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Speaker Races Are Usually Internal Affairs. Pelosi’s Is Anything But

Liberal groups pile on with endorsements

Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., has some unlikely allies in her bid for speaker: outside influence groups. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photo)
Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., has some unlikely allies in her bid for speaker: outside influence groups. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photo)

House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, in her bumpy bid to reclaim the speaker’s gavel, has wooed endorsements from more than two dozen outside groups and labor unions, an atypical element of a debate usually held within the party’s inner sanctum.

The public show of support for the California Democrat makes clear the high stakes of the leadership slate for the incoming House majority and for the party’s off-the-Hill allies. weighed in on Pelosi’s behalf on Thursday evening, as other progressive and liberal-leaning groups say privately their leaders are considering taking the unprecedented step of making an endorsement in a leadership contest.

“We can think of no one better suited to be speaker at this critical moment in history,” wrote a group of union leaders — including from the American Federation of Government Employees, United Auto Workers and the National Association of Letter Carriers — in a letter to Pelosi after the election. “We stand ready to work with you and the entire Congress on behalf of the tens of millions of working men and women and their families who are looking to us, and to you, to address their critical concerns.”, in the group’s mobilization on behalf of Pelosi’s bid, tweeted Thursday: “We strongly support and call on all members of the Democratic caucus to support @NancyPelosi for Speaker. Were it not for her skilled and effective leadership, the [Affordable Care Act] would not be law today. Dems must reject attempts to defeat her and move caucus to the right.”

Pelosi, the first-ever woman to serve as speaker, held that gavel from 2007 through 2010 and her signature legislative achievements included the 2010 health care law known as Obamacare, as well as a lobbying overhaul in 2007 that she championed after Democrats won the House, in part, in the 2006 elections by attacking Republicans for a “culture of corruption” on the heels of the Jack Abramoff scandal.

Some of her colleagues, such as Massachusetts Rep. Seth Moulton, argue that the party should elect new leadership in the 116th Congress, but they have not publicly coalesced around a specific alternative to Pelosi.

Other groups that have made public their preference for Pelosi include the abortion-rights organization NARAL Pro-Choice America, the League of Conservation Voters, People for the American Way, the health care-focused Protect Our Care, the Service Employees International Union, campaign finance overhaul group End Citizens United, the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence, the United Farm Workers and the Communications Workers of America.

Tax March, a liberal effort that opposed the 2017 Republican tax overhaul and also advocates for the public disclosure of the president’s tax returns, also endorsed Pelosi. “For two years, Leader Pelosi worked alongside Tax March in this fight — crisscrossing the country to educate constituents at town halls, mobilizing activists and organizers on the ground, and holding Republicans accountable for their shameful tax law,” said the group’s executive director, Maura Quint.

The leaders of some of the nation’s most prominent liberal organizations and unions have also personally backed Pelosi, including Shannon Watts, founder of the gun-control organization Moms Demand Action and AFL-CIO chief Richard Trumka.

“I’m looking forward to calling her Madam Speaker again,” Watts tweeted recently.

Though the Center for American Progress does not make endorsements in congressional leadership races, according to a spokeswoman for the organization, the group’s president Neera Tanden personally backed Pelosi for the post.

Some organizations on the left, however, are urging progressive Democrats to withhold their speaker votes as a way to “extract concessions,” said Waleed Shahid of Justice Democrats, a group that backed primary challengers such as Reps.-elect Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York and Ayanna S. Pressley of Massachusetts.

“We also want any potential speaker to build a movement around the policies that the overwhelming majority of Democrats agree with: Medicare For All, rejecting corporate donations, free college, and dismantling mass incarceration and mass deportation,” Shahid said in an email.

A vigorous campaign

A longtime Democratic operative, who would only discuss the gavel campaign on condition of anonymity for fear of drawing the ire of Pelosi or other party members, said that the unusual outreach by progressive organizations shows both the former speaker’s influence among the outside groups and that she hasn’t yet sealed her success despite her public pronouncements that she will be speaker in the 116th Congress.

In addition to the outside groups, Pelosi’s campaign team sent an email to supporters Thursday asking the public to sign on to an online campaign in support of her bid. “Let Nancy know you’ve got her back. Add your name,” the petition, at, reads.

“If she had it locked up, she wouldn’t be doing all this,” the longtime Democratic operative said.

A spokesman for Pelosi did not immediately respond to a request for comment about the role of the outside groups in her speaker campaign.

Still, it’s unclear whether the show of support from outside activists for Pelosi will make a difference — and should she fail to take the gavel whether they’d experience obstacles in building ties to whomever does become speaker.

Rep. Marcia L. Fudge, an Ohio Democrat considering a challenge to Pelosi, said she, too, is hearing from outside interests on her side, if only privately.

“I can’t even sleep my phone is going off so much, not just from people within this institution but people outside of this institution who are excited about the possibility of change and new leadership,” Fudge said. “I mean, I’m hearing it from lobbyists, from labor, from tons and tons of people.”

Even with the unusual volume of support from liberal groups for Pelosi, corporate organizations have yet to break their tradition of staying out of leadership fights. Blair Latoff Holmes, a spokeswoman for the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, said, “no, we do not weigh in on leadership elections.” And prominent lobbyists for business interests said their clients were not speaking out on the matter.

Pelosi is still the front-runner for the job, despite facing vocal opposition from a collection of her colleagues as well as pledges from newly elected Democrats who vowed not to vote for her as Speaker.

Jason Pye, vice president of legislative affairs for the conservative group FreedomWorks, said his group has no regrets about backing Ohio Rep. Jim Jordan to lead House Republicans in the next Congress, even though Jordan lost to California Rep. Kevin McCarthy, who is the current No. 2 in House GOP leadership.

“It’s a matter of taking a stand on principle,” Pye said, adding that he expects Pelosi will ultimately pull it off. Given the swell of outside groups coming to her side, though, “that tells me maybe this isn’t set in stone,” he added.

Lindsey McPherson contributed to this report.

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