The day after elections that were largely positive for the Democratic Party, House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi’s future loomed over leadership races, as lawmakers waited for her to decide whether she will return for two more years at the helm of the House’s minority party.
Democratic leaders did not schedule any Wednesday conference calls or meetings with rank-and-file Members to discuss the election results or pending legislative matters such as the “fiscal cliff,” leaving Democrats in the dark about Pelosi’s thinking. And several leadership aides said they were not aware of the California Democrat’s whereabouts.
Opinions diverge widely on what effect the election results would have on her decision to stay or go.
Though Democrats missed their goal of winning back control of the House by a wide mark, they did make incremental progress by picking up seats, prompting Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee Chairman Steve Israel (N.Y.) to claim on MSNBC, “We did better than anybody ever expected.”
The reality is more tempered. Describing the results as a “slow but steady erosion of the GOP majority,” Rep. Gerry Connolly (D-Va.) said, “Obviously, I’d like it to be more robust.”
But he and others expressed satisfaction that Democrats made some progress, and Rep. Mike Honda (Calif.) touted the diversity of the newly elected members of his party.
That sentiment was echoed in a release sent out late Wednesday by Pelosi’s office.
“In January, the Democratic Caucus will bring to the 113th Congress the first ‘majority-minority’ Caucus in our history, reflecting the great diversity and strength of our nation. This larger, more diverse Caucus will play a greater role in support of President [Barack] Obama and our colleagues in the Senate,” Pelosi said in the release.
“My guess would be [Pelosi] should stay since it was such a high note for Democrats last night,” a senior Democratic aide said. “Considering how we defeated 16 incumbents last night … I think we have a lot to work with.”
But others surveyed the bleak prospects of two more years in the minority and expected Pelosi to hang it up.
“I think she’s done,” one Democratic Member said, noting that with Obama re-elected, the Democrats’ health care overhaul will be safe from repeal, cementing a key accomplishment Pelosi helped enact.
If Pelosi does step down, a wide array of Democrats have said Minority Whip Steny Hoyer (Md.) would have a lock on the Minority Leader position.
One important question is whether Democrats can realistically expect to continue chipping away at the GOP’s House majority in the 2014 midterms.
In recent history, the party of the incumbent president has fared poorly in midterm elections, especially in the second term, with the term “six-year itch” coined to describe the phenomenon. In that sense, Obama’s re-election could make it harder for Pelosi to regain the Speaker’s gavel.
In 1986, in President Ronald Reagan’s second term, Democrats won control of the Senate from Republicans and solidified their majority in the House.
In 2006, in President George W. Bush’s second term, Democrats took control of the House and the Senate from the GOP.
An exception was 1998, when Republicans were unable to make much headway with voters in the wake of impeaching President Bill Clinton over the Monica Lewinski scandal. Democrats picked up five seats in the House, spurring then-Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.) to step down.
One factor that could help Democrats in 2014 is the economy, which is expected to continue improving, even without further action by the federal government. Voters may reward the president’s party for these economic gains.
And the GOP may have a “donor fatigue” problem, some Democrats suspect. With GOP benefactors pouring in millions to help finance a robust outside money game and seeing such poor results on Election Day, donors might not feel as generous, particularly in a nonpresidential year.
“Are Republican donors going to continue to throw away their money on these outside groups when they have little to show for it this election cycle?” asked Doug Thornell, a Democratic strategist at SKDKnickerbocker.
On the subject of money, Democrats are concerned that no one in their Caucus would be able to duplicate Pelosi’s fundraising prowess, should she leave.
Pelosi raised $85.1 million for Democrats in the 2012 cycle, helping the DCCC outraise the National Republican Congressional Committee, an impressive feat for the minority party.