Though Pelosi survives as Democratic leader, even her backers see a need for change

House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi of California withstood a challenge to her leadership of House Democrats Wednesday in a secret-ballot vote.
House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi of California withstood a challenge to her leadership of House Democrats Wednesday in a secret-ballot vote. AP

Nancy Pelosi will remain as the House minority leader after surviving a generational challenge from younger Democrats frustrated with repeated election losses and a leadership team top-heavy with liberal senior citizens.

Pelosi, of San Francisco, kept the position on a secret 134-63 vote Wednesday morning, defeating an underdog challenge from 43-year-old Rep. Tim Ryan of Ohio.

It was the most serious leadership challenge the 76-year-old Pelosi has faced during the 14 years she’s led House Democrats as they’ve moved from the minority into the majority and then back into the minority. And though it failed on its face, Ryan’s long-shot and somewhat last-minute campaign raises questions about the depth of Pelosi’s support, and it prompted some leadership moves that could have ripple effects for years.

“I look forward to working with all of our colleagues from the beautiful diversity of our caucus to put forth a message that does connect with the American people,” Pelosi said.

The leadership vote revealed fractures in a House of Representatives Democratic caucus that’s struggled to win seats as it becomes increasingly liberal and coastal, with the last white Democrat from the Deep South defeated in 2014 and the group of “blue dog” conservative/centrists from more rural areas shrinking. More than a third of the newly elected Democrats in the House come from three coastal states: California, Massachusetts and New York.

Pelosi, though, declared herself “exhilarated” by what she characterized as a strong vote from her colleagues to keep her as the Democratic leader.

“I have a special spring in my step today because this opportunity is a special one to lead the House Democrats, bring everyone together as we go forward,” Pelosi told reporters following the balloting in the Longworth House Office Building, across the street from the Capitol.

Ryan was an obscure back-bench lawmaker before launching his challenge to Pelosi. Rep. Emanuel Cleaver, D-Mo., said he’d voted for Pelosi to keep from weakening the Democratic caucus but that Ryan’s message had reverberated with him and with other Democrats in the House.

“Tim Ryan gave the speech of his life, man, it was unbelievable,” Cleaver said after the Democrats emerged from a debate behind closed doors that lasted for more than three hours. “I told him later it was almost like he’d been to seminary, the way his voice rose and fell. He also hit on all the things members of the caucus were feeling and expressing. . . . This wasn’t a rejection of Tim Ryan. It was a message: Hold on, change is coming.”

Ryan, asked about his failed revolt, told reporters that “Leader Pelosi has been here a long time (and) has a lot of friends,” but nonetheless claimed a victory of sorts.

“I think, quite frankly, we got the message out that we wanted to get out, and that’s as Democrats we need to talk about economics,” Ryan said. “I believe it in my heart that if we’re going to win as Democrats, we need to have an economic message that resonates in every corner of this country.”

The discontent was regional as well as generational.

“San Francisco is a very different place,” said Rep. Marcy Kaptur of Ohio, who voted for Pelosi though she said Ryan’s run helped “sensitize” Democrats to Midwestern woes.

Under pressure from Ryan’s insurgency, Pelosi has proposed tailoring some Democratic leadership and senior committee slots to younger House members. The moves create openings for aspirants who are preparing for the eventual post-Pelosi era, and they will also help shape how House Democrats resist President-elect Donald Trump’s agenda.

In a sign of the various, and occasionally competing, constituencies the party leader must mollify, Pelosi had also proposed but then shelved a proposal that would have set the party’s assistant leader position aside for a member who has served fewer than three terms, once 76-year-old South Carolina Democratic Rep. Jim Clyburn has left the post.

Clyburn is the lone member of the Congressional Black Caucus on the top leadership team, and African-American lawmakers worried that Pelosi’s proposal would keep older black lawmakers from the position.

The other key member of the House Democratic leadership team, Minority Whip Steny Hoyer of Maryland, is 77. Pelosi’s 2002 victory over Hoyer in an earlier whip race launched her on the leadership career that eventually made her the first female House speaker, the U.S. government position second in line to the presidency, after the vice president.

Both Hoyer and Clyburn will keep their positions in the Democratic leadership.

Another Californian, Rep. Linda Sanchez of Norwalk, was selected for the leadership team in the closed-door meeting, defeating fellow Californian Rep. Barbara Lee of Berkeley for a low rung on the leadership ladder as caucus vice chair. Taking a page from the standard campaign playbook, Sanchez had distributed more than $200,000 to fellow Democrats through her political action committee.

The 47-year-old Sanchez, whose parents emigrated from Mexico, is the first minority female in House leadership. Her sister Loretta, also a House member from Southern California, ran unsuccessfully for a Senate seat this year.

Pelosi previously defeated a challenge in 2010 from then-Rep. Heath Shuler, a conservative Democrat from North Carolina, after the Democrats lost 63 seats and the House majority in that year’s midterm elections. Shuler’s insurrection didn’t fare well and he received just 43 votes.

Pelosi hasn’t been publicly challenged since, even as disappointing elections continued for House Democrats.

She had hoped to pick up 20 House seats this year and reported bringing in $35 million for Democratic candidates and committees in the third quarter of 2016. Her energetic fundraising and ceaseless campaign travels have endeared her to a number of colleagues, muting complaints about some of her leadership decisions.

This year, though, an anticipated anti-Trump backlash failed to materialize, and the Democrats gained just six seats. The Democratic leadership vote was supposed to be two weeks ago but was postponed amid grumbling from some members about the need for further reflection on the election results.

Rep. Eric Swalwell, a Democrat from the San Francisco Bay area, pushed back against the suggestion that the number of votes against Pelosi should be read as a rebuke

“She’s one of the best vote-counters there is. She predicted she’d get two-thirds. If she came under what she predicted, I’d be concerned. She did not. I don’t think there was ever any doubt what the outcome would be,” Swalwell said.

But Rep. Jerry McNerney, a California Democrat from the San Joaquin Valley who declined to say how he voted, said the party leadership had a lot of work to do.

“We’ve got to hold their feet to the fire,” he said.

Sean Cockerham: 202-383-6016, @seancockerham

Michael Doyle: 202-383-6153, @MichaelDoyle10

Lindsay Wise: 202-383-6007, @lindsaywise

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