House Democrats are sticking with Nancy Pelosi. In a vote held on Wednesday, Democrats in the lower chamber voted to again make Pelosi the House minority leader.
Pelosi, 76, drew an unexpected challenge from Ohio Rep. Tim Ryan, who argued that the party needed a dramatic change in direction after again failing to take back Congress and losing the presidency this November.
“Keeping the same leadership will not allow us to get out of the same frame, the same box, we’ve been put in — as being complicit in the problem as opposed to against the problem,” Ryan, 43, told me while making the case for his candidacy earlier this month.
The plea to his colleagues fell on deaf ears. Pelosi, a 15-term Congress member, has led the Democratic caucus since 2003. Wednesday’s vote means she’ll continue to do so — even though House Democrats have lost more than 60 seats since 2010.
Pelosi maintained that her experience made her the best choice to return the party to power. It was a persuasive enough argument for her to put down the dissension in her ranks, at least for the time being.
Why many Democrats didn’t want to support Ryan’s bid
Shortly after Ryan announced his bid, Pelosi went in front of reporters to dismiss the insurgency as doomed from the start.
“Without even asking anybody for a vote, I have over two-thirds of the caucus supporting me,” Pelosi said, according to the Huffington Post’s Matt Fuller. “It’s a funny thing, in a caucus or any place: When somebody challenges you, your supporters turn out.”
Pelosi’s attitude toward Ryan never really wavered. In another interview with the Huffington Post on Monday, just two days before today’s secret-ballot election, Pelosi again laughed off questions about how widespread her support among the caucus would prove to be. Ryan had attacked Pelosi’s recent leadership slate as being aimed at consolidating her power over the House Democrats — a claim Pelosi dismissed as “almost pathetic.”
“I have strong support from our friends in the unions, including steelworkers, which I guess are his area,” she said.
Now, the fact that Pelosi did go on to win doesn’t necessarily confirm that her position was insurmountable. Though many expressed need for new leadership and energy in the face of unified Republican government, they also didn’t think Ryan had the necessary expertise to lead the party in what are sure to be complex and difficult fights with House Republicans. Pelosi also enjoys the ability to raise millions of dollars routinely for embattled congressional Democrats, creating something of a sense of personal loyalty.
“Members are frustrated and want new leadership. Whoever leads the party going forward, it needs to be someone who energizes the base and taps into the grassroots but can still bring in the money,” said one congressional Democratic aide on the condition of anonymity. “Very few believe Tim Ryan could be that person."
The risks for Democrats in sticking with the old guard
But if Democrats have rallied around Pelosi as their standard-bearer, there’s also a latent risk in their strategy.
To many observers, the 2016 election showed that voters are eager for a changing of the guard in Washington. Democrats did win the popular vote at both the presidential and congressional levels. But even with those numbers, they face an extremely low level of seats in Congress. Some feel they may have done even better — and not let Republicans take complete control of the government — had they not been swimming against the anti-establishment tide.
Keeping Pelosi as a figurehead for the party isn’t responsive to that outcry. Earlier this month, the Democratic Senate caucus made Chuck Schumer, 65, the party’s Senate majority leader. Like Pelosi, Schumer has been around Congress for many years and isn’t particularly popular with the country overall. (Pelosi had a -25 national approval rating in the latest YouGov polling, while Schumer stands at -28.)
The two most prominent faces of Democrats in the age of Trump, in other words, are almost certainly going to be a New Yorker beloved by Wall Street and a San Franciscan beloved by Silicon Valley. That could give Republicans an opportunity to counter-punch that they may not have had if Democrats had gone with new leadership.