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Democrats to determine leaders after disappointing election

Democrats to determine leaders after disappointing election
© Bonnie Cash

House Democrats on Wednesday will launch the delicate affair of choosing their leadership team in the next Congress, a routine exercise that’s taken on outsize significance following the party's battering at the polls two weeks ago. 

Speaker Nancy PelosiNancy PelosiOn The Money: Funding bill hits snag as shutdown deadline looms | Pelosi, Schumer endorse 8 billion plan as basis for stimulus talks | Poll: Most Americans support raising taxes on those making at least 0K Battle heats up for House Foreign Affairs gavel Nearly one-third of US adults expect to lose employment income: Census Bureau MORE (D-Calif.) and her top lieutenants — Majority Leader Steny HoyerSteny Hamilton HoyerFunding bill hits snag as shutdown deadline looms Hoyer releases 2021 House calendar Democrats eye Dec. 11 exit for House due to COVID-19 MORE (D-Md.) and Majority Whip James Clyburn (D-S.C.) — are all running uncontested, setting the stage for the same power lineup to return for another term after 14 years together at the helm.

That grip on authority comes even despite some rank-and-file lobbying for a leadership facelift following a dismal election cycle when Democrats were forecasting large gains in the lower chamber, only to see their majority shrink instead.

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The fifth-ranking House Democrat, Caucus Chairman Hakeem JeffriesHakeem Sekou JeffriesHouse Democrats pick Aguilar as No. 6 leader in next Congress Nominated for another Speaker term, Pelosi says it's her last Katherine Clark secures No. 4 leadership spot for House Democrats MORE (D-N.Y.), is also facing no challenger, guaranteeing a second term in that post for the four-term Brooklyn native. A quartet of Democrats are running uncontested to become the four equal co-chairs of the Democratic Policy and Communications Committee (DPCC): Reps. Debbie DingellDeborah (Debbie) Ann DingellOvernight Health Care: CDC panel recommends who gets vaccine first | McConnell offering new relief bill | Hahn downplays White House meeting on vaccines GM reverses on Trump, exits suit challenging California's tougher emissions standards Ex-AG Holder urges GOP to speak against Trump efforts to 'subvert' election results MORE (D-Mich.), Ted LieuTed W. LieuHouse Democrats pick Aguilar as No. 6 leader in next Congress Democrats to determine leaders after disappointing election Mark Cuban asks voters to 'reconsider' donating to Georgia run-off elections MORE (D-Calif.), Matt CartwrightMatthew (Matt) Alton CartwrightHouse Democrats pick Aguilar as No. 6 leader in next Congress Democrats to determine leaders after disappointing election The Hill's Campaign Newsletter: Election Day – Part 4 MORE (D-Pa.) and Joe NeguseJoseph (Joe) NeguseHouse Democrats pick Aguilar as No. 6 leader in next Congress Democrats to determine leaders after disappointing election Pocan won't seek another term as Progressive Caucus co-chair MORE (D-Colo.).

Much less certain are a series of contests for a number of mid-ranking leadership positions — races that carry an unusual weight this year, since Pelosi has vowed to relinquish the gavel after the coming term. Her exodus is certain to spark a mad scramble to fill the void at the very top, and those just below would be best positioned to do so. 

With that in mind, the races for the lower-tiered leadership posts have taken on a special urgency this week, when Democrats will vote virtually as a public health precaution amid the coronavirus pandemic.

Assistant Speaker 

Pelosi created the assistant Speaker position two years ago to reward the campaign chief, Rep. Ben Ray Luján (D-N.M.), for helping to flip the House to Democratic control. But the new post is now here to stay.

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Two ambitious rising stars in the party — Reps. Katherine ClarkKatherine Marlea ClarkFive House Democrats who could join Biden Cabinet House Democrats pick Aguilar as No. 6 leader in next Congress Nominated for another Speaker term, Pelosi says it's her last MORE (D-Mass.) and David CicillineDavid Nicola CicillineHillicon Valley: GOP chairman says defense bill leaves out Section 230 repeal | Senate panel advances FCC nominee | Krebs says threats to election officials 'undermining democracy' Schakowsky to introduce bill to limit reach of tech liability shield States plot next moves on redistricting MORE (D-R.I.) — are vying to move up the leadership ladder and succeed Luján, who has proven that the assistant Speaker post can lead to higher office. Luján is heading to the Senate next year.

Clark, 57, the current Democratic Caucus vice chair, is a strong fundraiser who has been cultivating relationships with two critical voting blocs in the increasingly diverse caucus: women and minorities.

Her endorsements include former Congressional Black Caucus (CBC) Chair Emanuel Cleaver (D-Mo.); Rep. Grace MengGrace MengFive House Democrats who could join Biden Cabinet Katherine Clark secures No. 4 leadership spot for House Democrats Democrats to determine leaders after disappointing election MORE (D-N.Y.), a top Democratic National Committee official; Rep. Sylvia GarciaSylvia GarciaFacebook-backed cryptocurrency Libra changes names Katherine Clark secures No. 4 leadership spot for House Democrats Democrats to determine leaders after disappointing election MORE (D-Texas), who was an impeachment manager; and Rep. Mark PocanMark William PocanCapitol's COVID-19 spike could be bad Thanksgiving preview Katherine Clark secures No. 4 leadership spot for House Democrats Democrats to determine leaders after disappointing election MORE (D-Wis.), who is a co-chair of both the Progressive Caucus and Congressional LGBT Equality Caucus.

In touting Pocan’s support, Clark is taking direct aim at Cicilline, who as head of the DPCC is the only openly gay member on Pelosi’s leadership team. However, Cicilline, 59, won the endorsement of both the Human Rights Campaign and the LGBT Caucus, which said the former Providence mayor “understands personally the damage that Donald Trump has done — especially to young LGBTQ Americans — through his words and deeds.”   

Some Democrats who aren’t taking sides in the race said it appeared Clark had a better whip operation and a strong case that another woman should serve at the top of the leadership team alongside Pelosi.

“The caucus is virtually half women so it’s tougher to say, ‘Nancy Pelosi, man, man, man, plus male head of the DCCC, and a male head of the caucus,” said one neutral House Democrat.

“There will be a lot of people who will want to make sure we have women at the top.”

Vice chair

With Rep. Deb HaalandDebra HaalandHaaland has competition to be first Native American to lead Interior  Lujan Grisham turned down Interior post, says transition source Former Sen. Carol Moseley Braun stumps for Interior post: 'A natural fit for me' MORE (D-N.M.) dropping out so she can be considered for Interior secretary, the race for Democratic Caucus vice chair now pits Rep. Pete AguilarPeter (Pete) Ray AguilarHouse Democrats pick Aguilar as No. 6 leader in next Congress Nominated for another Speaker term, Pelosi says it's her last Democrats nominate Pelosi to keep Speakership MORE (D-Calif.) against Rep. Robin KellyRobin Lynne KellyHouse Democrats pick Aguilar as No. 6 leader in next Congress Lawmakers push for improved diabetes care through tech advancements Senate passes bill to secure internet-connected devices against cyber vulnerabilities MORE (D-Ill.) 

For at least the past decade, there has been a Hispanic member of the Democratic leadership team: Then-Rep. Xavier BecerraXavier BecerraHispanic leaders coalesce in support of Lujan Grisham as HHS secretary Clyburn: Biden falling short on naming Black figures to top posts Biden picks first Latino to lead Homeland Security MORE (D-Calif.) had served as both caucus vice chair and chairman, while Luján was assistant Speaker and Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee (DCCC) chair. Aguilar, 41, a past whip for the Congressional Hispanic Caucus (CHC), is looking to continue that tradition.

Kelly, 64, has been making the case that the key members of Pelosi’s leadership team should include a woman of color. In the top seven jobs, there currently are no women of color, and Kelly could make history as the first Black woman elected to leadership.

Both candidates are touting a broad array of support in the caucus. Aguilar, a centrist, is being backed by both the CHC and the pro-business New Democrat Coalition, where Aguilar serves as whip. Among his supporters are two CBC members, Reps. Lisa Blunt Rochester (D-Del.), a close Biden ally, and A. Donald McEachinAston (Donale) Donald McEachinDemocrats to determine leaders after disappointing election Progressive group slams Biden White House pick over tie to fossil fuel industry OVERNIGHT ENERGY: Biden pledges carbon-free power by 2035 in T environment plan | Trump administration has been underestimating costs of carbon pollution, government watchdog finds | Trump to move forward with rollback of bedrock environmental law MORE (D-Va.); and progressive Reps. Katie Porter (D-Calif.), Jimmy GomezJimmy GomezDemocrats to determine leaders after disappointing election Twitter users urge MSNBC's Steve Kornacki to donate his beat-up necktie to Smithsonian Democrats call for IRS to review tax-exempt status of NRA MORE (D-Calif.) Dan KildeeDaniel (Dan) Timothy KildeeDemocrats to determine leaders after disappointing election Lawmakers fear voter backlash over failure to reach COVID-19 relief deal Democrats set to hold out for big police reform MORE (D-Mich.) and Peter WelchPeter Francis WelchDemocrats to determine leaders after disappointing election Shakespeare Theatre Company goes virtual for 'Will on the Hill...or Won't They?' Vermont Rep. Peter Welch easily wins primary MORE (D-Vt.).

This is Aguilar’s second attempt at the vice chair post; the former mayor of Redlands, Calif., was defeated two years ago by Clark and has been working to shore up support ever since.

Kelly, a former state lawmaker, has secured support from a majority of her fellow CBC members, who constitute a huge voting bloc in the caucus, a source close to Kelly said. She rolled out a list of endorsements Tuesday night, including a trio of leading progressives, Reps. Pramila JayapalPramila JayapalInequality of student loan debt underscores possible Biden policy shift Biden Cabinet picks largely unify Democrats — so far Democrats brush off calls for Biden to play hardball on Cabinet picks MORE (D-Wash.), Ro KhannaRohit (Ro) KhannaOvernight Defense: Defense bill among Congress's year-end scramble | Iranian scientist's assassination adds hurdles to Biden's plan on nuclear deal | Navy scrapping USS Bonhomme Richard after fire Biden faces new Iran challenges after nuclear scientist killed Biden Cabinet picks largely unify Democrats — so far MORE (D-Calif.) and Ilhan OmarIlhan Omar'It's not a slogan': Progressives push back on Obama's comments on 'defund the police' movement Meet the three Democrats who could lead foreign affairs in the House Biden Cabinet picks largely unify Democrats — so far MORE (D-Minn.); as well as a pair of leaders of the New Democrats, Rep. Ann KusterAnn McLane KusterDemocrats to determine leaders after disappointing election Pelosi seeks to put pressure on GOP in COVID-19 relief battle Clark rolls out endorsements in assistant Speaker race MORE (D-N.H.) and Terri SewellTerrycina (Terri) Andrea SewellDemocrats were united on top issues this Congress — but will it hold? Lobbying world Democrats to determine leaders after disappointing election MORE (D-Ala.).

DCCC chair

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Before the election, the big question was whether Rep. Cheri BustosCheryl (Cheri) Lea BustosDemocratic Women's Caucus members split endorsements for House campaign chief Rep. Rick Allen tests positive for COVID-19 Maloney vows to overhaul a House Democratic campaign machine 'stuck in the past' MORE (D-Ill.) would seek a second term leading the DCCC, the party’s campaign arm. But the devastating election results — nearly a dozen vulnerable Democratic incumbents have lost reelection so far — answered that question for her.

Bustos said she would step aside, creating a late unexpected opening in a critical leadership post. Rep. Sean Patrick Maloney (D-N.Y.), who ran for the campaign job two years ago, quickly jumped in the race, followed by Rep. Tony Cárdenas (D-Calif.), who abandoned his uphill bid for assistant Speaker.

The election for DCCC chair has been postponed until the week after Thanksgiving to give Maloney and Cárdenas more time to campaign and lock down votes.

Both men are prolific fundraisers. Like Bustos, Maloney, 54, has touted his ability to win reelection in a conservative-leaning district that backed President TrumpDonald John TrumpFederal watchdog accuses VOA parent company of wrongdoing under Trump appointee Lawsuit alleges 200K Georgia voters were wrongly purged from registration list Ivanka Trump gives deposition in lawsuit alleging misuse of inauguration funds MORE in 2016 — something he believes can help him defend vulnerable Democratic front-line members in what certainly will be an extremely difficult midterm election cycle for the party. He’s also talked about his unique background: He’s a married gay man who has an interracial family, and was the first openly LGBT person elected to Congress from New York.

Cárdenas, 57, has pointed to his six years leading BOLD PAC, the Hispanic Caucus’s super PAC that raised tens of millions of dollars for the party and helped boost the number of Hispanic members of Congress from 25 to 40. Colleagues see Cárdenas, a former Los Angeles City councilman and state lawmaker, as someone who could help Democrats make up lost ground with tens of thousands of Hispanic voters who backed Trump in places like the Rio Grande Valley along the Texas border and Miami-Dade County in south Florida.

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Remote voting

All of the leadership votes will be cast by way of a new app allowing lawmakers to record their ballots both remotely, amid the pandemic, and covertly, to ensure anonymity.

The caucus tested the novel app on Tuesday during a caucus call, when lawmakers were asked to choose the greatest musician in history from a list of four: Selena, Aretha Franklin, Bruce Springsteen and U2’s Bono. Franklin, Jeffries reported, won with more than 50 percent of the vote. 

“So the caucus provided R-E-S-P-E-C-T to the great Queen of Soul,” Jeffries quipped afterwards.

Votes for several contested committee leader seats have also been pushed to the week of Nov. 30.