How Nancy Pelosi Won (and Spun)

Pelosi framed her toughest challenge for House leadership as a vote-counting masterpiece.

House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi speaks to reporters after she was re-elected to her Capitol Hill post on Wednesday.

Kevin Lamarque/Reuters

Wednesday’s Democratic leadership election was the closest anyone has come to toppling Nancy Pelosi in her 15 years in the House leadership. But that’s not how she or her allies would like you to see it.

Since she narrowly defeated now–Minority Whip Steny Hoyer for the minority whip job in 2001, Pelosi has largely coasted. In her successful 2002 bid for minority leader, her opponent, Tennessee Rep. Harold Ford Jr., got 29 votes. In 2010, after Democrats lost their majority in the 63-seat “Tea Party wave,” her challenger that time, North Carolina Rep. Heath Shuler, won 43 votes. On Wednesday she lost 63 votes to Ohio Rep. Tim Ryan.

But she did win 134 votes, or 68 percent of the caucus. That’s just a couple more votes than the benchmark of two-thirds support she’d set for herself two weeks ago in announcing her run, and the number her office was standing by earlier this week. It’s how she and her supporters spun the narrowest election to lead House Democrats of her career into a vote of confidence: She outperformed expectations.

“Two-thirds, that’s a lot, that’s a big number, that’s exactly what she predicted,” California Rep. Eric Swalwell told reporters outside the House Ways and Means Committee meeting room where Democrats had congregated behind closed doors to vote. “If she came under what she predicted, I would be concerned. She did not.”

The 63 votes, a very sweaty Ryan told reporters after the election, was right about where his whip count put it. His original goal, he said, was just to best Shuler’s mark. But they saw a “number” of people who were undecided, some whom he called 15 times, all of whom he hoped to galvanize with his closing speech.

“I thought, if I give a really good speech in there, if I really connect with people, then maybe we can move the needle,” Ryan said. “And, you know, we didn’t.”

The point Ryan wanted to make with his challenge was straightforward: He had been keeping his mouth shut since 2010 about the way the caucus was run, and now he was opening it. Whatever message the Democrats were broadcasting wasn’t reaching their intended audience. He wasn’t the only one who felt that way. It was always going to be a long shot, but there was some reason to believe that, under the cloak of secret ballot, things might turn Ryan’s way.

As part of her effort to beat back the challenge, Pelosi promised to expand leadership opportunities to junior members. Among the proposed changes was to open up the assistant leader position—the third highest in the caucus—to members who had served three or fewer terms once its current occupant, South Carolina Rep. Jim Clyburn, had retired. As BuzzFeed reported, many members of the Congressional Black Caucus saw this both as a way of shoving the well-respected Clyburn toward the door and closing off leadership opportunities to the mid-senior members who hadn’t been able to get anywhere because of the logjam at the top. BuzzFeed reported about speculation that some two-thirds of the CBC might vote against Pelosi on the secret ballot.

Outside the meeting room, a reporter asked Maryland Rep. Elijah Cummings why the CBC hadn’t endorsed Pelosi. “You’ll have to ask them,” Cummings said. “I did.” The reporter followed up by pointing out that he was a CBC member.

“Some people think that all black people think alike,” Cummings said. “It’s not true.”

There were other signs that leadership was taking additional tension-defusing steps ahead of the vote to appease junior members. The leader of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, typically handpicked by the caucus leader, might be made into an elected position. The idea of creating vice-ranking members on committees was floated. And the frustration among junior members at the logjam on Tuesday night prompted Michigan Rep. Sandy Levin to “resign”—or to be gently nudged aside—as the ranking member on the powerful Ways and Means Committee, to move the flow of promotions along.

It wasn’t all just about angling for positions. Some of Ryan’s main supporters, the dozen or so who stuck their neck out to endorse him publicly, stressed the need to change the way the House leadership does business. Pelosi is a master fundraiser, and much of the logic for winning under her leadership has revolved around keeping up with Republicans in the money arms race. But what do they have to show for it?

“We’ve bought into the money game,” Massachusetts Rep. Stephen Lynch said. “As Democrats, if you’re really representing the working people in this country, I don’t think you’re ever going to win the money game. That’s won by Wall Street, and we’re not naturally allies if we’re doing the right thing in the Democratic Party.” He gave credit to Pelosi. “She’s been able to tap into the donor class, she’s been able to do that really well,” he said. “But that’s not the game we should be playing.”

Pelosi won not just because of her fundraising ability, or her personal relationships, or members’ unfamiliarity with Ryan after a brief two-week candidacy. She won because she’s good at the job of leading a congressional caucus, even if she makes for an easy target during campaign season. Those were the stakes Democrats were choosing between: someone who can most effectively unite members in opposition to the unified Republican government’s agenda and seize opportunities where they appear, versus someone who puts a fresh face on the party who may not serve as such a useful “San Francisco liberal” foil for the opposition. The National Republican Congressional Committee had cheekily supported Pelosi for the latter reason. The Democratic caucus chose her for the former.

“We’ve got President Trump … trying to destroy many of the things Democrats have stood for over the years,” Cummings said, “and we need our A-team.”

Pelosi may have been weakened, but she used the opportunity to prove her tactical skill sets haven’t been dulled. Sixty-eight percent of votes isn’t great. But it’s almost exactly what she predicted. 

“Two-thirds,” Pelosi said to reporters after the vote, when asked about defections. “Two- thirds.”