It’s the summer of a midterm election year, so it’s time for a great biennial tradition: a number of Democratic House candidates running away from House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi.
Increasingly, Democrats hoping to win Republican-held seats are pledging they will not vote for the current minority leader and former speaker if they are elected to the House in November. Politico, one of the nation’s leading political publications, recently published an article pointing out 21 Democratic House candidates who have made such a pledge.
Republicans, of course, have long used Pelosi as a bogeyman to motivate their base, in much the same way that they continue to hammer Bill and Hillary Clinton, even though the former left the presidency more than 17 years ago and the latter’s political career went down in flames with her stunning 2016 presidential election loss to Donald Trump.
But is going after Pelosi an effective tool? Clearly, it made no difference in 2006 when Pelosi was House minority leader and Democrats netted 31 House seats, putting Republicans in the minority for the first time in 12 years. If Team Blue makes similar pickups this November, it will be back in control of the House, where it has to net 24 seats to gain the majority. So in fairness, this demonizing of Pelosi may not be nearly as effective a tactic as Republicans think.
That said, a couple dozen or more Democrats hoping to win Republican-leaning seats this fall think Pelosi is a liability for their electoral hopes. Otherwise, they wouldn’t have gone on record promising not to vote for her if elected.
This is just further evidence that Republicans continue to have an innate ability to get in the heads of their Democratic opponents, and that Democrats continue to cling to the vain hope that some number of Republican-leaning voters might be persuadable crossovers in the fall elections. Their hopes are mystifying. Trump enjoys higher approval ratings among Republicans than even the vaunted Ronald Reagan could claim during his presidency in the 1980s. Republican voters aren’t very likely to vote for Democratic House members who would serve as a check on Trump—regardless of whether Pelosi was in line to become speaker or not.
But here’s the truth: Pelosi is no more unpopular than her Republican counterpart, Speaker Paul Ryan, and actually boasts higher approval ratings than the other leading congressional Republican, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell. Clearly, neither of them have kept their party from winning elections.
If Democrats do as well as they did in 2006, when Pelosi was similarly demonized by Republicans as representing “San Francisco values,” they will reclaim the House. A 30-seat gain—roughly the midpoint of most current estimates as to what the Democrats could expect, and in line with historical averages for the “out” party in a midterm—would put the Democrats at 225 seats, and Pelosi would need 218 of those votes to reclaim the speakership.
But here’s the problem for her: With perhaps as many as a couple dozen of these newbies having already gone on record pledging to vote no on the San Franciscan, Pelosi conceivably might not have the votes to get to 218, which would force Democrats to anoint another leader who could procure the necessary majority.
Electing a speaker or minority leader in the Democratic Party is a two-step process. First, the Democratic caucus votes, and then the united support of the caucus in favor of the winner is presumed when the formal vote of the entire House takes place. But if upwards of 20 Democrats get elected after promising not to vote for Pelosi, can they go back on that pledge in their first official vote on the House floor? They would be handing their 2020 opponents a ready-made ad: “Congressman X lied. He promised not to vote for Nancy Pelosi, and in his very first vote, he broke that promise. Tell Congressman X what you think of his broken promises.” Americans have notoriously short memories when it comes to politics, but members of the House serve very short terms.
Pelosi’s potential problems do not just exist among some prospective members seeking election this year, either. As noted in the aforementioned Politico article, 63 Democrats voted against Pelosi in the race for minority leader after the 2016 election. Although Pelosi won handily, by more than a 2-to-1 margin, the defection of nearly a third of her caucus in favor of a young backbencher (Ohio’s Tim Ryan) was a stunning statement against a leader whose grip on the House Democratic caucus for 15 years has been legendary.
The bottom line is pretty simple. If Democrats only take control of the House in November by a handful of votes, Pelosi’s hopes of reclaiming the speaker’s gavel will rest squarely on how many vulnerable Democrats are willing to break a promise to their voters in their very first formal vote after taking the oath of office. And with a third of her current caucus already having demonstrated its willingness to break with her—a number that is likelier to rise than fall as more and more Democrats are calling for new leadership—these newcomers may not find themselves alone when that vote is cast.
The House clerk’s office clearly states that members may vote for any person during the speakership vote, whether that person has been nominated by a major party caucus or not. If no candidate receives more than 50 percent of the votes, the process repeats until someone attains a majority. If Democrats net 30 seats this November, a defection of only eight Democrats would be required to block Pelosi from the speakership. If they net 25 seats, that number decreases to three.
Regardless of how many assurances the Democratic leader and her spokespeople may offer about their confidence in the ultimate outcome, her position is not necessarily the most secure place in Washington, D.C.—especially if 2019 brings a group of new, young Democratic lawmakers who hope to be around a lot longer than the current septuagenarian-heavy Democratic leadership team in the House of Representatives.
It’s unlikely that Pelosi will make much difference one way or another to the outcome of the midterms, but she might be in a difficult spot nonetheless. Pelosi’s hopes of reclaiming the speaker’s gavel may depend on whether the Democrats’ hoped-for “Blue Wave” this November turns into a tsunami.