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Democrats jockey for leadership posts after election drubbing
Nancy Pelosi and her top deputies aren't going anywhere. But the House leadership elections that begin this week are likely to reveal the future of the caucus long ruled by the same triumvirate.
The 80-year-old California Democrat is expected to easily clinch her caucus’ nomination to be speaker despite some internal grumblings about a disappointing election that significantly narrowed Democrats’ House majority. She’ll still face a full floor vote in January. And her longtime lieutenants — House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer, 81, and House Majority Whip Jim Clyburn, 80 — are also running unopposed.
“There’s near universal appreciation for ‘thank God Nancy was there during this turbulent four years.’ She was the Rock of Gibraltar,” said Rep. Gerry Connolly (D-Va.). “I think that’s really why the idea of challenging her has not resurfaced and is not likely to.”
The real action to watch is down ballot, with a small number of contested elections that will be decided this week and later this month — and will offer a window into the direction of a caucus already trying to position itself for the post-Pelosi era nearly two decades after the California Democrat ascended to power.
Democrats also face a new hurdle this year: The caucus will hold its first-ever entirely virtual election as the nation hunkers down for its worst coronavirus surge since March. Lawmakers will be able to nominate candidates, hear speeches and vote using secure technology, rather than the standard secret in-person ballot.
Here’s what’s at stake and who's in play in the caucus elections:
The election of the House Democratic Caucus chair — the No. 5 position on the leadership ladder — will be the first for Democrats to consider Wednesday. The caucus chair conducts the rest of the elections and thus goes first. Rep. Hakeem Jeffries is running unopposed for a second — and final, according to caucus rules — term as chair.
Jeffries has higher ambitions and could even make history one day as the first Black speaker of the House. But the New York Democrat’s decision to run for caucus chair again signals he has zero interest in trying to take on Pelosi, despite a haphazard whisper campaign by some Democrats hoping he’d do so in recent weeks.
Pelosi is not expected to face opposition to her bid to return to the speaker’s chair for what could potentially be her last term in Congress. Despite losing more than half a dozen seats in the election, Pelosi remains at the height of her power with a firm grip on caucus politics in her second turn as speaker.
The California Democrat is expected to easily win her party’s nomination for speaker, needing only a simple majority of the caucus to vote for her on Wednesday. Then her real work begins — where Pelosi will engage in a six-week persuasion campaign to lock down the 218 Democratic votes she’ll need for a floor vote in January.
Fifteen Democrats voted against Pelosi in 2019 — several of whom lost their reelection earlier this month. This time around, Pelosi will have a significantly smaller margin for error. Several races have yet to be called but Pelosi can only lose a handful of Democrats on the floor in January.
Pelosi’s most vocal Democratic detractors admit there’s no one willing or capable of challenging her. But they do plan to publicly press Pelosi on a transition plan for the next generation of leadership and whether she still plans to honor an agreement reached in 2018 that she would only serve two more terms as speaker.
“Clearly we need to build a transition so that next Congress we have new leadership,” said Rep. Kurt Schrader (D-Ore.), who voted against Pelosi for speaker in 2018. “We need younger folks to have an opportunity to get trained. That’s something I will be pushing ... to make sure whoever is elected speaker, majority leader, whip, whatever, that there’s a clear way to train people.”
Unlike Pelosi, Hoyer and Clyburn notably did not agree to term limits two years ago and have been opposed to efforts within the caucus to formalize limits on leadership since then. But all three are expected by many to eventually vacate the top three leadership posts at the same time.
Four Democrats are also running unopposed for the four open spots on the Democratic Policy and Communications Committee, the caucus’ messaging arm. Reps. Debbie Dingell (D-Mich.), Ted Lieu (D-Calif.) and Matt Cartwright (D-Pa.) are all seeking another term as co-chairs. Rep. Joe Neguse (D-Colo.), who currently serves in leadership as the freshman representative, is running unopposed for the fourth slot.
Democrats have just a pair of high-profile leadership races, which lawmakers say has been made far trickier to whip — and to predict the results — without the usual chatter on the House floor or in hallways due to the pandemic. Those races are likely to be decided on Thursday.
Rep. Katherine Clark (D-Mass.) and Rep. David Cicilline (D-R.I.) — two well-liked Democrats who are both already on Pelosi’s leadership team — are vying for the party’s No. 4 position, assistant speaker. The position is currently held by Rep. Ben Ray Luján (D-N.M.), who was elected to the Senate this month.
Clark allies say they are confident that the Massachusetts Democrat — who, as vice chair, already outranks Cicilline — will edge ahead, thanks to her support from an aggressive whip operation and her fundraising and recruitment efforts in recent cycles. But Cicilline supporters have also been pushing hard on his behalf, and many Democrats acknowledge that it could still be close.
Cicilline currently serves as chair on the Democratic Policy and Communications Committee, a post he ran for after dropping out of the assistant speaker race against Luján last cycle.
The battle for caucus vice chair, the No. 6 leadership post, has come down to Reps. Pete Aguilar (D-Calif.) and Robin Kelly (D-Ill.), after a third contender, Rep. Deb Haaland (D-N.M.), dropped her bid this week.
Kelly would be the first Black woman elected to Democratic leadership in the House, with many in the Congressional Black Caucus behind her. Aguilar, a centrist who unsuccessfully ran for the post two years ago, would be the highest-ranking Latino in the House, after Luján’s departure.
Aguilar recently locked up support from one of the caucus’ largest groups — the New Democrat Coalition — in a rare endorsement, though that formal position rattled some members of the group who had been loyal to Kelly. The Congressional Hispanic Caucus on Monday night also endorsed Aguilar.
Democrats will also decide between a trio of lawmakers vying for the leadership post reserved for members who have served five terms or less in Congress. The position, currently held by Rep. Jamie Raskin (D-Md.), is limited to one term. Reps. Colin Allred (D-Texas) and Jason Crow (D-Colo.), both rising sophomores, and Rep. Brenda Lawrence (D-Mich.), elected in 2014, are running for the spot.
What to watch later this month:
The most-watched contest will be decided the week after Thanksgiving — the race to succeed Rep. Cheri Bustos (D-Ill.) as head of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee. Typically Democrats serve two terms as DCCC chair, but Bustos announced she would not run again for the post caucus’ disappointing down-ballot finish on Election Day. House Democrats have lost a net seven seats with more possible as 10 races remain uncalled.
The battle for DCCC chair has come down to Reps. Tony Cárdenas (D-Calif.) and Sean Patrick Maloney (D-N.Y.).
Cárdenas, who raised record sums for the Congressional Hispanic Caucus’s campaign arm, Bold PAC, this year, has argued to members that he can make up the gaps where Biden fell flat among Latinos this November. Maloney, who hails from a district Donald Trump won in 2016, pitched himself as a swing-district Democrat who can protect the caucus’ most vulnerable members — and its fragile majority — going into the 2022 midterms.
“It’s just very difficult to hold the majority when your party is in the White House so we have to acknowledge that that will be a challenge,” Rep. Stephanie Murphy (D-Fla.), a leader of the Blue Dog Coalition, said in an interview. “My hope is whoever takes on the leadership of the campaign arm of the party gets an objective assessment on exactly what happened and operates from a place of fact.”
December will also mark the end of a more than yearlong battle for the powerful House Appropriations gavel — a race that began in earnest after 83-year-old Rep. Nita Lowey (D-N.Y.) announced her retirement last October.
A trio of Democrats — Reps. Marcy Kaptur (D-Ohio), Rosa DeLauro (D-Conn.) and Debbie Wasserman Schultz (D-Fla.) — have spent the year lining up support.
DeLauro, a senior progressive who is close to Pelosi, has long been considered the frontrunner, though a group of moderates have made a push to elevate Wasserman Schultz in recent months, eager to hand the gavel off to a younger generation.