The Slatest

Why Nancy Pelosi Is Daring a Challenger to Run Against Her

Nancy Pelosi.
Nancy Pelosi.
Brendan Smialowski/Getty Images

Nancy Pelosi was characteristically undisturbed last week when asked about the speakership challenge that Ohio Rep. Marcia Fudge had been publicly floating against her.

“Come on in, the water’s warm,” Pelosi told reporters at her weekly press conference last Thursday.

It was the crescendo to a briefing in which she solicited all questions about her speakership issues at once—“pop ’em out”—and dismissed them all with terse condescension, one by one.

Pelosi has to project total and complete confidence that she will reclaim the gavel, even if she’s still working out the math. It’s why she said, in the same press conference, that were the speaker’s election on the House floor held right then, she would have the votes, even though public whip counts suggest otherwise.

But Pelosi’s public dares for opponents to enter the race against her aren’t necessarily feints. She knows that having a direct challenger when the Democratic caucus votes for a speaker-designee would only improve her overall chances of returning to the position she lost eight years ago. Some of her opponents know this as well, which is why the attempt to keep Pelosi from the speakership is not being framed around support for a single challenger to win it instead.

For instance: The insurgents on Monday circulated a letter with 16 signatures from members, members-elect, and one Democratic candidate whose race hasn’t been called saying they’re “committed to voting for new leadership” in both the caucus and floor votes. (Fudge, interestingly, was not on it, despite being on earlier drafts.) What the letter doesn’t say, though, is whom they would back instead. That’s intentional.

Pelosi currently may not have the votes for the floor election in January, when she’ll need 218 out of approximately 233 Democrats to back her (assuming all members cast a vote). But she’s expected to comfortably win the Nov. 28 caucus election, regardless of opponent. Some of those pushing for Fudge to challenge Pelosi have argued that Fudge could have a fighting shot in caucus. Her coalition, the thinking goes, would be most of those 63 members who supported Ohio Rep. Tim Ryan’s challenge to Pelosi in 2016, as well as healthy chunks of the Progressive and Black Caucuses, both of which Fudge belongs to. This seems optimistic. The Progressive Caucus has already cut its deal with Pelosi. Senior members of the CBC, several of whom are in line for committee chairmanships, have thrown their support behind Pelosi. And though CBC chair Cedric Richmond has suggested that some of its members might rethink their support for Pelosi should Fudge enter the race, she would not get the unified support from the caucus that she would need to reach the approximately 117 threshold for a victory in caucus.

The most likely outcome of Fudge, or really anyone, directly challenging Pelosi in the caucus vote, then, is Pelosi steamrolling them and earning herself another useful talking point: The challengers came for her and missed, and it’s time to unify behind the nominee on the floor.

This is why the rebels’ strategy has been, well, to beat somebody with nobody. By proving to Pelosi that she’d be unable to get 218 votes on the floor, they’re hoping she would then step aside ahead of the caucus elections and allow the shadow leadership race that’s been in contingency planning to surface.

The wishful thinking in this strategy is believing that Pelosi would ever simply step out of the picture because she’s a few votes off of her target with another month’s worth of whipping available to her. If her challengers think that Nancy Pelosi wouldn’t be willing to take a game of chicken to the House floor, they’ve misunderstood their opponent. Still, one of the worst strategic mistakes they could make would be imbuing the caucus vote with meaning by presenting a formal challenger, losing, and then coming off like sore losers by still refusing to support Pelosi on the floor.

Fudge, herself, understands this. After meeting with Pelosi last Friday, Fudge told reporters that she would take her time to make a decision.

“Clearly the vote is not till January,” she said. “So I’m not in a rush.”