What Election Night Meant for House Democratic Leadership
Despite midterm losses of at least 13 House seats, Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi is unlikely to face any serious calls to step down as the leader of the Democratic Caucus, party insiders tell CQ Roll Call.
Members, aides and operatives say Pelosi and all of her lieutenants are expected to be unopposed in their bids to retain leadership posts.
But just because the 2014 midterm elections won’t precipitate a systematic takedown of the current leadership team doesn’t mean the results won’t reverberate across the caucus.
Here are three ways Tuesday’s grim showing will impact the caucus in the days, weeks and months ahead.
Pelosi Plays Defense. After even bigger losses in 2010, Pelosi had to prove that she would be able to reunify the caucus; in 2012, House Democrats won eight seats and Pelosi didn’t have to prove anything to keep her job.
This year, Pelosi and her team are playing defense again.
Even before the first polls closed Tuesday, Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee Chairman Steve Israel, D-N.Y., was laying groundwork for a narrative designed to head off any second-guessing of the Democratic leadership.
Israel painted a picture of an electoral landscape designed to trip up Democrats, and said matter-of-factly that the party just wasn’t be able to catch up to Republican outside spending. He also argued that Democrats excelled in all the areas in which they had some control, like how the DCCC outraised the National Republican Campaign Committee and built ground volunteer operations that kept candidates competitive down to the wire.
In her Wednesday letter to members seeking support for her leadership re-election bid, Pelosi said she wanted to advocate on behalf of the “Jumpstart the Middle Class” agenda and push for voter protection legislation — two objectives that will face daunting prospects in a Republican-controlled Congress.
But Pelosi’s biggest case for sticking around is undoubtedly her fundraising prowess — and its potential impact on chances for a Democratic comeback in 2016. Since entering leadership in 2002, Pelosi has raised over $400 million for the DCCC, a staggering figure no other House Democrat can begin to match.
An Early Test. Later this month, members will vote for the next ranking member on the Energy and Commerce Committee. They have an important choice to make between two lawmakers whose politics and policies are nearly identical. The difference lies in what each symbolizes to members of the caucus.
Rep. Frank Pallone Jr. of New Jersey is the more senior-ranked lawmaker, and he appeals to the caucus’s longstanding deference to the seniority system. He is casting himself as the contrast to the “establishment” candidate, Rep. Anna G. Eshoo of California, who is benefitting from the endorsement of her best friend: Pelosi.
Democrats impatient with Pelosi’s hold on power could vote for Pallone. For them, the ranking member race could become a proxy for the face-off that won’t take place between Pelosi and a challenger for minority leader. It could be a referendum on the desire for change.
But lawmakers could also vote for Eshoo as another form of protest, seeing her not as the establishment pick but as the challenger to the status quo. Many members are growing increasingly frustrated with the seniority system as a way of dictating who gets to be in control, particularly those who themselves want to be elevated sooner rather than later. Case in point: Rep. Raul M. Grijalva, D-Ariz, who is trying for a second time in just over a year to buck more a more senior member to be the top Democrat on Natural Resources.
Rising Stars. If nobody is saying out loud that they want new blood in House Democratic leadership, it’s probably because members expect there to be room to maneuver two years from now.
There are no promises, but conventional wisdom holds that in 2016 Pelosi might step down on her own terms, deciding it’s time for a “fresh start” for House leadership to go along with a fresh start at the White House.
There is also some anticipation that there will be at least one other retirement among the trio of leaders at the very top: Pelosi, Minority Leader Steny H. Hoyer of Maryland and Assistant Leader James E. Clyburn of South Carolina, all in their mid-70s.
If that’s true, the next Congress will be critical for immediate backbenchers and ambitious rank-and-filers to raise money, build operations, make connections and be ready to press the “go” button as soon as the time is right. They will be posturing, positioning and jockeying. And who comes out on top is anybody’s guess with the backlog of aspiring leaders continuing to grow.
In 2016, Rep. Xavier Becerra, D-Calif., will be term-limited as caucus chairman, and he’ll be looking for a new position (current caucus vice-chairman Joseph Crowley, D-N.Y., will be the heir apparent to move into the chairmanship slot).
Budget ranking member Rep. Chris Van Hollen, D-Md., might be eager for greater job responsibilities, and Democratic National Committee Chairwoman Debbie Wasserman Schultz, D-Fla., has made her leadership aspirations no secret.
If Clyburn retires and Rep. Donna Edwards, D-Md., is selected as DCCC chairwoman, she could satisfy concerns that a Congressional Black Caucus member is represented at the leadership table. If Becerra doesn’t stay in leadership, the Congressional Hispanic Caucus could field its incoming chairman, Ben Ray Lujan, D-N.M.
Current freshmen will be more seasoned sophomores by the time 2016 rolls around. Multiple sources told CQ Roll Call that members to watch include Reps. Dan Kildee of Michigan, Joseph P. Kennedy III of Massachusetts, Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona and Joaquin Castro of Texas.
Most imminently, Israel will be angling for a way to stay relevant now that he’s done leading the DCCC. Pelosi could find a way to keep him influential, perhaps installing him as co-chairman of the Democratic Steering and Policy Committee. But much depends on how members feel when the election dust settles. Will Israel be the scapegoat for the losses?
Another wild card two years from now is Hoyer. With all external factors out of the equation, the No. 2 House Democrat likely has the votes and the loyalty from members to finally be the caucus leader. However, there is always speculation that Democrats could decide a more wholesale change is in order, and he could be a casualty of a hunger for a “clean house” at the top.