Last week, Indiana Democrats Mel Hall and Liz Watson added their names to the growing list of House candidates calling for “new leadership” and promising not to support Nancy Pelosi as Democratic leader if they win.
They’re among more than two dozen Democrats running on such a pledge – casting doubt about Pelosi’s ability to recapture the speaker’s gavel if Democrats win a majority in the House in this fall’s election. In TV ads, social media posts, and media interviews, candidates from Virginia to California are calling for her ouster.
“There is almost complete gridlock in Washington, D.C., when we have folks on one side and folks on the other side who are barely civil with each other. So my call is that we need new leadership,” Hall told USA TODAY.
Watson, likewise, said people in south central Indiana are “looking for a new direction in Washington.”
“That’s why I won’t vote for Nancy Pelosi for speaker,” she told USA TODAY.
But even as that chorus gets louder, Pelosi’s standing might not be as perilous as it seems.
For one thing, she’s a prodigious fundraiser, with many perks at her disposal to dole out to allies. So far this election cycle, Pelosi has raised more than $87 million for her fellow Democrats. Her schedule during Congress’ August break is packed with campaign events and fundraisers from Texas to Boston to Indiana.
“I feel very confident in the support that I have in the House Democratic Caucus, and my focus is on winning this election because so much is at stake,” Pelosi told reporters Thursday when asked about the calls for new leadership.
“I feel very confident in the support that I have in the House Democratic Caucus, and my focus is on winning this election because so much is at stake.”To be sure, the California Democrat has a loyal following among many House Democrats, and no consensus candidate has emerged to challenge her — at least not yet.
“I think Pelosi has done a great job, and she’s taken us to the majority (before),’’ said Rep. Gregory Meeks, D-N.Y., adding that Pelosi’s fate as a leader will be up to the caucus.
Last week, House Democrats decided to hold their internal leadership elections in December. That will give Pelosi, and any possible challengers, ample time to lobby colleagues and count votes.
If Democrats win a thin majority, Pelosi will not be able to afford many defections, and a nasty leadership struggle could ensue. If Democrats win big, she will have more wiggle room.
“She needs Democrats to win more than a (bare) majority,” said Nathan Gonzales, editor and publisher of Inside Elections.
Democrats need a net gain of 23 seats to retake the House. If they come up short, the race for speaker will unfold in the Republican conference, where dueling campaigns are already underway.
After the 2016 election, Democratic Ohio Rep. Tim Ryan challenged Pelosi in a race for minority leader, and he won 63 votes to her 134 in a secret-ballot internal election. When the vote moved to the House floor, most of the defectors backed Pelosi in the public roll call.
This time could be different, with more Democrats publicly demanding change well ahead of the election. If there are 10 or 20 new members who committed during their campaigns to support someone else, and a dozen incumbents also oppose her, Democrats would have to win more than 40 seats for Pelosi to become speaker, Gonzales estimates.
So far, 27 Democratic candidates have said they will not support Pelosi, according to a tally by Vox and USA TODAY’s reporting.
Of those, only seven are running in districts where neither party has a strong partisan advantage. The rest – including Indiana’s Hall and Watson – are vying to represent GOP-leaning districts.
Of the 27 races, one is rated as a toss-up, according to Gonzales’ analysis, and two favor the Democratic candidates. In the other 24, Republicans are favored to win.
If candidates in the Republican-friendly areas do win, it could be a banner year for Democrats.
As the campaign heats up, it’s no wonder that an increasing number of Democrats are distancing themselves from Pelosi.
Republicans are using the San Francisco Democrat as their favorite boogeyman in this election, running reams of TV ads linking her to local House contenders.
“It’s incredibly effective,” said Corry Bliss, executive director of the Congressional Leadership Fund, a super PAC devoted to protecting the Republican House majority. “Nancy Pelosi is the most unpopular, polarizing politician in American politics.”
“Nancy Pelosi is the most unpopular, polarizing politician in American politics.”
That’s not exactly true, but it’s close. Only 29 percent of the American electorate has a favorable opinion of Pelosi, according to a Gallup Poll conducted in June; the California Democrat’s approval ratings have even sunk among Democrats, according to the Gallup survey.
But other congressional leaders are similarly unpopular. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., has the lowest ratings, with 24 percent approval.
Going after Pelosi, however, is a particularly effective way to rile up the Republican base.
“It’s a combination of (her) being the Democratic leader for so long and being from San Francisco, which a lot of Republicans think is so culturally out of touch from where they are,” Gonzales said.
Indiana Rep. Jim Banks – a freshman Republican being challenged by a Democrat who has had surprising fundraising success in his decidedly GOP district – declined Friday to name his preferred candidate in the Republican race for speaker. Banks said he’s focusing on keeping the majority in GOP hands.
“If we don’t, all of this is a moot point, as Nancy Pelosi will become speaker of the House,” Banks told a conservative radio talk show host who responded in horror, “Oh, please!”
One Democrat who agrees with Banks that it’s “nuts” to be talking about the leadership lineup now is Rep. Cedric Richmond, a Louisiana Democrat and chairman of the Congressional Black Caucus.
“You have to have the House back first,” Richmond said. “We have too much at stake to be worrying about leadership right now.”