With less than a month to go before the election, House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi can just about taste it. In an interview last week with the editorial board of the San Francisco Chronicle, Pelosi shared her belief that Democrats will win the majority and that she will return to the speakership when they do. “I will be speaker if we win,” she said.
Despite how much she is demonized inside and out of the party, Pelosi’s belief, according to numerous House Democrats and staffers I’ve spoken to in the past few weeks, is well founded. Though the size of the would-be Democratic majority will determine whether she’ll have to fight for it, Pelosi remains the strongest bet for speakership largely because there are no other strong bets out there. Yes, there are plotters lurking in the viper’s nest that is the House Democratic Caucus. But there’s just no plot.
It can often appear that Pelosi is in trouble. Earlier this year, for instance, Pennsylvania Rep. Conor Lamb, then running in his special election, recognized he could make his life a lot easier by saying he wouldn’t support Pelosi for speaker. Since then, dozens of additional candidates running in difficult districts have said the same, though the wiggle room within their denunciations correlates closely to how likely they are to win. If they’re running in, say, West Virginia coal country, the disdain for Pelosi is stronger. The likelier winners hedge with vague talk about “new leadership.” But none of those distancing themselves from Pelosi can coalesce behind an alternative who checks all of the boxes.
Maryland Rep. Steny Hoyer has been next in line behind Pelosi for decades and would mount a speaker’s campaign were she unable to get the 218 votes on the floor, thereby kicking off an actual race for the job. Hoyer has put in the legwork. As the No. 2 Democrat, he’s helped get members’ legislation on the calendar and stressed their priorities on the floor. He’s also been active on the trail, campaigning, according to his office, for 83 candidates and 38 incumbents this cycle across a full spectrum of districts. He would be an experienced hand in negotiations with the Trump administration.
But it’s 2018 in Democratic politics, and there would be an optics problem for Hoyer. It wouldn’t look great to replace a female speaker, who’s raised nine figures for the party this cycle and would have just won the majority, on the mantra of “generational change” or “fresh leadership” with her slightly older, white male deputy, particularly if fed-up women are the voters delivering Democrats the majority.
The assistant Democratic leader and highest-ranking black American in the House, Rep. Jim Clyburn, would also explore a speakership bid. He’s the third member of the aging troika that’s led House Democrats for the past decade, and though a Clyburn speakership too wouldn’t exactly jibe with the idea of “generational change,” he would have the potential to make history as the first black speaker.
But Clyburn would have to get through Hoyer first, something he was unable to do in the whip election of 2010. There are also persistent complaints that Clyburn doesn’t do enough for the party, or that members don’t even know what he does. Further, there’s a split within the Congressional Black Caucus. Those who are closest to Clyburn, like his mentee, Rep. Cedric Richmond, as well as Reps. Bennie Thompson and Marcia Fudge, have been pushing for a Clyburn speakership; some other, newer members would like to see “generational change” within the caucus too.
Who else, then?
The current No. 4 leader, New York Rep. Joe Crowley, is leaving in January, having been defeated by Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez in his New York primary. The next-highest-ranking Democrat is California Rep. Linda Sánchez, the vice chair of the caucus. She’s already running to replace Crowley as caucus chairman, though, and more importantly, she’s viewed as a dead person walking after she publicly called for “generational change” at the top. Pelosi didn’t appreciate that, and some of the CBC members didn’t appreciate it either, viewing her comments as a slight toward Clyburn. With opposition from Rep. Barbara Lee—so far—Sánchez is far from a shoe-in for chairman, let alone speaker.
Another speakership name that’s come up is California Rep. Adam Schiff, who’s built a following battling Rep. Devin Nunes on the House Intelligence Committee. But if Democrats are in the majority, would Schiff really want to give up his subpoena power over President Trump as chairman of that committee?
Ohio Rep. Tim Ryan could also mount another bid against Pelosi in a rematch of the long-shot campaign he launched two years ago. But Ryan has Iowa on the mind, and may not be interested. Should he change his mind, though, he’ll start with a handicap: If Pelosi’s allies in the chamber have the knives out for Linda Sánchez, they have machetes for Ryan.
More broadly: If it’s not Pelosi, the first image of the new majority would be an embarrassing scramble to find a new leader. I don’t think very many Democrats want that. So instead, the wisest bet is still that Pelosi will ride the wave of good press she’ll receive after successfully returning her party to the majority—should that happen—back to the speakership. It might require some work, but she has tools at her disposal: placements on commissions and boards, control of the steering committee, and general committee assignments. She’ll also have the ability to help members pay off their campaign debts and the wherewithal to remind them that she raised oodles of cash for their campaigns in the first place.
This power and position is why, when I recently asked a senior Democratic House aide what would happen if Democrats had a 10-seat majority and 11 members were on the record saying they wouldn’t support Pelosi’s speakership, that aide answered simply, “10 is plenty to work with.”
Support work like this for just $1
Slate is covering the stories that matter to you. Become a Slate Plus member to support our work. Your first month is only $1.