Pelosi flexes political power in Speaker’s race

Facing the toughest threat to her long and historic tenure as the top House Democrat, Rep. Nancy Pelosi (Calif.) has made enormous strides in recent days to rally support for her Speakership bid and grind down the small but determined group of insurgents battling to prevent her from seizing the gavel next year.

Pelosi has tapped her deep network of allies, both in and out of Congress, to launch a ferocious public relations campaign designed to browbeat her critics with the unsubtle suggestion that their efforts are futile. At the same time, she’s been working behind closed doors, offering carrots to opponents who jump to her side.  

{mosads}The efforts paid huge dividends this week, when Pelosi picked off two of her most vocal detractors, Reps. Marcia Fudge (D-Ohio) and Brian Higgins (D-N.Y.), striking a fierce blow to the opposition campaign heading into Thanksgiving — and all but assuring the momentum will remain hers through the long holiday weekend.

To be sure, Pelosi still faces a conspicuous math problem, as roughly 20 detractors remain adamant that they’ll oppose her in the January Speaker vote. But in the eyes of Pelosi’s allies, the strategic cajoling — combined with a show of simple raw force — are all part of a return to the Speakership that many deem inevitable. 

“What we are seeing this week is a demonstration of what all of Washington knows: @NancyPelosi does not come to play,” Neera Tanden, the head of the Center for American Progress and a Pelosi supporter, tweeted Wednesday.

The picture was bleaker for Pelosi just a week ago.

As lawmakers returned to the Capitol following the midterms, the insurgent leaders were boasting of steady progress in their effort to gather signatures designed to demonstrate Pelosi lacks the votes to win the gavel in January’s Speaker vote on the House floor. A number of incoming freshman lawmakers were amplifying campaign vows to oppose Pelosi’s leadership aspirations in their first votes in Washington. And the opponents thought they’d found their elusive challenger, when Fudge began floating the notion of jumping into the Speaker race.

“We’ve got enough votes,” Rep. Kurt Schrader (D-Ore.), one of Pelosi’s critics, said last week. “What we’re trying to do is make sure there’s an opportunity for someone to step down and allow new leadership to come forward.”

What a difference a few days can make.

On Monday, the insurgents released their much-anticipated letter, warning Democrats that midterm voters sent a message of change that the party had better heed to keep their majority in 2020 — beginning with a leadership overhaul. 

Yet the list of 16 signatories fell short of their desired mark of 20. And Fudge, who was initially on the letter, removed her name just hours before it went public. 

On Tuesday, the reason became clear: Pelosi had offered to resurrect a defunct elections subcommittee next year — and put Fudge at the top of it. 

“I am now confident that we will move forward together and that the 116th Congress will be a Congress of which we can all be proud,” Fudge said in endorsing Pelosi.

Higgins, who signed the letter, was the next shocking reversal. Earlier in the year, the seven-term New Yorker made plenty of waves when he vowed to oppose Pelosi, calling her “aloof, frenetic and misguided.” On Wednesday, he threw his support behind the California liberal, after she promised to prioritize two items high on his legislative wish list: a $1.5 billion infrastructure package and a proposal creating a Medicare buy-in option for those over 50 years old.

“Some will ask why I have changed my position. The answer is simple: I took a principled stand on issues of vital importance not only to my constituents in western New York but also to more than 300 million Americans whose lives can be improved by progress in these areas,” Higgins said in a statement. 

“A principled stand, however, often requires a pragmatic outlook in order to meet with success,” he said.

The reversals showcase the many tools Pelosi has at her disposal to bring even the most ardent opponents to her side. Aside from committee assignments, Pelosi has a heavy hand in deciding office space, doling out special assignments, creating new leadership positions and approving international travel for congressional research. 

Pelosi was also far-and-away the most prolific fundraiser for the Democrats this cycle, bringing in more than $137 million for the party’s campaign arm, vulnerable incumbents and first-time candidates hoping to flip GOP seats in the most hotly contested races. Among the insurgents, Rep. Seth Moulton (D-Mass.) was the top fundraiser in those categories, pulling in $3.9 million to help Democrats flip the House. 

{mossecondads}In districts where Pelosi’s liberal reputation threatened to harm Democratic candidates, she was careful to funnel the funds through the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee (DCCC), to preclude GOP strategists from directly linking her to Democratic battleground hopefuls.

Indeed, the insurgents’ letter was not endorsed by a handful of incoming freshman representatives who have promised to oppose Pelosi — perhaps an acknowledgment that she was a major contributor to their successful campaigns.  

Pelosi has had plenty of help in the process of whittling away the opposition. 

Rep. Elijah Cummings (D-Md.), a Pelosi supporter who, like Fudge, once headed the Congressional Black Caucus (CBC), had brokered the meeting between Fudge and Pelosi in the Capitol last week. And Rep. Richard Neal (D-Mass.), who’s in line to lead the Ways and Means Committee, was the catalyst in launching the talks between Pelosi and Higgins, who also sits on the powerful panel. 

“You can’t ever count her out,” said one Democrat watching the negotiations closely. “If she’s ultimately going to be Speaker, they want to get something out of it.”

The slow erosion of opposition has highlighted the sheer power — and many tentacles — of the Pelosi machine, which is churning at full throttle heading into the closed-door Democratic leadership elections, scheduled for Nov. 28. 

Pelosi has recruited powerful national figures, including Al Gore and John Kerry, to issue statements of support. A long and growing list of liberal outside groups, including labor unions, gun reformers and abortion rights organizations, have rushed to her side with public endorsements. And Pelosi was quick to stem any potential wave of support for the insurgency by rallying prominent lawmakers to her side — and getting them on record with public statements of their own, which Pelosi’s office then blasted to the world. The list included influential members of the CBC, where Fudge’s core support is strongest. 

Higgins, for instance, wanted Rep. Karen Bass (D-Calif.), a senior CBC member, to launch a leadership bid. Yet Bass announced her support for Pelosi late last week — a move that influenced Higgins’s decision to back Pelosi. 

Complicating the path for the insurgents, the group is made up largely of centrists attacking from the right, leaving them with little outside support from the Democratic-minded special interest groups that are throwing their weight behind Pelosi. That dynamic runs in stark contrast to the far-right Freedom Caucus, which has tapped plenty of backing from conservative media and think tanks in their ongoing efforts to challenge the Republican brass. 

A new poll, conducted after the midterm elections by Politico and Morning Consult, found that 48 percent of Democratic voters back Pelosi’s Speakership ambitions, versus 22 percent who oppose her ascension. 

Still, there have been plenty of comparisons between the insurgents and the Freedom Caucus, as more conventional Democrats grow increasingly frustrated with the public display of internal division just after winning control of the lower chamber. 

“They are like terrorists, there is no reasoning,” said a former Democratic leadership aide. “They don’t have the votes but it doesn’t matter.”

The Pelosi detractors reject those criticisms, arguing that the very future of the Democratic majority hinges on a change of leadership. 

Rep. Tim Ryan (D-Ohio), who challenged Pelosi unsuccessfully in 2016, said the chief goal of the insurgency is to protect those incoming freshman members who vowed to oppose Pelosi from taking tough votes to keep her in place. 

“The minority are the people that got us into the majority. They carry extra weight, and they have to go back and run again for reelection,” Ryan told reporters in the Capitol on Friday. “We have an obligation to protect them. That, to me, is good politics.”

Yet the insurgents have no potential candidate, following Fudge’s shift, and an overwhelming majority of the Democratic establishment is growing restive as the fight drags on.

“Their basic idea is that we’ll extort her,” said the former leadership aide. “Their option is basically destroy the party with no alternative.”

Tags Al Gore Brian Higgins Elijah Cummings House leadership races Infrastructure John Kerry Karen Bass Kurt Schrader Marcia Fudge Nancy Pelosi Richard Neal Seth Moulton Speakership Tim Ryan
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