With Democrats in Congress frustrated over four straight election disappointments, Rep. Tim Ryan of Ohio is furiously dialing his colleagues during their Thanksgiving break to win support for his attempt to end the long reign of California’s Nancy Pelosi as Democratic leader of the House.
While Ryan’s insurrection is a longshot, it’s laid bare dissatisfaction over an aging Democratic leadership and a party whose success is increasingly confined to the country’s coasts.
“There are a lot of members who feel there needs to be a focus on rural America,” said Rep. Jim Costa, D-Fresno. “And we’ve got a lot of talented members who’ve been there six, 10 years and would like to have an opportunity to contribute more.”
Costa said he received a call from Ryan, the 43-year-old Ohioan. He’s yet to hear from Pelosi, of San Francisco.
“If Nancy wants to have my support, she should call me,” Costa said.
Rep. Emanuel Cleaver, the former mayor of Kansas City and a Missouri Democrat, made the successful motion last week to postpone a leadership election Pelosi had expected to win. House Democrats now will vote on their leader Nov. 30.
“I was irritated that people were talking, whispering, saying things to each other that I thought, frankly, (should) be said openly and clearly to the entire caucus, and we needed time to do that,” said Cleaver, a former chair of the Congressional Black Caucus.
Cleaver said Pelosi has been a strong leader and he thinks she’ll win re-election. But while he’s not supporting Ryan’s revolt, he said younger Democrats do need a chance to rise.
Pelosi, who’s led House Democrats for 14 years, is 76. The other two top spots also are held by septuagenarians. Minority Whip Steny Hoyer of Maryland is 77 and Assistant Minority Leader Jim Clyburn of South Carolina is 76.
“People need to understand that Tim Ryan is not a fool’s errand,” Cleaver said. “He called me a couple of nights ago. He’s not running to send some kind of message. He’s running because he believes there’s a need for inclusion and deep thinking on how we operate in the future.”
Cleaver said Ryan asked for his vote, and he replied he’d look at Ryan’s plans and “make an intelligent decision.”
Ryan, speaking on CNN’s “State of the Union” on Sunday, said Democrats won’t be able to win the House without a change in leadership.
“Moving forward, we have to win congressional seats in areas of the country that voted for Donald Trump, even in my district, where they voted for me and they voted for Donald Trump,” Ryan said.
I think it’s unfair to suggest that because the top of the ticket lost that the person to blame is the Democratic leader in Congress.
Rep. Eric Swalwell of Dublin, California
Pelosi already has declared victory, saying last week that she had support of more than two-thirds of the Democratic caucus. But she’s clearly feeling pressure to give younger Democrats a voice.
Pelosi sent a letter to all House Democrats on Monday night proposing a series of changes. They include having Clyburn’s position of assistant Democratic leader be filled “at the next vacancy” by a member of Congress who has been in office for fewer than three terms.
Rep. Eric Swalwell, a 36-year-old from Dublin, California, in the San Francisco Bay area, disputes the idea that Pelosi is holding back younger Democratic members. He noted that in his second term, at the age of 34, Pelosi put him and two other young Democrats on the House Intelligence Committee.
Swalwell also objects to blaming Pelosi for election setbacks. Republicans have controlled the House with sizable majorities since 2010. Pelosi hoped to pick up 20 seats this year, but an anti-Trump backlash failed to materialize and the Democrats appear to have gained just six seats.
“I think it’s unfair to suggest that because the top of the ticket lost that the person to blame is the Democratic leader in Congress,” Swalwell said.
Rep. Doris Matsui, D-California, spearheaded a letter calling on Pelosi to remain as Democratic leader that was signed by more than 40 female Democrats in Congress last week.
“After everything that has happened in this campaign, the defeat of Hillary Clinton is an especially heavy blow to the aspirations of young women and girls,” the letter reads. “You have our support, and we ask you to continue as the leader for our party and the nation.”
President Barack Obama has essentially endorsed Pelosi, saying this week that “she combines strong, progressive values with just extraordinary political skill.”
More than a third of the newly elected Democrats in the House come from just three coastal states, though – California, Massachusetts and New York. That’s a problem, said former Rep. John Barrow of Georgia, the last white Democrat in the House from the Deep South before he lost his seat in 2014.
When you ignore the Blue Dogs, you ignore a whole bunch of folks who were responsible for the presidential victories in 2008 and 2012.
Former Rep. John Barrow of Georgia
Barrow, who twice voted against Pelosi to lead the House Democrats, was a member of the Blue Dog Coalition, the shrinking group of conservative/centrist House Democrats. He said the Blue Dogs were pushed to the margins as the House Democratic caucus became more liberal. The results, he said, are clear: voters who once supported the Blue Dogs now back Republicans.
“When you ignore the Blue Dogs, you ignore a whole bunch of folks who were responsible for the presidential victories in 2008 and 2012 and responsible for a lot of districts we held before the 2010 elections,” Barrow said.
A Huffington Post aggregation of polls found Pelosi’s national unfavorable rating at nearly 48 percent while just 28.5 percent viewed her favorably. She’s the favorite villain of Republicans and House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy, R-California, who said he wants Pelosi to keep her position because “I truly believe as long as she’s the leader we keep the majority.”
But Pelosi commands immense loyalty among House Democrats.
“She still has enormous energy, she is the most successful fundraiser that the Democrats have in the House and she’s been able to keep her caucus together through many tough votes,” said Cindy Rosenthal, co-author of “Speaker Nancy Pelosi and the New American Politics” and director of the University of Oklahoma’s Carl Albert Congressional Research and Studies Center. The center is named for the Oklahoma Democrat who served as House speaker in the 1970s. There currently are no Democrats in Oklahoma’s five-member House delegation.
Pelosi reported bringing in $35 million for Democratic candidates and committees in the third quarter of 2016.
Rosenthal said she doesn’t think Ryan has a chance to topple Pelosi. But Pelosi won’t be around forever and Ryan, she said, is bringing up important points.
“As the Democratic caucus thinks about the future he’s forcing them to think about who will lead the party in 2020 and beyond,” Rosenthal said. “That could be the most important outcome of this.”