House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi’s detractors are plotting their next steps to knock her off from her perch as leader of House Democrats, but a major question remains: Who will run against her for speaker, if anyone?
Democrats easily won the House in Tuesday’s midterm elections, though it’s still unclear just how big their majority will be. Her ability to hang on will depend on the makeup of the new Democratic caucus. Both sides agree: Pelosi is safer with a bigger majority — and will be difficult to beat.
No challenger has yet emerged, and the Ohio Democrat who did run against her in 2016 – Rep. Tim Ryan – told CNN he hasn’t ruled it out, but he isn’t considering challenging her at the moment, either.
“I don’t have any intention of doing it,” Ryan said when asked Tuesday night.
But Ryan added: “There are lot of conversations happening with a lot of people from a lot of different caucuses that we have that are thinking about it. A lot of people will be surprised about who is thinking about doing something.”
He said the next 24-48 hours would determine the direction the Pelosi detractors take based on conversations with the new members to see “who would put them in the best position to succeed.”
According to CNN tallies, 12 incumbents who had already pledged to vote against Pelosi were re-elected Tuesday night, along with at least seven new candidates.
Rep. Filemon Vela, a Texas Democrat who is pushing for new leadership, said Pelosi’s bid is “in real peril” if Democrats only have a majority of about dozen seats.
A senior Democratic aide pushed back on Vela, disputing the congressman’s math and arguing Pelosi would have enough votes to get elected speaker.
Pelosi allies said that the sweeping Democratic victory would silence many of her critics – particularly from those who were concerned the party couldn’t win with her as its leader. Her powerful fundraising and ability to dole out key committee assignments also would win over some skeptics, her allies predict.
Rep. Henry Cuellar, a moderate Democrat of Texas, said he was open to seeing the top three leaders remaining in the House Democratic majority.
“If you have to bet, bet on her,” Cuellar said.
Added Rep. Ben Ray Lujan of New Mexico: “I believe in Nancy Pelosi, I support Nancy Pelosi and I believe she will be our next speaker.”
Pelosi has tried to allay concerns by saying she would be a “transitional leader,” but Democrats across the board want more answers.
“People want change,” Ryan said when asked about her pitch. “This is getting bigger than any one person. This would be taking the first step of building a long-term sustainable coalition that can actually govern the country and get it back on track.”
Ryan’s comments reflect an appetite among some for a full ticket of new names, including for the No. 2 and No. 3 spot in the caucus, currently held by House Minority Whip Steny Hoyer and Assistant Democratic Leader James Clyburn.
“Regardless of how much we win by, if Democrats win the House, it’s a sign that American people want change, and we’d be shooting ourselves in the foot if we elect the same leaders again,” said one Democratic aide who is aligned with Pelosi critics.
Some Pelosi detractors are open to other members often mentioned as rising stars and potential top leaders in the caucus, including Reps. Hakeem Jeffries of New York, Cheri Bustos of Illinois, David Cicilline of Rhode Island, Karen Bass of California and Ben Ray Lujan of New Mexico.
But so far it appears highly unlikely these members would launch a challenge against Pelosi, given their close ties with the minority leader. Bustos and Cicilline are currently running for the Assistant Democratic Leader position, which will be the No. 4 post under a majority.
Rep. Kurt Schrader, a Democrat from Oregon who hasn’t been shy in his thoughts about Pelosi, argued no one has stepped forward to challenge her because they’re “afraid of her.”
“Which is pretty pathetic,” he told CNN in an interview two weeks ago. “If your leadership is based on fear, that’s terrible. That’s what Donald Trump does for god sakes, based on fear. I think what we want in a leader is someone that’s empowering.”
Schrader, Ryan and Vela were three of 11 members who signed on to a proposal this fall that would make it difficult for anyone, including Pelosi, to get the caucus nomination for speaker in this month’s leadership elections. Traditionally, it only takes a majority of the caucus to win the nomination, but this proposal would raise the threshold to 218 – the same number of votes needed to win the speaker in the final vote on the House floor.
The proposal was withdrawn shortly before members left for their October recess, but it’s expected to be brought up again. Supporters of the idea want the caucus to be united behind their nominee before going to the floor in January.
Their concerns come as some members have already pledged to vote against Pelosi for speaker on the House floor, potentially threatening her chances for speaker during the final vote. Pelosi could survive that scenario if some of those members vote “present” instead of voting for another name, as it would reduce the threshold needed for a majority and members could still say they didn’t vote for Pelosi.
But the contingency of members wanting to take Pelosi down will urge anti-Pelosi candidates to say a different name, rather than vote “present,” according to one Democratic aide who’s aligned with Pelosi critics.
Her allies point to her deep relationships across the caucus, her massive fundraising numbers for the party, and the fact that Democrats won the House despite Republicans spending nearly $90 million on attack ads against Pelosi.
Cueller said there needed to be “new faces” as part of the broader leadership team – including Blue Dogs – because the seats won Tuesday were “not liberal seats” and will now be occupied by moderate Democrats in conservative districts. He said he has spoken with her about the matter.