Nancy Pelosi is betting everything on taking back the House in November, and most Democrats are confident they’ll pull it off. But what happens if they fail?
A stealthy discussion is already underway within the Democratic caucus, particularly among members whose only experience in Congress is in the minority.
Assuming Pelosi either leaves on her own or is pressured to step down, her exit would trigger a messy battle between the party’s old guard, led by House Minority Whip Steny Hoyer (D-Md.), and the party’s younger members, represented by House Democratic Caucus Chairman Joe Crowley (D-N.Y.).
It’s a generational showdown that’s been put off for years, but might not be able to be avoided for much longer.
“It will be an intra-party war. That’s what you can expect,” said Rep. Alcee Hastings (D-Fla.), who predicted a “mass exodus” of Democrats if they don’t win the House in November. “That’s at the highest levels of leadership and at the committee level.”
Hoyer, 78, has served as No. 2 House Democrat since 2003 and has a reserve of loyalty and experience on his side. Crowley, 55, would offer a newer perspective having only been in leadership since 2013. Right now, it’s a toss up who would get the job in a post-Pelosi world.
A shakeup at the top of the Democratic Caucus is also likely to set off a scramble further down the leadership chain as members clamor for spots that haven’t been open — or have been handpicked by Pelosi — for years.
The ongoing conversations about the future of the party’s leadership come as members set off Wednesday for their retreat on Maryland’s Eastern Shore, a three-day confab where Crowley, as caucus chairman, will play a prominent role, alongside Pelosi and Hoyer.
In interviews with more than two dozen Democratic lawmakers and aides, mostly on the condition of anonymity in order to freely discuss sensitive caucus dynamics, a clear divide emerged. Most of those interviewed agreed Pelosi would have to step down or face a certain — and very credible — challenge for her post.
Assistant Democratic Leader Jim Clyburn (D-S.C.), a close Pelosi ally who occupies the third rung in party leadership, also faces questions about his future. Many Democrats expect him to leave when Pelosi exits. As the most prominent African-American member of the Democratic Caucus, Clyburn has significant pull among minority lawmakers who make up more than half the caucus.
Pelosi’s allies maintain that if or when she leaves is up to her, noting that she generally does not telegraph her future political moves.
“Leader Pelosi is singularly focused on winning back the House for Democrats. The leader is not here on a shift, but on a mission,” Pelosi’s spokesman Drew Hammill said.
But if Pelosi goes, lawmakers say the race for the top slot would come down to a choice between Hoyer and Crowley.
Hoyer’s faction of supporters point to the stability he’d bring after more than 15 years in the deputy spot. These Democrats feel that Hoyer has more than paid his dues and deserves the brass ring.
Hoyer has deep roots within the caucus, is known for giving new members opportunities through his whip operation and building relationships that go back years, important bona fides for anyone who wants to be elected leader.
Unlike Pelosi, who has long been vilified by Republicans for what they call her “out of touch San Francisco values,” Hoyer can campaign in nearly any district, his allies point out. And Hoyer has done the political work, including hundreds of fundraisers, that come with the party leader post. Members remember those debts.
“Obviously there’s no heir apparent here as far as of a line of succession is concerned,” said one Democrat who requested anonymity to speak candidly. “Steny is beloved within the caucus and he’s a member’s member and has been terrific. But there’s also generational rumblings going on, too.”
On the other side, lawmakers in the change camp argue that replacing one longtime leader with another, both in their late 70s, isn’t going to help Democrats win back the majority. If Democrats fail to take the House, they say, it would be time for a wholesale change at the top — including Pelosi, Hoyer and Clyburn.
While several members said they believe Crowley would make a run for the top post, whether against Pelosi or Hoyer, the New York Democrat wasn’t ready to declare his candidacy when approached by POLITICO.
“I believe in the wisdom of the caucus,” Crowley said when asked if he would run for minority leader if Democrats lose the House.
Some Democrats say the party should consider options beyond Hoyer or Crowley if they fail to win in November. They say there may be a push to have a person of color lead the caucus, instead of choosing between two white men who are similar in their politics, they said.
But as chairman of the Democratic Caucus, a prominent position just below the top three leaders, Crowley is in the best position to challenge Hoyer in November.
“I think some leaders pushing 80 think they are the future and it’s laughable. And I think they are in for a big surprise, because most of us are ready for a real change and new leadership,” said another House Democrat, referring to Hoyer’s age. He described that sentiment as “deep and widespread.”
“The issue is not even about personalities. It’s about the future versus the past.”
Hoyer declined to be interviewed for this story.
“Mr. Hoyer — and the entire Democratic Caucus — are focused on taking back the House in November,” Hoyer spokeswoman Mariel Saez said in a statement.
Clyburn also declined several opportunities to be interviewed.
If Hoyer or Crowley becomes leader, the next big question would be who becomes minority whip. It will almost certainly be a member of the Congressional Black Caucus, which represents a key bloc of 40-plus votes inside the larger Democratic Caucus.
CBC members and other Democrats had long assumed Rep. Elijah Cummings (D-Md.) would be the choice — some had even thought of him for the leader job — but recent health problems have prompted questions about whether he can or would fill the job.
Cummings might also to prefer to stay on his self-assigned mission of providing a check on the Trump administration as the top Democrat on the House Oversight Committee.
If it’s not Cummings, then Reps. Cedric Richmond (D-La.) and Marcia Fudge (D-Ohio) would likely be viewed as potential choices, according to Democrats. Other CBC members may throw their hats in the ring as well.
“I don’t know what happens if it’s not Elijah,” said a CBC member, speaking on the condition of anonymity. “It could be any one of several people.”
Further down the leadership ranks, Rep. Linda Sanchez (D-Calif.) is currently the Democratic Caucus vice chairwoman and would want to move up to the No. 3 post of assistant leader.
Some members and aides inside the caucus say they could also see Sanchez running for whip, though it’s unlikely she would challenge Hoyer, Crowley or anyone else for the top job.
Rep. Ben Ray Lujan (D-N.M.), current chairman of House Democrats’ campaign arm, is popular with many members and has been mentioned as a possible leadership candidate. But he’s also closely identified with Pelosi.
With nine months until election day, Democrats feel like they have a good shot at winning the House and don’t want to take delicate family discussions publicly. But members say they’re also aware that decision day is quickly approaching.
Rep. Emanuel Cleaver (D-Mo.) compared the ongoing leadership discussions to his beloved Kansas City Chiefs having a losing coach for several seasons.
“Even if the coach is considered to be one of the top coaches, they’re still going to get rid of him. That’s just the way it is,” Cleaver said. “You’ve got to do something so that the fans will know that you’re really trying to make course corrections.”
Politico · by Heather Caygle · February 6, 2018