The insurgents are stuck.
Nancy Pelosi’s Democratic critics are scrambling to prevent the long-time leader from seizing the Speaker’s gavel next year following sweeping midterm wins that flipped control of the House.
But they’re struggling to find someone willing to challenge Pelosi – even as a symbolic gesture. And Pelosi’s heavy role in securing Tuesday’s victories has both cooled the simmering rebellion against her and strengthened her case for remaining in power.
“It’s kind of hard for current members or incoming members to argue that we need change because we can’t move into the majority without change. Well, we just moved into the majority,” said Rep. Dan Kildee (D-Mich.) “It certainly takes that argument away.”
A small group of next-generation insurgents have been brainstorming in recent days for ways to topple Pelosi, who has led the House Democrats since 2003.
The idea is hardly new. Pelosi faced a challenge from former-Rep. Heath Shuler (D-N.C.) in 2010 after a red wave swept House Democrats from power. And Rep. Tim Ryan (D-Ohio) ran against her two years ago.
But the Pelosi critics have yet to field a candidate this year. Ryan, while leaving the door open to try again, has so far declined to get in the race. And sources familiar with the ongoing insurgency talks said there’s a growing concern with the challenger void.
One said that if no one volunteers a challenge, the group will have to pick a name from a hat.
“Every hunter is courageous in winter,” said one Democratic lawmaker, referring to the vocal anti-Pelosi agitators who have suddenly gone quiet now that the party has taken back the majority.
Other sources said the delay is to be expected, since Congress is still in recess and there’s been no opportunity for people to stage face-to-face talks to lobby support for their cause.
“There’s not a whole lot you can do on the phone,” said one aide familiar with the effort, adding that a challenger will likely emerge next week.
“They all think it will happen.”
Yet even Pelosi critics acknowledge that a delay only benefits the long-time leader, giving her a cushion of time to lobby support from members while the detractors clamber in search of an oppositional voice.
The House calendar is also playing in Pelosi’s favor. With leadership elections scheduled for Nov. 28, Pelosi’s opponents have only five legislative days beforehand to drum up opposition, and three of those are partial days when members are frequently traveling.
“That is definitely an advantage to incumbents, because they’ve been doing it so long in person,” said the aide familiar with the talks.
Rep. Sean Patrick Maloney (D-N.Y.), once critical of Pelosi after the 2016 election, endorsed her for Speaker on Thursday, calling her the “right person for the job.”
For political reasons, Pelosi supporters are publicly discouraging a challenge, hoping not to highlight party divisions immediately after winning back the lower chamber.
Strategically, however, a challenge could benefit Pelosi, according to numerous sources, by allowing her opponents to vote against her in the secret caucus ballot – and take that message back to their districts.
“It actually would help if somebody would challenge her,” said a former House leadership aide.
An opponent “would be good for her and make her stronger coming out of the internal race rather than her being anointed Speaker” added a House Democratic chief of staff. “It would put progressives at bay and help give moderates some cover. They can say: ‘I voted against her.'”
Democrats will have to cast two votes for Speaker in the coming months. The first will be during a closed-door, secret-ballot election that Democrats will hold on Nov. 28. Think of it as a nominating contest, where Pelosi will need only a simple majority of votes from caucus members to win the nomination.
The formal vote for Speaker comes in early January. During the televised roll-call vote, all 435 lawmakers’ names will be called, they will stand up and announce their pick. To clinch the gavel, a candidate must win the majority support of voting members, excluding abstentions.
All sides of the debate consider Pelosi a shoo-in to win the caucus vote; it’s the floor vote where the insurgents think they can block her.
“To be determined,” Ryan said Thursday in an interview with “Morning Joe,” when asked if Pelosi will be the next Speaker.
Certainly, Pelosi has some heavy lifting to do to secure the votes she needs on the floor. Her critics say there are 12 incumbent Democrats who are hard-set in their opposition, while at least 12 incoming freshman have also voiced some degree of criticism during their campaigns. Those newcomers are the wildcard.
“I think asking new members who just campaigned for new leadership to come in and cast a vote for the status quo – that’s not why they got elected,” Ryan said. “Why wouldn’t we sit down with these new members – who clearly have put us in the majority, have won in districts we haven’t been able to win in – why don’t we ask them what they want?”
Not all of those critics have clarified their positions, however. And Pelosi has plenty of tools with which to whittle away at the opposition number, not least of all assigning committee posts, selecting office space and naming special appointments.
“If there’s anybody that can put a coalition together, it is her. … I feel confident she will do that,” said Rep. Henry Cuellar (D-Texas), a Blue Dog who supports Pelosi but is calling for rules changes. “She knows how to work it.”
To build support, Pelosi has promised to overhaul the caucus rules to shift authority to committees and otherwise empower rank-and-file members who have been clamoring for years for a louder voice in the top-heavy caucus.
Some lawmakers are also seeking assurances that Pelosi, who promised recently to be a “transitional” leader, doesn’t intend to renege and remain in power long-term.
“A lot of members, after those comments were made … had different views on what that meant,” said Kildee. “So I do think that if that is going to be a part of the conversation, and if it’s going to be asserted as part of the rationale for these elections, then I think there’s going to have to be much more clarity on what it means.”
Pelosi, a master vote counter, will ensure she has the votes before stepping onto the floor in January, according to numerous sources.
“I don’t see her rolling the dice. … She’ll never have a losing vote on the floor, because if she’s gonna lose, she won’t have it,” said a former Democratic lawmaker, a Pelosi ally.
And if she lacks the votes and steps down?
“Then all hell breaks loose,” said the former lawmaker.