Nancy Pelosi will remain in charge of House Democrats alongside her longtime No. 2 and 3 in command, an outcome to a leadership race that isn’t particularly exciting. But races further down the ballot suggest something noteworthy is starting to take shape in Democratic politics.
At long last, the next generation of Democratic congressional leadership became clear in the form of Assistant Leader Ben Ray Lujan (NM), Caucus Chair Hakeem Jeffries (NY), and Katherine Clark (MA).
These are all, broadly speaking, Pelosi loyalists from near the congressional party’s center of gravity — representatives of neither the progressive wing nor the moderate wing — who’ve all ascended the ranks with the blessing of the current cohort of leaders. They’re not going to challenge the incumbent troika, and it’s pretty clear after this fall’s events that nobody is going to successfully do so. But Pelosi won’t be around forever, and when she goes, it’s going to be on her own terms.
For all the talk about the drama inside the Democratic Party about Pelosi’s future and threats of a coup, it looks like, instead, she’ll be in a position to one day pass the baton to someone she approves of.
Democrats’ succession problem, explained
Once upon a time in the misty days of the mid-aughts, Pelosi and her No. 2, Steny Hoyer, were actually rivals for party leadership. Had Pelosi stepped down after Democrats’ catastrophic losses in 2010, it’s likely that he would have ended up replacing her.
But instead, she held on. And while her ascension to party leadership was originally opposed by an ideological bloc of more conservative Democrats, during the party’s wilderness years, discontent came primarily from a cohort of more junior members who offered a broad critique of an overall leadership team they saw as stagnant and ossified. That ended up casting Pelosi and Hoyer more as allies than as rivals, and as time has passed, it’s become increasingly clear that by the time Pelosi steps down, Hoyer will be too old to step up as leader; Jim Clyburn, the Democrat next in line, is also in that same boat.
Yet the question of who, exactly, would provide that next generation of leadership has continually been unclear. Chris Van Hollen, once a major Pelosi protégé, got tired of waiting and ran for a Senate seat instead.
That set up a situation where, in the wake of the 2016 elections, the top three figures in the younger generation were Xavier Becerra, Joe Crowley, and Linda Sanchez. But Becerra quit in favor of an appointment to serve as attorney general of California, Crowley lost a primary, and Sanchez’s ascension through the leadership ranks was derailed by her husband’s indictment on charges of stealing federal funds. Consequently, the party briefly experienced a somewhat strange void — opponents of the incumbent leadership team had no candidate to run against Pelosi, and the incumbents were getting increasingly long in the tooth without having any natural successors around.
Democratic congressional leadership: the next generation
Nobody knows how long the current troika will stick around — surely it depends in part on the results of the 2020 and 2022 elections — but we can see now who is likely to succeed them.
The next-gen members all have voting records that put them around the middle of the pack for House Democrats, which gives them the right ideological positioning to lead, and collectively, they set the kind of generational and demographic template that appeals to the party’s rank and file.
But at the same time, all three are ambitious. Lujan technically has the highest-ranking job of the three, and would give Democrats the prominent national Hispanic leader that the party has been seeking for some time. But Jeffries’s allies are also already touting him as a potential future speaker, and he is well-positioned to leverage a New York-based donor network.
There won’t be any open warfare, of course, since for now, at least, Pelosi, Hoyer, and Clyburn are running the show and have no immediate plans to leave. But a clash between Lujan and Jeffries (and potentially Clark) rather than futile challenges to Pelosi is likely going to determine the future of Democratic congressional leadership.