The final vote was 134 to 63 for Pelosi, meaning she matched her prediction that she'd retain the support of two-thirds of House Democrats. But it also means that close to one-third of the diminished group voted for a change in leadership after getting beat again on Election Day.
Pelosi brushed aside those concerns Wednesday, telling CNN, "They weren't defections, I got two-thirds of the vote."
The veteran leader, who has led the group since 2003 through three Republican House speakers and her own tenure at the top, said she viewed Wednesday's battle as a chance to start winning again.
"My heart is broken that we didn't win the White House this time," she said. "We know how to win elections, we've done in in the past and will do it again."
Even though he fell far short of toppling Pelosi, Ryan still claimed some victories Wednesday -- including a dispersal of power inside the House Democratic Caucus and plans to focus on the economic, bread-and-butter issues that many Democrats say Donald Trump swiped from them in the election.
"I am proud that my bid for Democratic Leader pushed our members to have these tough family discussions about our future and how we win back the majority in 2018," Ryan said in the statement. "I am also pleased to see that Leader Pelosi will adopt my proposal to expand leadership by creating a position for Freshman members and to bring back the power to the Committees by creating Vice-Chair/Vice- Ranking Member positions."
House Democrats ended up winning six more seats than they had before, whittling the Republican lead in the House down to 239-194, but they fell far short of expectations -- some of which, at a few high points during the fall, had them possibly recapturing the chamber.
At least one Republican saw the results as a positive for the GOP.
"What a relief. I was worried they had learned from the elections & might be competitive and cohesive again," Donald Trump's campaign manager Kellyanne Conway tweeted immediately
after news of the results broke.
Ryan, who has considered running for higher office in the past, including the US Senate seat held by Sherrod Brown, would not rule out a run for governor of Ohio when asked Wednesday. Governor races across the country remain one of the few potential bright spots for the Democrats coming off of November's defeats.
"I think I could make a big difference pulling those Trump voters back because those are the voters who voted for me," Ryan told reporters Tuesday evening.
Pelosi, showing confidence, declined to address the caucus before the vote, letting surrogates talk on her behalf. After the vote, she addressed the caucus again but sources said she did not mention Ryan's name. At a press conference, she later congratulated him.
House Democrats voted by secret ballot. Although there has been some grumbling in recent years about the refusal of top House Democratic leaders, who are mostly in their 70's, to provide chances for newer members, this race featured a rare public airing of that fight in the days leading up to the vote.
Both Ryan and Pelosi called, emailed and met with their colleagues to make their pitches on why they should lead a demoralized caucus, which is still searching for a strategy for dealing with President-elect Trump and a strengthened Republican-led Congress next year.
Ryan, 43, said Pelosi, a California Democrat who is 76, has limited appeal in the heartland and other working-class areas where Democrats lost badly this fall.
For the most part, Pelosi had refused to engage in a back in forth with Ryan, but on Tuesday she fired back at the Ohio Democrat, who was a frequent surrogate for Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton in his home state, telling the Huffington Post in an interview, "he didn't even carry his district for Hillary Clinton."
The minority leader insisted she had "strong support from our friends in the unions, including steelworkers, which I guess are his area."
She brushed off his criticism that she can't appeal to voters in rural areas and on conservative media outlets, saying, "You know what? If you want to come interview me, I'm happy to answer your questions about how we go forward. I'm not going to pay attention to, 'I can't step in a union hall.' I'm a woman of steel in there. ... I'm constantly invited by the unions to go to their meetings. That's just not, it's just not true."
Ryan had about a dozen public supporters within the caucus going into the meeting, which will include over 190 members in the next Congress, but still claimed before the vote that he is "within striking distance."
Many of Pelosi's allies say she has deep support and her record-breaking fundraising skills are a quality members need to be competitive in 2018. She has already proposed some reforms to caucus rules to respond to the push from newer members that there are few opportunities to advance.