Welcome to Dems in disarray, leadership elections edition.
And while nearly everyone expects House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., to stave off her leadership challenge from Rep. Tim Ryan, D-Ohio, in a secret-ballot contest on Thursday, that result is unlikely to stave off the party’s anxiety.
The very fact of Ryan’s challenge underscores the frustration of younger, newer Democratic caucus members at their coastal, veteran leadership team. A senior House Democratic aide says Democrats’ top complaint is they want more say in committee leadership; on Thanksgiving week, Pelosi released a plan to do just that: the creation of specific leadership spots for newer members – a plan devised with their input.
That Pelosi responded to the leadership challenge by a newer member with a plan devised in part with new members certainly signals that she’s willing to incorporate more people and ideas into her tightknit leadership circle.
But it’s worth noting that the small-but-vocal caucus of House Democrats challenging Pelosi aren’t publicly complaining about committee posts right now. They are talking mostly about how frustrated they are with being locked out of the majority for six years and counting, with no end in sight.
Three out of the past four elections, House Democrats have failed to perform to expectations. (This November, they picked up six seats in a cycle where Pelosi had predicted they’d get at least 20.) Since President Barack Obama’s election, Democrats have lost more than 60 House seats.
It’s probably not a coincidence that Ryan is Pelosi’s first leadership challenge since the disastrous 2010 midterms for Democrats, when they lost 63 seats and their majority, the biggest loss of any party in the House since the Great Depression.
Some House Democrats feel just as dejected as that day.
As Ryan told The Washington Post’s Paul Kane recently: “I mean, here we are in the worst shape we have been in since I first got here. This is not fun anymore. This is not fun to wallow in the minority.”
It’s not clear what role, if any, Pelosi directly played in Democrats’ electoral struggles. As I wrote recently: There’s near-universal agreement among House Democrats that she has been a smart, capable and savvy leader who was handed a set of difficult political circumstances, as redistricting and Obama’s then-unpopularity ushered in the largest Republican majorities in the House of Representatives since the New Deal.
Unfortunately for Pelosi, it’s also not clear what she or any one person can do to bring House Democrats back out of the wilderness.
Kane reports that Pelosi’s strategy to start winning again mainly rests in Republican hands – a wager that they’ll overstep their bounds by trying to radically reshape entitlement programs.
That could certainly happen. And Democrats are aided by the simple fact that a Republican is in the White House (a correlation that tends to result in midterm gains for the party that doesn’t control the presidency).
But there are also structural issues that make it difficult for Democrats to climb out of their hole, no matter how poorly congressional Republicans perform over the next few years.
By a 2-to-1 margin, Republicans dominate state legislative chambers, where, shortly after 2020, most new electoral maps for state and congressional races will be drawn. Democrats are placing a new priority on trying to catch up, but it’s not clear that two election cycles (2018, 2020) will be enough. (Republicans control 68 to 69 out of 99 chambers).
Like I said, it’s not clear at all what Pelosi alone can do to change that. But it does seem clear that as long as Democrats keep losing, we can expect grumbling about and challenges to her leadership. Thursday will be the most tangible example of that yet.