As we stare at better-than-even odds of a House Democratic majority come 2019, we’re also staring at the most interesting Democratic leadership election in a long time. And, after numerous conversations I’ve been having in recent weeks with House Democratic staff about the annoyingly complicated jockeying for position, two things right now are clear: The rumors that Nancy Pelosi is in for a fight are true, and anyone who says they know exactly how this will play out doesn’t know what he or she is talking about.
It’s already well-documented that Pelosi would have a math problem in a speakership vote. Depending on the count, 40- or 50-something Democratic candidates have already suggested that they wouldn’t support her for speaker. That number only seems to keep rising as Democratic candidates begin to face an onslaught of general-election attacks ads that disproportionately focus on Pelosi. The statisticians as of Thursday project Democrats will hold about 230 seats after the election, and Pelosi would need 218 votes on the floor of the House to be elected speaker. Let’s not forget that there are existing members of Congress who’ve said they wouldn’t support her, either. The numbers, as they currently stand, are tight.
But Pelosi allies are unflinching in their denial that the leader is in any way, shape, or form in trouble. They argue that no one in the caucus is capable of defeating her in the majority-only, private caucus vote that precedes the one on the House floor—there’s a reason no one has said they would challenge her directly—and that the margin of Democrats’ majority would be wide enough to absorb some defections on the floor. They point out that even though one can come up with a list of 50 candidates who say they won’t support Pelosi, many of them are either long-shots who are going to lose anyway, or have left enough wiggle room with their mushy statements about wanting “generational change”—i.e., without explicitly saying that they would vote against Pelosi. Pelosi allies also point to a CNN poll from Wednesday that showed concerns about Pelosi at the bottom of the list for registered voters. (Republicans’ private polling, and the hundreds of millions of dollars they’re putting behind its conclusions, would suggest that this CNN poll doesn’t show the full picture.)
Her allies are quick to dismiss any data points that suggest she’s in trouble. When Texas Rep. Filemon Vela told the New York Times, in a feature on Pelosi’s future published Thursday, that he had “assembled a list of nine incumbents who would vote to deny Ms. Pelosi the speakership,” they were not impressed.
“Vela is a party of one,” a senior Democratic aide said.
But there’s just enough weakness in the air for Democrats to begin discussing a post-Pelosi world in ways that would have been considered inappropriate otherwise.
As both Politico and the Times have reported, the current assistant Democratic leader, Rep. Jim Clyburn, who is the No. 3 Democrat in the House, has publicly said he would run for speaker if Pelosi can’t get the votes. That’s symptomatic of a larger issue that’s developing under Pelosi right now: At least some members of the Congressional Black Caucus—which, along with the California delegation, has served as a bedrock of Pelosi’s coalition—are beginning to shop around for a first black speaker. Not every member of the caucus believes that Clyburn should be that first black speaker, as there’s some difference of opinion here between long-standing senior CBC members and newcomers. But the reverence for him within the caucus would give him first dibs.
There’s an obvious problem, though, with pushing out Pelosi on the mantra of generational change and replacing her with a fellow 78-year-old—or a 79-year-old. That’s a central obstacle in trying to determine what would happen if Pelosi fell short: Would Clyburn battle out the speakership with Minority Whip Steny Hoyer, the No. 2 Democrat, who’s been waiting his turn behind Pelosi for decades (and has already comfortably boxed out Clyburn in a leadership race)? Or would all three be wiped out in favor of new blood?
Just about everyone I’ve spoken to believes that if Pelosi can’t get the votes, she will try to take her longtime rival Hoyer down with her. That doesn’t mean she would be successful: She failed to take down Hoyer when she sided with Rep. Jack Murtha in the 2006 House majority leader race, and Hoyer has his own established base of support within the caucus. But if the caucus decides it doesn’t want Pelosi or Hoyer on the basis of “generational change,” then it’s hard to see how it would go for the third member of the triumvirate.
If none of those three make it, then the race is wide open. The names being tossed around include New York Rep. Hakeem Jeffries, Illinois Rep. Cheri Bustos, Louisiana Rep. Cedric Richmond, California Reps. Adam Schiff and Eric Swalwell, New Mexico Rep. Ben Ray Lujan, and Massachusetts Reps. Joe Kennedy III and Katherine Clark. Ohio Rep. Tim Ryan, who challenged Pelosi in 2016, could run again, but his mind seems to be on Iowa these days.
The reason that none of these names have declared bids for any particular leadership slot is that they don’t know which ones will be open. Should they take the majority, they’ll only know what’s open when Pelosi, the best vote-counter in Congress, decides to tell them.