aren't rushing to Kennedy's side in Markey fight 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 SwalwellMarkey fundraises ahead of Kennedy primary challenge The Hill's Campaign Report: De Blasio drops out | Warren gains support from black voters | Sanders retools campaign team | Warning signs for Tillis in NC Swalwell to DNI: 'You do not have to be a part of a lawless administration' 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 KennedyMarkey fundraises ahead of Kennedy primary challenge The Hill's Campaign Report: De Blasio drops out | Warren gains support from black voters | Sanders retools campaign team | Warning signs for Tillis in NC Panel: Why is Joe Kennedy running for Senate? 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 Ann WarrenWarren: Congress is 'complicit' with Trump 'by failing to act' Sanders to join teachers, auto workers striking in Midwest Pelosi wants to change law to allow a sitting president to be indicted 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 HoyerDemocrat accuses GOP of opposing DC statehood because of 'race and partisanship' News outlets choose their darlings, ignore others' voices Overnight Health Care — Presented by Partnership for America's Health Care Future — Pelosi set to unveil drug price plan | Abortion rate in US hits lowest level since Roe v. Wade | Dems threaten to subpoena Juul 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 John TrumpJulián Castro: It's time for House Democrats to 'do something' about Trump Warren: Congress is 'complicit' with Trump 'by failing to act' Sanders to join teachers, auto workers striking in Midwest 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.”