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Challenger Pits Pelosi Against Rank-and-File Democrats

Drama surrounds veteran lawmaker’s bid to retain control of divided caucus

Nancy Pelosi, who has been the top House Democrat since 2003, is facing a challenge from Ohio Rep. Tim Ryan. (CQ Roll Call file photo)
Nancy Pelosi, who has been the top House Democrat since 2003, is facing a challenge from Ohio Rep. Tim Ryan. (CQ Roll Call file photo)

House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi puts her leadership position on the line Wednesday morning, facing criticism from rank-and-file Democrats and an opponent agitating for change after three consecutive unsuccessful attempts to retake control of the chamber.

The 76-year-old Californian is expected to prevail by capturing a simple majority in the secret balloting, but some Democrats predict the race could be close. As of Tuesday evening, at least 80 caucus members had publicly committed to Pelosi.

At least 12 House Democrats have openly backed her challenger, Ohio Rep. Tim Ryan, 43, who is trying to break the centralized power Pelosi and her hand-picked team wield over the caucus.

The election will also decide who will serve as minority whip, assistant leader, caucus chairman and caucus vice chairman in the 115th Congress. Caucus vice chairman is the only other contested race.

Pelosi agreed to delay what had become largely perfunctory caucus elections earlier this month after members, stunned by Democratic losses on Election Day, urged against rushing a vote. That gave Ryan an opening to campaign for the role.

[House Democrats Delay Leadership Elections]

The last time Pelosi faced a credible challenge was in 2010, when Democrats lost their majority by surrendering 63 seats. Former Rep. Heath Shuler of North Carolina garnered just 43 votes for minority leader. He left two years later.

This time, 198 Democratic representatives and delegates who will serve in the 115th Congress will cast ballots. A third of those voting come from just three states — New York, California and Massachusetts.

Pelosi announced this week that she would create more leadership roles that could address consternation from some of the party faithful.

She announced Monday she would accept a suggestion from the rank-and-file to include a freshman member in leadership meetings. It’s not clear, however, how that representative would be chosen.

Pelosi also created three new co-chairmanship roles on the Democratic Policy and Communications Committee, a move that was also based on feedback from members, she said in a statement Friday.

Rank-and-file rumblings

But friction remains within the party after Pelosi nominated a host of allies to fill those positions instead of allowing them to be only elected by the full caucus.

[House Democrats Unsettled About Leadership Next Year]

Ryan said Pelosi’s nominations “further consolidate her power over the caucus.”

In a statement Monday, the Ohio Democrat said there is a “clear desire” among members to decentralize power in the Democratic caucus and empower the rank and file to serve on committees.

He also called for the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee chairman to be a fully elected position, not one nominated by the minority leader, and then ratified by the caucus.

Rep. Ruben Gallego, an Arizona Democrat, was an early proponent of delaying leadership elections until after the Thanksgiving break to have time to analyze why Democrats were dealt a stunning blow on Election Day.

Gallego told Roll Call on Tuesday that he is openly supporting Ryan’s bid for Pelosi’s role because it is a sign the party is taking steps to re-engineer its game plan, particularly when it comes to messaging.

Ryan is one of several Democrats vying for leadership roles who represent districts that President-elect Donald Trump is thought to have scored well in. Ryan had stressed the need for a focused economic message that plays well in Rust Belt towns and pledged to serve only a single term if Democrats don’t win back the House majority in 2018.

[Democrats Voting on Pelosi Are Older But Not Long-Tenured]

Gallego said Pelosi’s nominations for expanded leadership roles could lead to a lack of accountability and goes against the notion of “democratizing” the party.

“They’re going to be more answerable to leadership than to the caucus as a whole,” Gallego said.

Rep. Seth Moulton, a Massachusetts Democrat who is also supporting Ryan’s bid, said he wants to see a “bottom-up” leadership style in which anyone could run for leadership roles.

“Clearly, the status quo isn’t working,” Moulton said.  “We need grass-roots leadership.”

Moulton said he also didn’t fear repercussions for going against Pelosi, who has been the House’s top Democrat since 2003, saying his decision was the right thing to do for the party.

“That’s all that should matter,” he said.

Pelosi, who has said she has the support of two-thirds of the caucus, has received widespread praise from members, particularly for her fundraising.

She brushed off the challenge to her post, saying it only boosted her chances of winning by galvanizing her supporters.

Pennsylvania Rep. Matt Cartwright, one of Pelosi’s three nominees to join the Policy and Communications Committee, said he applauds her for splitting the chairmanship.

“It enables her to bring in a diversification of views,” he said.

Vice chairman contest

The race for minority leader became the second contested race among the top five Democratic leadership positions in the House.

California Reps. Barbara Lee and Linda T. Sánchez are vying to take on the lower-key caucus vice chairman position — a largely quiet race that has been overshadowed by the drama surrounding Pelosi.

Sánchez, who added that she was “guardedly optimistic” about winning, said members have spoken of wanting the vice chairmanship to be a conduit in delivering ideas between the rank and file and leadership.

Lee said Democratic members are focused on developing a strategy that would allow them to travel outside the Beltway to hold meetings with the public — a connection the minority party failed to deliver, which many believe cost them the election despite picking up a net of six seats in the House.

Lindsay McPherson contributed to this report.Contact Rahman at or follow her on Twitter at @remawriter

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