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Joe Crowley’s defeat could drive a bigger leadership shake-up for House Democrats

“New faces wouldn’t be bad for us.”

Congressional Democrats Announce New Legislation For Public Sector Union Rights
House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi
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House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi did not want to answer questions on Thursday morning about what House Democratic Caucus Chair Joe Crowley’s primary loss to socialist Latina candidate Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez means for the three highest-ranking members of House Democratic leadership.

“Does anybody have a question about the serious matters of the day?” an exasperated Pelosi said at her weekly press conference, after the first two questions reporters posed were about Democratic leadership. “Does anyone have a substantive question?” (Pelosi came back to the questions at the end of her press conference).

At 56 years old, Crowley was one of the youngest members of House Democratic leadership, and widely expected to position himself for the speakership. His stunning defeat raises questions about the futures of a House Democrat leadership trio — all over age 75 — that has not changed for years, and is showing no signs of budging ahead of 2018.

But among the Democratic caucus, things are being set in motion. There’s long been dissatisfaction bubbling up among some factions, both with Pelosi’s style of leadership and with the outside perception that Democratic leaders are not responding to the will of their progressive base.

“I think there is widespread agreement that we need a rejuvenation of leadership,” said Rep. John Yarmuth (D-KY). “How that manifests itself, we’ll see. I think the caucus understands that the party’s changing, the base is changing, and new faces wouldn’t be bad for us.”

Names are already emerging as potential challengers to Democratic leadership

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House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) speaks at a June press conference in front of Capitol Hill.
Alex Wong/Getty Images

Pelosi has already announced she plans to run for House Speaker if Democrats retake the chamber in 2018.

“We will win. I will run for speaker. I feel confident about it. And my members do, too,” Pelosi said during a May Boston Globe editorial board interview.

Members of her caucus do not seem as confident. For months, Crowley’s name was being floated behind the scenes as the likeliest person to succeed the 78-year-old Pelosi should she step down. But Crowley said he would not challenge Pelosi should she decide to run again. Then he lost his primary.

The big question now is whether anyone will challenge Pelosi — and who that person will be.

Crowley’s impending exit has opened up a large field of new names that are floating around. Of course, there’s House Whip Steny Hoyer (D-MD) and House Assistant Minority Leader James Clyburn (D-SC), the second and third-ranking House Democrats. But a number of younger representatives’ names are floating around as well, including Congressional Black Caucus Chair Cedric Richmond (D-LA), Congressional Progressive Caucus chair Mark Pocan (D-WI), and Reps. Cheri Bustos (D-IL) Hakeem Jeffries (D-NY), Joe Kennedy (D-MA), and Adam Schiff (D-CA), and others, in a list compiled by Politico’s Heather Caygle and John Bresnahan.

There’s also a growing number of Democrats winning their primaries who said they would not support Pelosi’s bid for speaker, meaning her grip on the speakership if Democrats win could be tenuous. So far, about 20 candidates have said they won’t support Pelosi if they are elected (of course, there’s no way to tell yet how they’d actually vote).

But at least for now, Pelosi is brushing off questions about her own future and focusing on a hopes of a blue wave in 2018.

“We just want to win, that’s all,” she told reporters on Thursday. “When I’m not in the Capitol, I’m someplace else, raising money to elect those very people. Just win, baby.”

Democrats are already stepping up to run for Crowley’s seat

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Rep. Joseph Crowley (D-NY) alongside Rep. Linda Sanchez (D-CA) during a February press conference.
Alex Wong/Getty Images

There are also already Democratic members eyeing Crowley’s seat, including the vice chair of the House Democratic Caucus, Linda Sanchez, and Rep. Barbara Lee, both from California.

“I think I would be a good caucus chair,” Sanchez told reporters on Thursday, before adding, “I’m not making any announcements.”

Sanchez made headlines last year when she publicly called on Pelosi, Hoyer, and Clyburn to step aside and “pass the torch to a new generation of leadership.” Since then, she’s kept a much lower profile on the issue of leadership, something evident on Thursday.

“I’m not going to drag out a crystal ball, not going to try to speculate,” Sanchez said in response to reporters’ questions about Democratic leadership changes. “It depends on who you ask in the caucus, there are 200 members in our caucus, everybody has their own opinion on it. I don’t know what the majority of the caucus thinks. We don’t speculate on that, I don’t speculate on that.”

As for her own future?

“Keeping an eye towards the future, if there are opportunities, obviously I’m interested,” she said.

If she decides to attempt to move up the ranks in leadership, Sanchez may be joined Rep. Barbara Lee (D-CA), who is openly gauging the interest of other members in supporting her.

“I’m talking to members right now,” Lee told Vox. “Joe’s been a great chair of the Democratic Caucus. He and Linda [Sanchez] have both done a really good job. Now, it will be open, so I’m talking to members to see what direction they’d like to see the caucus go in, and if they would think that I could help. They know I’m a coalition-builder.”

Lee, who was elected to Congress the same year as Crowley, has a record that is more progressive. She’s served as the co-chair of the Congressional Progressive Caucus and the chair of the powerful Congressional Black Caucus in the past.

Unlike some of her colleagues, Lee said she has not heard grumbling about the need for leadership changes from members she’s spoken to.

“I think the House leadership has really done a good job,” Lee said. “I think our leadership has broadened the participation of a lot of new members. We have to continue to strengthen it, but I think at least from what I’m hearing, most members see the fact it has been moving in the right direction. But there are other members talking about leadership changes very publicly. I haven’t been one of those, I think we’ve got to stay unified.”

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