“Leader Pelosi has always enjoyed the overwhelming support of House Democrats and that will continue into the majority she’s so focused on winning,” Drew Hammill, Pelosi’s spokesman said in a statement. I’ve already said on the front page of the newspaper that I don’t support Nancy Pelosi.
Clarke Tucker’s first general election ad for an Arkansas-based House race tries to defuse one of the GOP’s most potent attacks: “I’ve said from Day One,” the Democrat declares, “that I won’t vote for Nancy Pelosi.”
Tucker, an Arkansas legislator who’s running against Rep. French Hill (R-Ark.), is one of at least 20 House Democratic challengers who’ve publicly rejected the minority leader on the campaign trail.
A trend that started in earnest with Rep. Conor Lamb (D-Pa.), who won a special election deep in Trump country, has spread rapidly to encompass a growing cadre of candidates – many in must-win districts for Democrats – that threatens Pelosi’s nearly sixteen-year grip on the party’s leadership.
If Democrats win the House by a narrow margin, the 78-year-old leader could lose only a handful of lawmakers’ support and still secure the 218 votes needed to clinch the speakership in a floor vote.
In that scenario, Pelosi would face a freshman class with a significant bloc of Democrats who are on record promising to oppose her or calling for new leadership. Of the more than a dozen Democratic candidates who have survived their primaries and rejected Pelosi, most are in districts that top the list of targeted 2018 seats.
Whether those statements translate into “no” votes against Pelosi – when she’ll have enormous sway over new lawmakers’ committee assignments and other perks, and a presumably fierce whip effort on her behalf – is impossible to know.
But for Pelosi allies, the spectacle is nerve-wracking. Never has the California Democrat been so close to regaining the speaker’s gavel since losing it in a wipeout in 2010. Yet the very key to what many consider her last chance at the top job – a group of mostly younger, moderate Democrats running in GOP-leaning seats – could also spell the end of her historic career.
“Whether you are someone who has been here a long time, a short time or a candidate running for office for the first time, people are being more vocal about how they feel about leadership of the party,” said Rep. Kathleen Rice (D-N.Y.), one of Pelosi’s most vocal critics in the caucus.
The Democrats disavowing Pelosi cross ideological and geographical lines, hailing from districts that the party must win in 2018 to eliminate its 23-seat deficit in the House. Eleven of the candidates already are on the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee’s “Red to Blue” program, a list of top-tier candidates in highly targeted races.
Gil Cisneros got a $2 million boost from the national Democratic Party in his Southern California primary but told POLITICO that he won’t be voting for Pelosi because “new leadership is needed.” Danny O’Connor is airing ads in a House special election in Ohio declaring that he won’t support the leader. Max Rose, who’s running for a coveted Staten Island-based seat, also said he wouldn’t back her.
“If the Democratic Party is going to earn back the trust of the American people then we need to show them that we are serious about changing our politics – and that means we need a change in leadership,” Rose said in a statement shared with POLITICO.
Democrats expect more candidates to join the anti-Pelosi bandwagon as they emerge from primaries into difficult general elections. “They probably see the same thing in their districts as I see in mine,” Tucker said.
Pelosi has already made clear she’s aiming for the speakership. “We will win. I will run for speaker,” she told The Boston Globe in May. “I feel confident about it. And my members do, too.”
Pelosi, of course, has fended off challengers before; anyone taking her on for the top job would go up against one of the most savvy and hard-nosed politicians in the party. She trounced Rep. Tim Ryan (D-Ohio) in a 134-63 vote after the 2016 election.
But several lawmakers have said privately that Ryan was largely seen as a proxy candidate – viewed more as someone who could send a message than be an actual successor to Pelosi – and if someone credible were to challenge her after the election, she would have a much harder time.
The two most likely to succeed her – Minority Whip Steny Hoyer of Maryland, Pelosi’s long-time deputy, and Democratic Caucus Chairman Joe Crowley of New York – already have said they would not run against her.
“I think we’re going to win the majority and that’s what we’re focused on," Hoyer said in an interview, dismissing chatter of the anti-Pelosi candidates. “We’ll worry about the rest of it after the election.”
Pelosi’s allies say the two-vote system that Democrats employ to pick their leader gives her a big advantage. If Democrats win the House, she would first need to win a secret ballot vote within the Democratic Caucus, but only by a simple majority – a much easier hurdle than securing 218 votes on the House floor.
Pelosi’s supporters predict she would easily win the caucus vote, especially if no one credible steps forward to challenge her, paving the way for most Democrats to publicly support her in a floor vote. (All Republicans undoubtedly would oppose her, so Pelosi would need the overwhelming majority of Democrats to put her over the top.)
“Leader Pelosi has always enjoyed the overwhelming support of House Democrats and that will continue into the majority she’s so focused on winning,” Drew Hammill, Pelosi’s spokesman said in a statement. “Democrats don’t let Republicans choose our leaders.”
So far, there’s been no retribution for the candidates who’ve snubbed Pelosi. DCCC Chairman Ben Ray Lujan said that the committee “trusts our candidates” on how to address Pelosi in their districts. The DCCC has reserved millions in TV ads for candidates who don’t support her.
Pelosi is one of the biggest – if not the biggest – drag on Democrats running for the House, according to some Democratic pollsters. Republicans have happily exploited that weakness, raining down Pelosi-themed TV ads on special election candidates in Georgia, Montana and Pennsylvania.
“With very few exceptions, the biggest hurdle, the biggest vulnerability for Democratic candidates is Nancy Pelosi, and the strongest card the Republicans can play is attaching a candidate to Pelosi,” said a Democratic pollster, who works with some House candidates who have disavowed Pelosi. The pollster, who was granted anonymity to discuss internal strategy, added: “Most of this is about mitigating and diluting the effectiveness of that attack.”
But the public polling on Pelosi’s effect on candidates is mixed. An ABC News/Washington Post poll in April found that 60 percent of voters don’t think a position on Pelosi is important to their congressional candidate choice, while an NBC/Wall Street Journal poll released earlier this month found that 45 percent of voters said they were less likely to support a House candidate if they backed the leader.
Democrats often point to Lamb, who won a special election in southwestern Pennsylvania in March, as the blueprint for addressing the Pelosi problem. Lamb weathered $10 million in Republican attack ads casting him as a stooge of the Democratic leader. Lamb responded with a TV ad of him speaking directly into the camera and calling the attacks “a big lie. I’ve already said on the front page of the newspaper that I don’t support Nancy Pelosi.”
O’Connor, another special election candidate in Ohio, released his first TV ad earlier this month mirroring Lamb’s message. He called for "new leadership on the Democratic side of things, too."
Some Republicans acknowledge that rejecting Pelosi might blunt the GOP’s attacks. “It worked for Conor Lamb, didn’t it?” said former Rep. Tom Davis, who led the National Republican Campaign Committee. “It took the most potent issue in that race and turned it on its head.”
But National Republican Congressional Campaign spokesman Jesse Hunt said that these candidates "support the same policies she does and welcome her financial support – even the best candidates won’t be able to dance around those facts."
And the trend is having another effect: emboldening current House Democrats, many of whom say privately they’ve long thought it was time for new leadership, or at least a conversation about succession, but feared they’d be punished for speaking out.
Rep. Brian Higgins (D-N.Y.) last week joined a small group of House Democrats who have publicly said they would not support her in November.
“I have members who have come up to me since [the story broke] and said, ‘I’ve got to do this.’ By me taking a kind of aggressive approach, I create some space, I guess, for those members,” Higgins said in an interview. “I have one vote and I have one voice but so does everybody else.”
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