While the audience cheered, a nervous Stephen Colbert performed the sign of the cross.
His guest, House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, had just predicted with absolute certainty that Democrats would win back the House on election night.
“We will win,” she said last week on CBS’ “The Late Show,” repeating it again three times in a row.
Colbert, playfully uncomfortable in his chair, urged her not to say it. “I feel like I should sacrifice a goat or something to take the hex off,” he quipped.
At a time when many in her party feel wary of forecasting a victory – mindful of Hillary Clinton’s unexpected loss in 2016 – Pelosi isn’t holding back.
Just days later in an interview on MSNBC, she declared it again.
“We will win,” she said Saturday. “I say to commentators who are not on the ground or listening to the ground, we will win. So, I’m confident.”
Pelosi isn’t, however, making any predictions of just how big a majority Democrats could capture – a crucial factor in her chances of becoming speaker again. Instead, she’s been publicly focused on just getting that “W,” even if that means supporting Democrats who are campaigning on a pledge to vote against her.
“I said to the candidates, ‘Just win. This is so important,’ ” she said in the MSNBC interview.
But central to a Democratic majority is the possibility of another Pelosi speakership. Republicans have spent millions trying to tie Democrats in competitive races to the California Democrat and House minority leader, someone they brand as a San Francisco liberal eager to drive the country into oblivion.
On Monday, while campaigning in Ohio, President Donald Trump invoked Pelosi, the highest-ranking woman in American political history, as part of his closing argument before Election Day.
“If you don’t want to be saying the words ‘Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi,’ get out and vote for a Republican House,” he said.
Historic tenure, strong headwinds
Pelosi was the first woman to hold the speaker’s gavel when Democrats were last in the minority, from 2007 to 2011. In that position, she helped shepherd through the economic stimulus package, the banking overhaul bill, the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act and the Affordable Care Act to passage.
Since Democrats went back into the minority in 2011, Pelosi has remained the leader of House Democrats and the most powerful woman in Congress. She largely kept the caucus together, with practically no defections on major votes.
Pelosi, who has represented San Francisco for three decades in Congress, is a fundraising juggernaut for House Democrats. This cycle alone she helped raise more than $121 million for her party and the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee.
While Democratic members laud her leadership, many have said – some more vocally than others – in recent months that it is time for a new generation of leaders. And 11 Democratic candidates in toss-up races said openly that they would not support her for speaker.
That’s in part because Republicans have made her their main opponent in ads across the country, attempting to tie any new Democrat closely to her. For Republicans in House and Senate races this year, 17% of ads mentioned Pelosi, costing more than $89.3 million, according to the ad-tracking Kantar Media/CMAG.
While the ads make news, it’s unclear yet just how effective they are in voters’ decisions. In August, just 34% of registered voters said in a CNN poll that Pelosi will be an extremely or very important factor in their votes this fall. That ranked dead last of the 10 factors CNN asked about.
Still, Pelosi is facing headwinds from a small but vocal contingent within her party that doesn’t want to see her as speaker again. Led by members like Reps. Kathleen Rice of New York, Kurt Schrader of Oregon, Seth Moulton of Massachusetts and Tim Ryan of Ohio, they argue that Pelosi hasn’t done enough to make room for a younger generation of Democrats.
She has no challenger yet – though Ryan is considering a run – and appears the heavy favorite to win, but the math could get tricky for her if Democrats win by only a slim majority and some continue with their vow to oppose her for speaker.
To help assuage concerns among the caucus, Pelosi pitched herself before the election as a “transitional” leader who would operate as a short-term speaker to help navigate the caucus as it decided its next leaders – though it was unclear just how long she planned to hold the reins.
She downplays the Republican ads targeting her as well as intra-party tension over her speakership chances, saying she’s not going to shy away from a fight.
“Hey, we’re in politics,” she told The New York Times in a recent interview. “What did people think they were going to, a tea party?”
“I feel very confident about the following that I have in the country,” she also told The Times. “And if the Republicans want to spend $100 million criticizing me, demonizing me, I must be pretty important.”
In an interview with The Washington Post published the day before Election Day, Pelosi made her case for speaker.
“My argument’s been about what needs to be done and who’s the best person to get it done,” she said. “Nobody is indispensable. But I do think that I am best qualified to take us into the future, protect the Affordable Care Act, to do our infrastructure bill and the rest. Stepping down this path, I know the ropes.”
Protecting the Affordable Care Act has been the key focus of her message, right to the very end. On Monday, Pelosi issued a Dear Colleague letter to her caucus, summing up its work over the past two years, while also looking to the future.
While the letter mentions that oversight and accountability will be a key component of a Democratic majority, the No. 1 priority listed is health care. Pelosi pointed to the Democrats’ successful messaging efforts last year in helping to prevent the repeal of the Affordable Care Act.
“With one voice, we affirmed that health care is a right, not a privilege,” she wrote.
CNN’s Manu Raju and David Wright contributed to this report.