Centrist Democrats talk leadership changes after negative election results

Greg Nash

Stung by their party’s dispiriting showing at the polls Tuesday, two moderate House Democrats say they and other centrists are privately discussing a plan that was unthinkable just 24 hours earlier: throwing their support behind a challenger to Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.).

The two Democrats told The Hill on Wednesday that they were reaching out to their colleagues about backing one of Pelosi’s top lieutenants, House Democratic Caucus Chairman Hakeem Jeffries (N.Y.), for Speaker in the next Congress.

“He’s the only one prepared and positioned” to be Speaker, said one of the Democratic lawmakers. “He bridges moderates and progressives better than anyone. And most importantly, he’s not Nancy Pelosi.”

The idea was immediately shot down by Jeffries, who says he’s focused on keeping his current spot. Yet the grumbling reflects a remarkable shift in internal Democratic thinking in the immediate wake of Tuesday’s elections.

Heading into the polls, Pelosi enjoyed the overwhelming support of her caucus — facing no threat of a Speakership challenge — and Democratic leaders were eyeing big gains to their majority, with some estimates in the double digits.

But the early returns revealed a different reality: Not only did Democrats lose a number of their most vulnerable members, they had not picked off a single Republican incumbent heading into Wednesday evening.

The results immediately emboldened Republican leaders, who accused Pelosi and her party of being out of touch with the country. And Democrats on and off of Capitol Hill were left licking their wounds and questioning the strategic decisions that guided their party’s message throughout the campaign.

“Pelosi needed to hammer Trump but instead she chose to let him slide,” said one former senior Democratic aide. “Last night should have been a bloodbath for Republicans.”

With frustrations bubbling up, Pelosi has become an early target for moderates representing suburban districts worried that their leadership’s strategy hurt such members heading into the polls.

“It’s time for Democrats to elevate a new generation of leadership in both the House and the Senate,” one of the Democrats told The Hill. “Americans are clearly afraid of ‘socialism,’ want safe streets and neighborhoods and to vote for people who they believe will help put more money in their pockets.

“While Democratic policies can adequately address those issues,” the lawmaker added, “our messaging mechanism clearly cannot.”

The pair of Democratic lawmakers said they were in the process of reaching out to all of the “suburban survivors” of Tuesday night’s elections and had already spoken to two dozen members from various factions of the caucus, including the Congressional Black Caucus, Progressive Caucus, New Democrat Coalition and bipartisan Problem Solvers Caucus.

A spokesperson for Jeffries urged patience, as the outstanding race results trickle in, and emphasized that the Democratic caucus chairman has no intention of seeking a higher position.

“As we wait for every vote to be counted in the most pivotal election in our lifetime, keeping the House Democratic Caucus unified on behalf of the American people has never been more important,” said the spokesperson. “Representative Jeffries is running to serve a second term as Chairman of the vibrant House Democratic Caucus in the 117th Congress.”

Pelosi, the first female Speaker in the nation’s history, told reporters before the elections that she would seek the gavel again if the Democrats kept control of the House. And given her defiant dealings with Trump over the last two years — well-received across the diverse caucus — she’s been thought to be a shoo-in to retain that seat of power.

Drew Hammill, Pelosi’s chief spokesman, dismissed the talk of a leadership shakeup as a premature distraction while the race between Trump and Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden is undecided.

“Today is not about the race for Speaker,” Hammill said in an email. “Today is about the race for the White House and ensuring that our Members and candidates in uncalled races have the support they need. That is our focus.”

He had no further comment, but last week Pelosi’s campaign operation showcased her tremendous fundraising prowess. Team Pelosi said she had raised nearly $228 million in the 2020 cycle, including $67 million for Democrats just in the third quarter. And since she joined leadership in 2002, she has raised nearly $1 billion for the party.

A Biden triumph would bring a jolt to disheartened rank-and-file members, while providing some measure of vindication for Pelosi’s election-year strategy. Still, the early results in the House have been nothing shy of a profound disappointment for Democrats who’d entered the week hoping that a resounding blue wave would be a repudiation of Trump.

While Democrats will keep their majority and many races remain undecided, the party suffered the defeat of at least seven front-line members — the sitting lawmakers in the toughest districts. And the spate of Democratic losses were not limited to any one geographic region.

In rural Minnesota, Rep. Collin Peterson (D), a 15-term veteran and chairman of the House Agriculture Committee, was clobbered by the state’s former lieutenant governor, who linked him to Pelosi.  

In the suburbs of Oklahoma City, Rep. Kendra Horn (D), a first-term moderate, was defeated by Republican Stephanie Bice, a state senator, in one of the country’s most contested races.

On New Mexico’s southern border, Rep. Xochitl Torres Small (D), a 36-year-old centrist also in her first term, fell to Yvette Herrell, a former state legislator, in a rematch of 2018.

And in South Florida, Rep. Donna Shalala (Fla.), former health secretary under President Clinton, fell to a former broadcast journalist, Maria Elvira Salazar, whom Shalala had defeated two years ago.

Democrats were eyeing gains in 38 so-called “red-to-blue” districts held by the GOP, but Republicans have already won 22 of those races and lead in another 13.

The surprising results have raised new questions about both the Democrats’ decision to spend millions of dollars deep into Trump country and the polls that drove that strategy. Even election handicappers are scratching their heads about the disconnect between recent surveys and the conflicting outcomes they failed to predict.  

“Polls (esp. at district-level) have rarely led us more astray & it’s going to take a long time to unpack,” tweeted David Wasserman, top House analyst for the Cook Political Report.  

The results are also sure to spark an internal debate between the party’s clashing ideological wings over whether they would have had more success shifting further left or seeking greater inroads with moderate voters — a debate that will likely complicate Pelosi’s plans to move an ambitious legislative agenda in the next Congress.

Pelosi, 80, is no stranger to leadership challenges. Although she led the Democrats’ House takeover in the 2018 midterm elections, she still faced tough resistance within her own ranks in retaking the gavel after eight years in the minority.

At the time, some moderate Democrats balked at supporting the San Francisco liberal, fearing reprisal in their battleground districts. Others, largely of a younger generation and itching to climb up the leadership ladder, thought it was simply time for Pelosi and her top lieutenants to pass the torch to a fresh crop of leaders.

Still, Pelosi methodically picked up support from her detractors, who failed to field a challenger, and she won accolades from all spectrums of the caucus over the cycle, which included the historic impeachment of President Trump and Congress’s emergency response to the coronavirus pandemic.

Fifteen Democrats bucked Pelosi and voted against her on the House floor after that 2018 fight. But she still secured 220 votes — two more than what she needed to win the Speaker’s gavel.

Updated at 4:44 p.m.

Tags 2020 election Collin Peterson Donald Trump Donna Shalala Hakeem Jeffries Joe Biden Kendra Horn Nancy Pelosi Suburban districts
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