California Forum

Pelosi faces a rare challenge to her leadership

House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi last week announced caucus reforms bearing a remarkable resemblance to her challenger’s reform platform.
House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi last week announced caucus reforms bearing a remarkable resemblance to her challenger’s reform platform. The Associated Press

Nancy Pelosi expects to win re-election this week to lead House Democrats for the 15th year. We know that because she says so.

Pelosi’s so sure of winning that she’s already announced victory over an upstart challenger. She claims the support of two-thirds of her 195 members, purportedly unsolicited.

By traditional congressional standards, that should be sufficient to scare off any anti-establishment challengers.

There are two, no, three problems with that: First, 2016 is anything but a traditional political cycle.

Second, Pelosi could lose while everyone swears to have loyally supported her. That’s a problem with secret ballots; they’re secret, at least outside Chicago.

And third, a rather strong anti-establishment, reform breeze is blowing through the world’s politics and electorates. Ask Hillary Clinton, who still feels the pain of expecting certain victory Nov. 8.

By traditional standards, Pelosi’s challenger, Rep. Tim Ryan of Ohio, is on a suicide mission. Her last competitor, a former NFL quarterback named Heath Shuler of North Carolina, thought the party’s historic 63-seat demolition and loss of the House in 2010 justified leadership changes. But she sacked him, 150-43.

Pelosi predicted Democrats would gain 20-plus House seats this time; they got but six. That 2010 election, largely a hostile reaction to Democrats steamrolling Obamacare through Congress, marked the start of an ongoing party slide under President Barack Obama’s leadership.

In 2012, Obama won a rare re-election with fewer votes than the first time. Democrats lost more House seats and Senate control. Similar voter verdicts have echoed down to state levels, where the GOP now controls 34 governorships and 67 of the nation’s 98 state legislative chambers.

That’s more state seats than Republicans have ever held in the party’s 162-year history, accomplished since Obama took office.

Pelosi conveniently blames the latest party setbacks during her watch not on lackluster job creation, Obama’s executive overreach or Clinton’s private email server scandal, but on the FBI director’s letters about the scandal. Wasn’t it Obama himself who said his record was on the line Nov. 8? He’s changed his tune since.

“We cannot be taking full responsibility for what happened in the election,” Pelosi says. “A lot of it was beyond our control.”

One large lesson of Donald Trump’s election is grass-roots America’s unhappiness – loathing might be a better word – with Washington’s bipartisan business as usual.

The same dissatisfaction is bubbling up within both parties as younger members grow in number, experience and confidence, and come up against entrenched elders unwilling to give up perks.

Last year, then-Speaker John Boehner faced a tea party challenge to his leadership, then left office months later. He was 66 then and replaced by Paul Ryan, now 46.

San Franciscan Pelosi is 76. Her party deputies are also in their mid-70s and from coastal states. Her challenger is 43, and like Boehner and Paul Ryan, a Midwesterner.

“Nancy Pelosi has done extraordinary things for our party,” said Rep. Seth Moulton of Massachusetts. “But we clearly need to have a plan for the future. A lot of people, I think, in our caucus right now just feel they don’t have much of a voice.”

Tim Ryan is one of those restive members. He’s easily won seven terms in Ohio’s 13th District built around industrial Youngstown. He earned 68 percent of the vote this time, better even than Obama’s 63 percent in 2012. Clinton barely won the district’s central county with 49 percent and captured only seven of the state’s 88 counties.

A dedicated progressive, Ryan promises more leadership opportunities for younger members. He sees political doom in aged, established party leadership with no connection to working-class voters in flyover country, especially across the Rust Belt where Trump did so well.

“What we’re doing right now is not working,” Ryan told colleagues, citing serial disappointing election cycles.

Fully one-third of House Democrats now come from just three states, the usual liberal suspects of California, New York and Massachusetts. Look at the sparse blue on a political map.

Ryan asserts his party must rebuild connections to younger workers and their lunch-bucket issues. And who better to lead that change than a veteran, union-supporting representative who is 33 years younger than Pelosi?

“Keeping our leadership team completely unchanged,” Ryan warns, “will simply lead to more disappointment in future elections.” Ryan also vowed that, if successful, he would step down in future leadership elections if he didn’t garner two-thirds.

Pelosi supporters suggest Ryan is trying to raise his political profile for an Ohio gubernatorial bid when popular Republican John Kasich’s second term ends in two years.

And they tout Pelosi’s fundraising prowess, a reported $35 million this fall, which works out to about $6 million per new seat. And they laud her ability to keep the caucus unified – until now at least.

For her part, the first female speaker of the House talks of her long experience and, without mentioning key campaign architect Rahm Emanuel, claims credit for rebuilding the Democrats’ House majority in 2006.

“I know how to do it to get it done,” Pelosi says, adding that before it even starts, she sees a Trump presidency as an ideal opportunity for Democrat gains in 2018.

One possible sign of party concern over Ryan’s challenge, Obama on his last foreign trip took the occasion of a news conference in Peru, of all places, to proclaim strong support and admiration for Pelosi as “remarkable” and “extraordinary.”

Then, last week Pelosi announced caucus reforms bearing a remarkable resemblance to Ryan’s reform platform, including more leadership opportunities for younger members. Ryan countered by promising to resign as leader unless he produces large gains in 2018.

Even if, as presently expected, Pelosi defeats Ryan’s long-shot challenge, her margin of victory will reveal much about her standing – impressively large or meh-mediocre.

And remember, last year Speaker Boehner also handily defeated a caucus rebellion. Three months later, however, brewing internal caucus turmoil became so great, he just quit.

Andrew Malcolm began writing on U.S. politics in 1968. Follow him on Twitter @AHMalcolm. Contact him at