Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi is the overwhelming favorite to win reelection Wednesday as the top House Democrat.
But she’s taking hits from all corners of her caucus along the way.
Ohio Rep. Tim Ryan almost certainly won’t topple Pelosi in his David-versus-Goliath challenge against the legendary California Democrat. But some disgruntled members have seized on Ryan’s candidacy — her first real challenge in years — to extract concessions from Pelosi, who is known for keeping an iron grip on the caucus.
The size of the anti-Pelosi vote will be a major concern for her even if she hangs on. While the leadership vote will be conducted by secret ballot, and whip lists for leadership races can be notoriously unreliable, dozens of Democrats are likely to vote against her. How many is still unclear.
But it will inevitably raise the question of whether this is the beginning of the end of the Pelosi era.
“Change is necessary. And the only way we’re going to survive is to get change, they’re connected,” said Rep. Emanuel Cleaver (D-Mo.). “We’ve never changed anything since I been here.”
Pelosi took over as Democratic leader in 2003, while Cleaver was elected in 2004. Cleaver hasn’t declared how he will vote. He said he’s “not opposed” to Pelosi, but wants to see some additional changes to how the leadership team operates.
“A lot of what I do in terms of voting is going to be depending on the change,” Cleaver said.
Two weeks ago, a block of Democrats, angered by their party’s poor showing in the election, successfully pushed to put off the leadership election. Since then, Pelosi has offered up a buffet of changes aimed at gaining support from junior members and appeasing the larger sense of unrest within the caucus.
Yet several Democrats say the ideas she’s proposed, including creating several new lower-level leadership positions, are cosmetic since Pelosi still controls who fills the posts.
Rep. Ben Ray Luján’s (N.M.) nomination for another term at the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee is another flashpoint for dissatisfied rank-and-filers.
While Luján is personally popular, and members know he’s not responsible for Hillary Clinton’s shortcomings, his renomination by Pelosi without broader debate hasn’t gone over well with many members. Pelosi added five “regional vice chairs” to the DCCC as a way to be more inclusive; those positions will be filled by yet-to-be-determined lawmakers.
Pelosi’s attitude in the past regarding the DCCC is that she is, by far, the biggest fundraiser for the committee, so she should pick its chairman. Technically, Pelosi proposes the DCCC chairman and the caucus approves the person. But Pelosi is the only one who ever submits a nomination. Some Democrats have privately discussed offering their own DCCC nominee. Yet so far, as is often the case with Democrats, they’ve deferred to those at the top.
“It’s setting up a structure where people are again focused on keeping leadership happy to get the right committee assignments,” said Rep. Ruben Gallego (D-Ariz.), a Ryan supporter. “You’re not having members in leadership accountable to members, they’re accountable to” themselves.
Gallego added: “I think people want to see some accountability … and not just have something coming down from on high when, in the end, it doesn’t make our caucus stronger.”
Gallego got into a testy exchange with DCCC spokeswoman Meredith Kelly on Twitter Tuesday after Kelly took aim at Ryan for failing to pay all of his membership dues to the campaign committee. “There’s a culture at the DCCC and it’s not one that’s member-focused and member-driven,” Gallego said.
Rep. Kathleen Rice (D-N.Y.), another Ryan supporter who along with Gallego and Rep. Seth Moulton (D-Mass.) led the charge to delay the leadership elections, also jumped in.
“1st step in learning from 2016: Don’t let DNC/DCCC staffers pick favorites in internal party elections,” Rice tweeted.
It is almost unheard of for a staffer to openly criticize a lawmaker. The spat shows how Ryan’s campaign against Pelosi has gotten under the skin of some of her supporters. They see Ryan as unworthy to be even mentioned in the same sentence as Pelosi.
“Leader Pelosi is honored to receive the overwhelming support of her colleagues. That so many members are so enthusiastic and eager to take active roles in the caucus is music to her ears,” said Drew Hammill, her spokesman.
But several different factions within the House Democrat Caucus are unhappy with Pelosi. Whether they’ll actually coalesce behind Ryan, or just try to rattle Pelosi in order to force her to change direction, will become clear on Wednesday.
The first, and potentially the most serious, problem for Pelosi is the Congressional Black Caucus, with its 43 Democratic members.
Several in the group are irked that Pelosi initially proposed making the post of assistant minority leader — a spot now occupied by Rep. Jim Clyburn (D-S.C.), the highest-ranking African-American in Congress — an elected position. Pelosi has backed away from that idea, but not before Rep. Cedric Richmond (D-La.), another black lawmaker, circulated a memo complaining. Clyburn has been one of Pelosi’s most loyal allies, and he scoffed at demands that she should step down.
If Pelosi were to lose the CBC’s support, or a sizable chunk of it, it would be a major blow. The group was scheduled to meet on Tuesday night to discuss the leadership race.
Another faction is centered around Reps. Joseph Kennedy III (D-Mass.) and Derek Kilmer (D-Wash.). It includes an assortment of younger members, many of whom have been unflinchingly loyal to Pelosi in the past. They want to see changes to rules to give them a bigger say in caucus policy and messaging.
Wednesday’s Democratic caucus meeting will include a debate over possible rules changes. Some Democrats want to force this to happen before the leadership votes are held, figuring this will offer them maximum leverage over Pelosi. Pelosi wants the rules fight to come after she secures another two years as leader.
Under the current schedule for the meeting obtained by POLITICO, Democrats will “temporarily” adopt rules for the next Congress, then proceed to the leadership votes, before returning again to the issue of rules changes.
Finally, there’s the pro-Ryan group. Estimating the size of his support is almost impossible: So far, a dozen members have publicly backed him, though Ryan claims his support is far broader.
“We’re within striking distance, I can tell you that for sure,” Ryan said on CNN Monday. “You know, there’s a lot of members still out there who haven’t committed or are being very very quiet and they can break either way coming into the last 24 hours.”
Pelosi has claimed to have “two-thirds” of the caucus locked up, or roughly 130 members. That would still give Ryan up to 65 votes to go after. It wouldn’t be enough to sink Pelosi, but it could help Ryan develop his own power base outside leadership, something that has not existed in the Democratic Caucus during the Pelosi era, with the exception of Minority Whip Steny Hoyer (D-Md.).
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