Politics

Never Pelosi

How a Democratic victory complicates Nancy Pelosi’s return to power.

House Minority Leader Rep. Nancy Pelosi leaves after a news conference on March 1 on Capitol Hill in Washington.
House Minority Leader Rep. Nancy Pelosi leaves after a news conference on March 1 on Capitol Hill in Washington.
Alex Wong/Getty Images

Nancy Pelosi would prefer not to claim any credit for Conor Lamb’s surprise victory in Pennsylvania’s 18th District on Tuesday.

“I don’t think he ran against me the entire time,” Pelosi, the House minority leader, told reporters Thursday during a press conference, when asked about the newest member of the Democratic caucus.

In fact, Lamb did make a point of disavowing Pelosi throughout his campaign, rebuffing Republican attacks that he was a stooge for the lightning-rod leader and promising not to support her. Pelosi said she was rooting for him anyway.

“I just wanted him to win,” she said. “I don’t really think that had much impact on the race.”

One can debate the exact cause and effect of Lamb’s Pelosi position, but there’s little doubt it puts the leader in an awkward spot. To reclaim her majority, Pelosi will need Democrats to win in some tough districts. To get those wins, Democratic candidates might find it helpful to reject her.

In Lamb’s case, Pelosi argued that his New Deal–style liberalism and support from labor were more critical to his success than his position against Pelosi. Republicans spent millions of dollars trying to tie Lamb to Pelosi—before and after he denounced her—and Lamb still prevailed. (Only after Lamb won did Republicans, like Speaker Paul Ryan, acknowledge and applaud his anti-Pelosi posture.) Not all districts Democrats need to win the House will be as deep red as Pennsylvania’s 18th, where I’m told Republican internal polling measured Pelosi’s unfavorability rating at 65 percent.

But the Pennsylvania special election set an easy precedent for other moderate candidates in red-leaning districts: If you flatly refuse to support Nancy Pelosi, as Lamb did in a campaign ad, you can defang the issue. It’s a simple response that can deflect an avalanche of Republican money flooding into your district.

In the days since the Pennsylvania election, the National Republican Campaign Committee has tried to make it harder for Democrats to replicate Lamb’s model. In a memo issued Thursday morning, the group said that to truly “distance themselves from Nancy Pelosi,” they must also “reject all campaign cash spent on their behalf by the DCCC or House Majority PAC,” two vessels for Pelosi’s prolific fundraising.

It’s difficult to see masses of voters, in a strong Democratic year, changing their minds because candidates take money from organizations for which Pelosi has fundraised. But all of those Democratic candidates will, at some point, and probably sooner than later, be asked the same question: Will you support Nancy Pelosi for leader? Lamb’s race has shown them that it’s easy to just say “No” and render moot Republicans’ entire campaign strategy this year.

The possibility that other candidates might join the Never Pelosi camp raises a math question to consider, should Democrats take back the House: If the number of Democratic members who are on the record saying they won’t support Pelosi is greater than the Democrats’ margin heading into the next Congress, how could Pelosi win a speaker’s election on the floor?

“Members are starting to look at it, with more clarity than before, what happens if we take back the House with a slim majority,” as one House Democratic aide told me, and too many Democrats have gone on the record saying they would not vote for Pelosi.

“People are starting to do some math in their head,” the aide continued, “and realizing that the numbers don’t add up for her.”

As one Pelosi ally told Axios, it’s possible to envision a scenario in which Pelosi could win the internal caucus leadership vote but then lose the speakership vote on the floor. If Pelosi saw that coming, the ally said, “She would never let that happen, and she would bow out to someone else.” That would bring about the long-awaited battle between Pelosi’s current deputy, Steny Hoyer, who’s waited behind Pelosi for decades, and the caucus chairman, Joe Crowley, a rare not-very-old member of the Democratic leadership.

But the idea that Pelosi would quietly bow out of her chance to retake the speakership after a quick glance at the numbers is unlikely. That she has raised so much money for would-be freshmen Democrats is not just a point that the NRCC is making, but one that she and her allies might make note of in conversations prior to the speakership vote. Plum spots for freshmen could materialize on, say, the appropriations committee. Accepting a prize, though, still wouldn’t get those new Democrats off the hook for the public commitments they’d made not to support her.

There is one way that these Democrats could uphold their pledge not to vote for Pelosi as Democratic leader but still support her speakership. In the private caucus leadership vote prior to the floor election, Democrats who’ve made the commitment could vote for an alternative. Pelosi has faced intraparty leadership challenges before—most notably after the 2016 election, when 63 members supported Ohio Rep. Tim Ryan. These Democrats could then say that they upheld their pledge but would support their caucus’s nominee for the speakership on the floor rather than risk turning the chamber to Republicans.

That might not be the ideal way out, and one doubts that Republican ad-makers in the next cycle would make careful note of the distinction. It would be much simpler if Democrats won with a large enough margin that leaders had their fair share of free passes to hand out to dissenters. But it is a way out.

It would be an understatement to say that Pelosi and her staff consider the “What Conor Lamb Means for Pelosi’s Leadership” line of inquiry to be stupid. And there is much work to be done before the issue of which Democrat will serve as speaker in 2019 becomes the pressing question. If they do reach that moment, though, Pelosi’s team will be prepared.

“Nancy Pelosi always has the votes,” her spokesman, Drew Hammill, told me.

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Jim Newell is a Slate staff writer.