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House Democrats Punt on Leadership Question After Anti-Pelosi Candidate Wins

Caucus members say individual candidates should decide whether to run on calls for a leadership change

House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., left, hosts a reception in honor of Rep. Marcy Kaptur, D-Ohio, in the Capitol on Wednesday. The Democrats’ most likely new member ran amid promises to not support her as caucus leader. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)
House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., left, hosts a reception in honor of Rep. Marcy Kaptur, D-Ohio, in the Capitol on Wednesday. The Democrats’ most likely new member ran amid promises to not support her as caucus leader. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)

After four straight elections falling short of the majority, House Democrats have had their fair share of discussions about their caucus leadership and whether it’s time for a change. But with momentum on their side in the current cycle, they’re not yet ready to revisit those talks — even after the strong special election performance of a Democratic candidate who pledged not to support Nancy Pelosi in another bid for Democratic leader.

Democrat Conor Lamb led Republican Rick Saccone in Pennsylvania’s 18th District special election, with all precincts reporting but the final outcome still undetermined at press time. Lamb’s expected victory is significant in a district President Donald Trump carried by nearly 20 points in 2016, although Republicans downplayed the chances of Democrats replicating that success in similar districts.

House Democrats had plenty to say about the Pennsylvania results, but few wanted to talk about him running as a Pelosi opponent and whether Democrats should consider campaigning for new leadership as a broader election strategy.

“Ah, come on, let us win for one day before we get into these stupid insider fights,” Arizona Rep. Ruben Gallego said.

Gallego is among a handful of House Democrats who have been outspoken about their interest in a leadership change, but he doesn’t see that push as integral to the party’s midterm strategy. 

“I think every candidate should first worry about winning and stop caring about the stupid, internal, political leadership fights,” he said. “Once we win, then we can have this fight.”

Watch: Democrats’ Success in Pennsylvania 18 Not Repeatable, Ryan Says

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‘Their own decisions’

Other Democrats acknowledged that some candidates may see a benefit in calling for new leadership as part of their campaigns but said that should be a decision made by the individuals themselves, not the party. 

“They’ll have to make their own decisions,” Rep. Peter Welch said, noting it will likely be a question candidates have to answer. Republicans will continue to attack Democrats as Pelosi puppets because they “don’t have anything else to talk about in their districts,” he said.

Lamb “was taking the Pelosi issue off the table by inoculating himself,” the Vermont Democrat added. “And he did that for very good reason. He wanted to focus on the economic uncertainties of the people he wants to represent. He didn’t want to have a sidebar debate about Pelosi about other issues that really don’t go to the heart of economic concerns of people in that district.”

Rep. John B. Larson said other candidates may decide to denounce Pelosi if they think it will help their campaigns. 

“And in fact, if I know Nancy Pelosi, she’ll say, ‘Say whatever you need to to get elected,’” the Connecticut Democrat said.

Pelosi’s camp said the Pennsylvania race is evidence that Republicans’ efforts to use her to advance a broader narrative about the Democratic Party won’t gain traction, even in a deep-red district. A Lamb political ad in which he said he would not support Pelosi for leader was not about distancing himself from her; it was about biography and a call to public service, they argued. 

Running local

Many House Democrats agreed that Lamb’s success had nothing to do with his opposition to Pelosi and was really about his ability to tailor his argument to local and economic issues Pennsylvania’s 18th District cares about. 

“He understood the needs of his district,” said Rep. Linda Sánchez, vice chairwoman of the Democratic Caucus. “When he talked to people, foremost on their minds was not Nancy Pelosi. It was retirement security; it was good paying jobs, it was the ability to organize and unionize that people were concerned about.”

Caucus Chairman Joseph Crowley agreed the expected victory was about Lamb focusing on the local issues, despite Republicans trying to nationalize the campaign. 

“I think they need to get a new game book,” the New York Democrat said of the GOP. “The attempts to use Nancy Pelosi, it’s failing them at this point. And I think, frankly, it’s sexist. So they need to move on from that.”

But in trying to localize their races, candidates will still likely be unable to escape questions about whether they support their national party leaders, whom many voters see as responsible for Washington’s gridlock. And for House Democrats that leader is Pelosi. Lamb said on the trail he wanted new leadership in both parties. 

“If you’re asked that question — ‘Are you going to vote for the same old leadership Democrats have had and lost a record number of seats in this century?’ — your answer should be no,” Rep. Kurt Schrader said. “That’s just common sense. And if you do that, I do think that gives you entrée into a lot of independent, moderate and conservative Democratic voters and maybe even some moderate Republicans.”

The Oregon Democrat believes that question should be dealt with on a candidate-by-candidate basis and not be the focal point of anyone’s campaign. Internally, House Democrats should be having discussions about who the next Democratic leader might be, but they are not right now, Schrader added. 

Anti-Pelosi candidates 

A handful of Democratic candidates across the country have come out against Pelosi early in their races. Kansas Democrat Paul Davis promised not to vote for Pelosi when he announced his campaign for the open 2nd District in August.

Davis is a member of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee’s Red to Blue program, which supports its strongest recruits to flip GOP seats to the Democratic column. Trump carried the 2nd District by 19 points in 2016, and Inside Elections with Nathan L. Gonzales rates the race Leans Republican.

In other solid Republican districts, like South Carolina’s 1st District or Ohio’s 7th District, Democratic candidates have also vowed not to support Pelosi for leader.

But few other Democrats have gone out on the same limb as Lamb and publicly said they would not support Pelosi. When asked, many candidates have preferred to dodge the question entirely.

Candidates in swing districts or Republican-leaning districts typically answer the Pelosi question with some version of saying they will wait until they are elected or it is too soon to tell who is even running for leadership positions. Others have said they think it’s time for new leadership without calling on Pelosi by name.

Even though Pelosi will inspire millions of dollars of attacks against Democratic recruits, she remains a prolific fundraiser for the party who, often behind the scenes, could also be valuable to Democratic challengers this cycle.

Past discussions

Past discussions about a potential regime change bore little fruit. Rep. Tim Ryan of Ohio challenged Pelosi for her minority leader post after Democrats failed to make significant gains in the 2016 election, but he lost, 134-63.

That race did surface frustration about lack of opportunities for younger and newer members in leadership and resulted in some caucus rule changes, creating a handful of new junior leadership positions, along with vice ranking member slots on committees that were reserved for members still early in their congressional tenure. 

Those types of talks look set to continue, regardless of whether Pelosi mounts a bid for speaker or minority leader, depending on November’s results. The leadership debate will likely occur after the election, but some members expect some discussions to surface earlier.

“The thing that needs to take place before is a whole series of reforms in this place that have to do with a wide variety of things,” Larson said, citing term limits, committee assignments and seniority as some of the issues that the leaders need to follow up on before the next round of caucus elections. 

Last week Pelosi declined to say whether she would run for speaker if Democrats retake the House, saying, “That will be up to our members.”

Ryan also declined to say whether he was interested in running for Democratic leader again.

“I don’t have any answers,” he said. 

The Ohio Democrat said he believes candidates should take the Lamb victory as a sign they can run an “organic” campaign and speak out against the current Democratic leaders in Washington if that serves them. But he said it’s not helpful for the caucus to have a discussion about new leadership at this point. 

“At the end of the day, our candidates need to determine what their positions are on the major issues, including the issue of leadership,” Ryan said. “And that needs to be done with the candidate leading the charge on that. And that’s the takeaway from Conor. He was not going to be influenced by anyone from the outside. And that plays well.”

 Simone Pathé and Bridget Bowman contributed to this report.Watch: Congressional Republicans Had Wonky Plans for the Week, Then Trump Happened

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