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The two biggest challenges facing Nancy Pelosi’s successor

Pelosi is stepping down as Democratic leader. Her successor has big shoes to fill.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi acknowledges applause from lawmakers after speaking on the House floor at the US Capitol on November 17.
Carolyn Kaster/AP
Li Zhou is a politics reporter at Vox, where she covers Congress and elections. Previously, she was a tech policy reporter at Politico and an editorial fellow at the Atlantic.

Speaker Nancy Pelosi, a longtime Democratic leader known for standing up to former President Donald Trump and ushering her party through major policy wins like the Affordable Care Act, is stepping down from her role as the head of the House Democrats.

Pelosi announced her decision Thursday after Republicans officially retook control of the House earlier this week. It also comes after her husband, Paul Pelosi, was brutally attacked with a hammer earlier this year by an assailant allegedly looking for the speaker herself.

“With great confidence in our caucus, I will not seek reelection to Democratic leadership in the next Congress,” Pelosi said in remarks announcing the move. “For me, the hour has come for a new generation to lead the Democratic caucus I so greatly respect.”

Pelosi’s decision, while somewhat anticipated, still marks a seismic change for the caucus.

When the party won back the House in 2018, Pelosi said she wouldn’t stay in the role of Democratic leader for more than four years. Back then, she promised to be a bridge leader, paving the way for a new generation of talent. In recent days, it was unclear whether she’d stand by this position given Democrats’ stronger-than-expected performance in the midterms and calls from some members for her to keep her role.

Her shoes, ultimately, will be exceedingly tough ones to fill. Pelosi has led her caucus since 2007, when she was the first woman ever elected as speaker. Since then, she’s become an outsized presence, synonymous with her unwillingness to give in to Republican threats on issues like government shutdowns, and her effectiveness shepherding a fractious caucus through significant legislative achievements, including the Inflation Reduction Act. Republicans, in turn, have vilified her throughout her tenure as the top Democrat, making Pelosi one of their favorite political targets.

Following her decision to leave this role, the question turns to who will replace Pelosi, how they’ll be able to unite a still-divided group of Democrats in the House, and whether they can provide the same formidable opposition to the GOP.

Who will replace her?

The next leader could well be Rep. Hakeem Jeffries (D-NY), who’s long been the rumored favorite for the role and is Pelosi’s handpicked successor, according to Puck News. Jeffries, a New York lawmaker who was just elected for his sixth term, has been reaching out to fellow Democrats about his interest in the position and consolidating support. Currently, he’s the fifth-ranking Democrat as the head of the House Democratic Caucus, and is perhaps best known for serving as a manager during Trump’s first impeachment trial.

Jeffries would be the first Black party leader in the House and would face the challenge of navigating a wide-ranging caucus, including progressive members he’s clashed with in the past. A former corporate attorney, Jeffries has faced distrust from some progressives for his support from and for business interests, as well as his backing of a political action committee aimed at defeating progressive challengers.

Jeffries, along with Reps. Katherine Clark (D-MA) and Pete Aguilar (D-CA), compose a younger trio of lawmakers who could take on the leadership roles currently held by Pelosi, House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-MD), and House Majority Whip Jim Clyburn (D-SC).

Younger members in the House, like 52-year-old Jefferies, have been waiting years for changes at the top in order to allow a new generation of lawmakers to take on these positions. Given Democrats’ lack of term limits for leadership positions, Pelosi’s retirement marks their best chance — and perhaps only chance for years to come — to move up.

What’s next for Pelosi herself?

Pelosi is leaving her job as leader, but she’ll stay on as a House representative, offering counsel both to her own members as well as President Joe Biden. As a speaker emeritus, Pelosi will help guide the transition to her successor and help Democrats navigate their roles in the minority countering House Republicans and likely Speaker Kevin McCarthy. Historically, there’s been frustration about the lack of pipeline for ambitious Democrats to rise, and Pelosi’s decision now enables her to pass on knowledge and strategy while allowing new leaders to take the helm.

Will the divisions in the party be containable?

One of the challenges of leadership is uniting a wide-ranging Democratic caucus that includes both staunch progressives like the Squad and more moderate members like Rep. Josh Gottheimer, one of the heads of the bipartisan Problem Solver’s Caucus.

Although Democrats have had their fair share of differences, Pelosi managed to build trust and influence across the different factions in the caucus and keep people united on tough votes.

Pelosi’s record and experience enabled her to establish these ties: As Ella Nilsen explained for Vox, she was an early member of the progressive caucus and one of the most outspoken lawmakers against the Iraq War. That history, combined with the more left-leaning politics of newer progressives helped her find a middle ground: Among Democrats, she was seen as neither overly radical nor too conservative. In past contests for the speakership, she was described by progressives like Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez as the most progressive option on the docket.

Always pragmatic, Pelosi also doled out committee assignments and fundraising support as a way of speaking to various lawmakers’ interests and concerns. She stood her ground in the face of pressure from both wings of Democrats as well, helping them deliver on key priorities. In 2020, for example, Pelosi helped secure a Covid-19 aid deal after moderates inked out a compromise and made it one of their chief issues.

During the last two years, Pelosi’s kept her caucus united to advance the American Rescue Plan, the IRA, and the infrastructure bill, the last of which a handful of progressives voted against. Previously, she helped secure votes for the Affordable Care Act in 2010, another effort that involved extensive negotiations with different lawmakers aimed at focusing on their policy interests.

Her successor will have to do the same to present a united front against Republicans and to advance Democratic policies should they find themselves back in the majority.

Will the new leader effectively push back on Republicans?

Pelosi has established herself as unafraid to call out Republicans, including during the Trump presidency when she was one of his chief antagonists. During his administration, Pelosi notably worked to put the responsibility for one of the longest government shutdowns in American history on his shoulders, and steered the House through two impeachment trials confronting the former president on his abuse of power related both to foreign policy and the January 6, 2021, insurrection.

This year, she’s been a champion of the January 6 committee, with video from the panel highlighting her role in criticizing Trump and attempting to call for National Guard back-up from surrounding states.

Pelosi’s outspoken critiques of the GOP and the prominence of her position have made her a prime target of Republican political attacks. For years, Republicans have sought to vilify Pelosi in campaign ads and rhetoric that have treated her as one of their biggest opponents on the left. She’s historically embraced this role, encouraging members to use her as a foil, and to highlight their opposition to her to win reelection when necessary.

Recently, the attacks took a more sinister turn, seemingly inspiring the assault of her husband, and underscoring the connection between Republican rhetoric and political violence. “We are all grateful for all the prayers and well wishes as [Paul] continues his recovery,” Pelosi said in her remarks.

The new leader will have to demonstrate that they’re able to stand their ground against the GOP, which is set to mount an aggressive and chaotic series of investigations against the Biden administration in the next two years. That’s likely to include outspoken pushback against these inquiries, and a focus on criticizing bad-faith efforts to investigate and even impeach administration officials.