Urban-rural split of presidential race also fuels Democrats’ leadership fight

Rep. Tim Ryan, D-Ohio, spoke with reporters after the House Democratic Caucus voted to retain Rep. Nancy Pelosi of California as its leader.
Rep. Tim Ryan, D-Ohio, spoke with reporters after the House Democratic Caucus voted to retain Rep. Nancy Pelosi of California as its leader. AP

The Democratic Party Wednesday demonstrated anew what a mess it has on its hands.

“The people have lost trust in us, and we have to find a way to get it back,” said Rep. Marcia Fudge, D-Ohio, after House Democrats endured a bruising battle over their leadership. House Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi of California prevailed, but only after insurgent Rep. Tim Ryan, D-Ohio, won 63 of the 197 votes cast.

What the party needs, lawmakers said, is to spread its economic message throughout the nation – a message they feel few are hearing.

It includes tinkering with but not blowing up the Affordable Care Act to make coverage more accessible and affordable. It’s tax relief for lower- and middle-income families, while imposing higher taxes on the wealthy. There would be proposals for easing student debt, raising the minimum wage and implementing an ambitious plan to repair the nation’s infrastructure.

But that kind of agenda was missing from the just-ended campaign, and that, some members thought, hurt the effort to gain seats. In a year when Democrats once thought they could pick up 25 House seats, they gained just six.

“We had a pure social, cultural agenda for this election cycle. It has to include economics. People vote their pocketbooks,” said Rep. Kurt Schrader, D-Oregon. Pelosi and her lieutenants “don’t understand what it’s like to run in working America where you have rural voters, hard-working blue-collar men and women trying to put food on the table,” he said.

Democrats will try in the coming weeks to craft an economic message. Congress is expected to continue in session until the end of next week, then return Jan. 3, though many agreed they were not sure what it would contain.

Fudge and others urged the party to come up with a pointed, meaningful economic message, one that spells out how Democrats would create jobs, ease the tax burden and make healthcare more affordable.

“We’re going to have to figure that out,” said Ryan, who’s in his seventh term but has never been a member of the leadership.

Doubts that Pelosi is the person to lead that search fueled Wednesday’s no votes.

The dissidents in Wednesday’s vote saw Pelosi, who represents a San Francisco-based district, as too insular and tied to an outdated message.

Pelosi, Ohio’s Fudge said, has to “engage more people in conversations about where we go from here.”

Rep. Emanuel Cleaver, D-Mo., who voted for Pelosi but said Ryan impressed him, was optimistic that Democrats would find their message. “This wasn’t a rejection of Tim Ryan. It was a message: Hold on, change is coming,” Cleaver said.

The Democrats agreed on this much: Their strategy and tactics need an overhaul.

“We have to seriously look at this over-reliance on political consultants and media consultants and pollsters,” said Rep. Bennie Thompson, D-Miss.

But Democrats realize their challenges go beyond crafting an economic message with widespread appeal.

Oregon’s Schrader noted that prospects of gaining additional Democratic seats are dim, given that when the redrawing of House districts begins in 2020, most state legislatures will be controlled by Republicans. The GOP will have at least 33 governorships next year.

“I don’t see us being ready,” he said.

Lindsay Wise of McClatchy’s Washington Bureau contributed to this story.

David Lightman: 202-383-6101, @lightmandavid

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