WASHINGTON — House Democrats re-elected Nancy Pelosi as their leader Wednesday, ratifying the status quo in a changing Washington despite widespread frustration over the party’s direction.
That disenchantment manifested itself in 63 lawmakers supporting Pelosi’s opponent, Ohio Rep. Tim Ryan, in the secret-ballot vote. That was by far the largest defection Pelosi has suffered since she began leading House Democrats in 2002.
Still, the California lawmaker had declared ahead of time that more than two-thirds of the caucus was supporting her, and she won almost exactly two-thirds with 134 votes. It was a testament to her vote-counting skills and to her ability to hang onto power even in dark days for Democrats, as they confront a capital that will be fully controlled by the GOP next year.
“I have a special spring in my step today because this opportunity is a special one, to lead the House Democrats, bring everyone together as we go forward,” Pelosi said after the vote, appearing elated in her victory.
She disputed the suggestion that she might be concerned about the defections she suffered. “They weren’t defections, I had two-thirds of the vote,” Pelosi said, repeating “two-thirds, two-thirds” to a group of assembled reporters.
And she insisted Democrats would rebound. “We know how to win elections. We’ve done it in the past, we will do it again.”
Supporters said the 76-year-old Pelosi was their best bet to confront a President Donald Trump from the minority after Democrats picked up only a half-dozen seats in the House, far fewer than anticipated and well below Pelosi’s predictions. Republicans are on track to hold at least 240 seats in the House next year, while Democrats will have 194.
“We need someone who is battle-tested,” Rep. Debbie Dingell of Michigan told fellow Democrats in nominating Pelosi. “We need our leader to be seasoned, tough.”
For their part, Ryan and his backers insisted that they had won a victory in sending a message to Pelosi about the significant desire for change among House Democrats.
“Somebody had to do something,” said Ryan, a seven-term lawmaker who before now had been largely a back-bencher. “Our prospects have improved just because of this conversation.”
Yet Democrats’ marginalized status was evident as Ryan struggled to answer a question about who would lead the party forward, before concluding: “We’re all going to participate in leading the party.”
Leadership elections were originally scheduled to be held before Thanksgiving but were delayed to give Democrats more time to consider a path forward. Lawmakers expressed frustration over a range of issues, including stagnant leadership in their caucus, and Democrats’ failures to connect with white working class voters.
“I’m very concerned we just signed the Democratic party’s death certificate … unless we change what we are talking about, which is really the working man and woman’s agenda,” said Rep. Kurt Schrader of Oregon.
Pelosi has earned respect and loyalty from many Democrats over the years, including as a powerhouse fundraiser, raising over $140 million for Democrats in the 2016 cycle, and as a skilled legislative tactician. As speaker in 2009 she steered Obama’s health care law through the House and also pushed through a divisive bill to cap carbon emissions, but Democrats suffered massive losses in midterm elections the next year and lost their majority.
Pelosi’s victory Wednesday came only after she promised some changes to assuage concerns in her caucus, including adding a member of the freshmen class to her leadership team and creating a handful of other titled positions. But her proposals do little to ensure new blood at the very top or change the seniority system that has key committees led by lawmakers in their 80s at a moment when the party needs to be defending the health care law and other initiatives dear to Democrats.
Some House Democrats did not hide their disappointment at the outcome.
“It is obvious the current strategy doesn’t work,” said Rep. Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona. “Millions of Americans don’t feel that our party represents them anymore and they’ve said so, loudly, in multiple elections.”
Pelosi’s top two lieutenants who’ve served by her side for years were also re-elected Wednesday, both by acclimation. Maryland Rep. Steny Hoyer, 77, will continue to serve as Democratic whip, and South Carolina Rep. Jim Clyburn, 76, will continue in the No. 3 spot as assistant leader.
Rep. Joe Crowley of New York became conference chairman, a term-limited post vacated by Rep. Xavier Becerra of California. The position of conference vice chairman was hotly contested between two Californians, Linda Sanchez and Barbara Lee. Sanchez prevailed narrowly with 98 votes to 96 for Lee, becoming the first minority woman in leadership.
Associated Press writers Matthew Daly and Mary Clare Jalonick contributed to this report.