Dems prepare to dive into House leadership races

Dems prepare to dive into House leadership races
© Greg Nash

A blue wave on Tuesday would launch House Democrats into power for the first time in almost a decade — and spark a frenzied scramble among ambitious lawmakers for a limited number of seats at the leadership table.

Only a handful of Democrats have announced their intention to seek new leadership offices in the next Congress, but the floodgates are set to open if the House flips on Election Day. Potential candidates have been jockeying for weeks to shore up support.

Rep. Ben Ray Luján (N.M.), chairman of House Democrats’ campaign arm, is gearing up to run for assistant majority leader, the No. 4 spot in leadership, several sources familiar with his thinking told The Hill on Monday.

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“He’s going to go for the top available position,” said a Democratic aide tracking the leadership races, “based on the assumption that it’s status quo” among the top three leaders: Reps. Nancy PelosiNancy PelosiThis week: Congress set for clash on Trump's border request Judd Gregg: An Irish friend and wisdom Juan Williams: Warren on the rise MORE (Calif.), Steny HoyerSteny Hamilton HoyerDemocrats give Trump trade chief high marks Hispanic Caucus seeks to retain voice in House leadership GOP lawmakers want Mulvaney sidelined in budget talks MORE (Md.) and Jim ClyburnJames (Jim) Enos ClyburnHispanic Caucus seeks to retain voice in House leadership Democrats target Florida Hispanics in 2020 The Hill's 12:30 Report — Presented by MAPRx — Trump calls off Iran strike at last minute MORE (S.C.).

A former Democratic leadership aide, said Luján is making calls seeking support for the assistant leader post. The maneuvers suggest that the gregarious Pelosi ally, who had previously expressed interest in the majority whip position, does not intend to challenge Clyburn.

Instead, Luján would run against Reps. Cheri BustosCheryl (Cheri) Lea BustosThe bottom dollar on recession, Trump's base, and his reelection prospects DCCC says it raised .85 million in May DCCC chair: Brooks retirement signals challenge for GOP women MORE (D-Ill.) and David CicillineDavid Nicola CicillineHillicon Valley: House panel advances election security bill | GOP senator targets YouTube with bill on child exploitation | Hicks told Congress Trump camp felt 'relief' after release of Clinton docs | Commerce blacklists five Chinese tech groups Judiciary Democrat says small firms fear retaliation from big tech in antitrust probe Hope Hicks: Trump campaign felt 'relief' after WikiLeaks released damaging info about Hillary Clinton MORE (D-R.I.), co-chairs of the Democratic Policy and Communications Committee who have already announced their bids for the assistant leader job.

A Democratic chief of staff, said Luján would be the favorite in that contest since Democrats would be eager to reward the New Mexico lawmaker if he shepherds the party to victory on Tuesday. But a Luján run could complicate the race, because many members have committed their support to Bustos or Cicilline.

“It puts us in a difficult position,” said the chief of staff.

Democratic sources were hesitant to speak on the record for this story before the results of the midterm elections. Luján’s office did not respond to a request for comment on Monday.

House Democrats are scheduled to hold their internal leadership elections on Nov. 28.

Sources also said Rep. Hakeem JeffriesHakeem Sekou JeffriesHouse Democrats close to finalizing border aid bill House hearing marks historic moment for slavery reparations debate Dems eye repeal of Justice rule barring presidential indictments MORE (N.Y.), a rising star representing parts of Brooklyn and Queens, is expected to run for Democratic Caucus chairman, the No. 5 spot, if the House flips. Two California Democrats — Reps. Linda Sánchez and Barbara LeeBarbara Jean LeeThe Trump administration's plan to change the poverty line would hurt communities who need help the most GOP rep: Trump needs to retaliate against Iran to deter other hostile nations Democrats to pass spending bill with Hyde despite 2020 uproar MORE — have already jumped into the race, though some think Lee could bow out and back Jeffries, a fellow Congressional Black Caucus member.

A spokesman for Jeffries said that while he’s certainly “eyeing a leadership spot,” the New York Democrat hasn’t decided on which one. He’ll make that decision, the spokesman said, when the elections are over and the dust has settled.

A spokeswoman for Lee, meanwhile, rejected the notion that Lee would abandon the race.

“She’s running for caucus chair,” the spokeswoman said.

According to several sources, Jeffries is facing pressure from power brokers in the Empire State who are worried New York will be excluded from the leadership table following the stunning defeat of Rep. Joseph Crowley (D-N.Y.), the current caucus chairman, to Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez in the June Democratic primary.

In a separate round of jockeying, numerous sources say two Washington state Democrats — Reps. Denny HeckDennis (Denny) Lynn HeckExclusive: Guccifer 2.0 hacked memos expand on Pennsylvania House races Heck enjoys second political wind Incoming lawmaker feeling a bit overwhelmed MORE and Suzan DelBeneSuzan Kay DelBeneNewDems put ideas over politics at 'NEXT' — a policy conference Koch-backed group pushes for new limits on Trump's tariff authority Lobbying world MORE — are vying to replace Luján atop the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, chaired by Luján during the 2016 and 2018 cycles.

Several unanswered questions will shape most of the leadership races, leaving the debate very much in flux heading into Tuesday’s midterms. The first is: Will Democrats seize control of the House? The second is: Will Pelosi have enough support, if the House flips, to retake the Speaker’s gavel she lost in the tea party wave of 2010?

If the Republicans keep the House, Pelosi would almost certainly step down as party leader in the chamber. Clyburn has said a Democratic loss would be the end of the road for both him and Hoyer, as well. Less certain is whether Pelosi can stay atop the party amid growing calls for generational change, particularly if the Democrats win only a slim majority on Tuesday.

Pelosi’s exit would prompt a free-for-all in the leadership fight, with those lawmakers who have already announced leadership bids likely to aim higher, followed by a new wave of rank-and-file members rushing to fill that void.

“Then all hell breaks loose,” said a former Democratic lawmaker who’s a Pelosi ally.

For the time being, no one has launched a challenge against the top three leaders. And most lawmakers are approaching Tuesday with the assumption that the trio will remain in place next year.

Luján’s allies have encouraged him to seek a higher rung on the leadership ladder by challenging either Hoyer for majority leader, the No. 2 job, or Clyburn for majority whip, the No. 3 post.

But Luján backed off last week after the Congressional Black Caucus — roughly 45 lawmakers strong — sent Democratic colleagues a letter insisting that one of their members should hold one of the top two slots. That demand would complicate Pelosi’s path to reclaiming the Speaker’s gavel, so some Democrats viewed the letter as a warning shot to Team Pelosi that Luján had better not challenge Clyburn or she could lose key support from the caucus.

One Luján ally explained why he would be a favorite to win the assistant leader race.

“He has deeper relationships across all segments of the caucus,” one Democratic lawmaker said. “People will want to reward him for his good work in taking back the House.”

Luján, Jeffries and others have held off announcing their bids. 

If Democrats manage to win only a narrow majority of between five and 10 seats, Pelosi may not have a path back to the Speaker’s Office, throwing the leadership fight into total chaos. Under that scenario, Jeffries and Luján may take a second look at the top leadership posts, Democratic sources said.

Jeffries, these sources said, could seek the Speaker’s gavel if Pelosi drops out, while Luján could make a bid for majority leader.

“Everyone is holding their cards to see what the spread is, because if it’s a huge number everyone is confident the Big Three will stay in their positions,” said a senior Democratic aide. “If it’s a five- to 10-seat majority, that’s where Luján and Jeffries are looking to make a bigger move depending on how things shake out.”