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Pelosi’s biggest leadership challenge might be beating expectations

WASHINGTON – House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., heads into Wednesday’s race for an eighth term running the Democratic caucus as the prohibitive favorite, but many wonder just how many of her fellow Democrats will vote against her.

The challenge from Rep. Tim Ryan, D-Ohio, launched two weeks ago after the disappointing November elections left Democrats still deep in the minority, is in many ways shaping up more as a vote of confidence in Pelosi’s continued stewardship.

After 14 undistinguished years in Congress, Ryan has appeared from the back bench — he literally sits in the last bench in the chamber — and forced Pelosi to fight for the top spot like never before. It’s prompted her to offer structural changes to leadership and more opportunity to the burgeoning crop of junior lawmakers who have never served in the majority.

Pelosi hopes that her vow to expand the number of seats at the leadership table could stave off defections and leave her firmly in charge of a caucus ruled by an “iron fist,” as Senate counterpart, Minority Leader Harry M. Reid, D-Nev., once described her leadership style.

Emerging from a meeting with her closest supporters Tuesday night, she dismissed any thought that Ryan could defeat her.

“Oh please,” she said.

Walking into the Democratic cloakroom for a series of votes, she turned around and corrected a reporter who asked whether she would earn the support of 75 percent of her caucus.

Poking her head out from behind the cloak room door, she pointed at the reporter: “I said two-thirds.”

Pelosi has set the expectations bar high by publicly declaring she has “more than two-thirds” of the votes locked up. She said so before she even began asking non-supporters for their backing.

Ryan’s supporters are banking on a silent undercurrent of disappointment among fellow Democrats, after being in the minority four of the last 22 years, and that on a secret ballot inside the Ways and Means Committee room a large number of Democrats will signal their discontent with the status quo. The final tally will be announced publicly but who voted for who will not be revealed.

“I certainly hope Tim Ryan prevails,” Rep. Beto O’Rourke, D-Texas, first elected in 2012, said Tuesday. “So few of my colleagues are willing to say publicly who they support.”

But Pelosi has persuaded other young Democrats to stick with her, blunting some of what Ryan’s hopes in attracting converts.

“I believe that Nancy Pelosi will be reelected Democratic leader. She’s shown herself to be battle-tested,” said Rep. Joaquin Castro, D-Texas. “Back during the [George W.] Bush administration, she called them out at every turn and I’m confident she’ll do it again.”

Ryan stayed mostly out of the public eye on Tuesday and declined to specify his level of support. But he railed against Pelosi and Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign for failing to connect with voters in economically distressed parts of the country.

“If I’m leader, we will be talking about wages, we will be talking about the economy, we will be talking about pensions – bread and butter issues that people in rural areas and the industrial Midwest and down South care very much about,” he said, adding later: “If we don’t wake up and smell the coffee, we’re going to be a minority party, an opposition party for a long time to come.”

In a series of text messages to lawmakers, given to The Washington Post by a Democrat, Ryan wrote: “The momentum for change continues to build. I’m proud to announce today public endorsements from Reps. Ruben Gallego, Stephen Lynch, Seth Moulton, and Dan Lipinski.”

Those four, from Arizona, Massachusetts and Illinois, respectively, joined seven other Democrats as the only public supporters of Ryan.

There are 194 members of the House Democratic caucus, and non-voting delegates, such as Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton, D-D.C., are allowed to vote in caucus elections, so close to 200 votes might be cast.

Anything less than 130 votes would be a disappointment for Pelosi, and some Ryan supporters were privately bracing for a showing closer to the last challenge to Pelosi, in 2010. Despite losing a historic 63 seats in those midterm elections, which thrust them back into the minority, Democrats voted overwhelmingly to elect Pelosi as minority leader, 150 to 43, over then-Rep. Heath Shuler (D-N.C.).

The closer Ryan gets to between 60 and 80 votes, the more direct the signal to Pelosi that the rank-and-file is ready for her to develop a transition-of-power plan. At 76, she’s one of three septuagenarians leading the caucus, followed by 77-year-old Rep. Steny H. Hoyer, D-Md., the minority whip; and 76-year-old Rep. James Clyburn, D-S.C., the assistant to the leader.

Pelosi tried to placate some of the angst among junior lawmakers by offering a series of new or modified positions, including the new position of “vice-ranking member” on the more than 20 standing House committees and reserving it for lawmakers who served four terms or less. A policy leadership position would be divided into three co-chairmen and reserved for those who have served five terms or less.

O’Rourke credited Ryan’s challenge with forcing Pelosi to take the unrest among colleagues more seriously. “That’s partly a response to the competition in the caucus for votes, and that’s a healthy thing,” he said.

Others remain upset at Pelosi’s control of the House campaign arm, the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee. She has proposed leaving Rep. Ben Ray Lujan, D-N.M., as DCCC chairman for another term, despite 2016 elections that saw just a six-seat gain after Pelosi personally predicted a gain of more than 20 seats.

“We should have been recruiting earlier, we should have better targeting. I think our messaging was off,” Gallego said in an interview. “I think we are focused so much still on TV instead of looking at new methods of communications and or even old methods of communication – canvassing and digital buys.”

A 37-year old former Marine corporal, Gallego was especially critical of what he considered the DCCC’s staff work trying to please Pelosi, calling them “bureaucratic in nature.”

Some Democrats want the position to be contested rather than rubber stamp of whoever top Democrats select.

Pelosi’s backers reminded detractors that House Democrats are now in a “comeback situation” without a Democratic president in office — a dynamic similar to 2000 when Bush took office after a fiercely partisan, closely contested election. Over six years, Pelosi served as Bush’s main partisan foil and ultimately led a campaign that regained House control.

Supporters also acknowledged, however, that after 14 years atop the party, Pelosi is nearing her political twilight.

“This is probably her last go,” said one member who requested anonymity to speak frankly about caucus dynamics. “She’s coming to terms with the idea that people want her to move on. The opposition is so public now and I only see that growing, not diminishing.”

The prospect of Pelosi’s departure and the likely demise of Hoyer and Clyburn, would create an incredible leadership vacuum.

But in a few years, “I don’t see an 80-year old new minority leader,” the member said.