WASHINGTON — With Democrats still reeling from the election, Ohio Rep. Tim Ryan has launched a long-shot bid to unseat Democratic minority leader Nancy Pelosi, a race that several Democrats say could be closer than their longtime leader expects it to be when the votes are counted on Wednesday morning.
When Pelosi, who has led House Democrats since 2003, announced she’d run once again for her party’s top leadership post in the House, she said she had secured the support of more than two-thirds of the caucus.
But while Ryan is still expected to fall short in his bid for leader, more than a dozen lawmakers who have told Pelosi they planned on supporting her have told BuzzFeed News they were either wavering or fully intended to support Ryan. The members spoke on the condition of anonymity for fear of alienating their once, and probably future, leader. The vote will be held on a secret ballot, allowing members to publicly declare their intent for Pelosi while later voting against her.
“I think the anybody-but-Pelosi sentiment is stronger than she thinks it is,” one member said.
Another Democrat, who was leaning towards voting for Ryan, said that Ryan would be a better choice as the party has lost a huge amount of support with white working-class voters, and would need a more moderate voice to help win them back.
“I think a lot of people are unsure if we want the faces of the party to be Chuck Schumer and Nancy Pelosi: liberals from New York and California. It was different with a Democratic president — he was the face of the party, but now they will be,” the Democrat said.
One Democratic member said that while they like and admire Pelosi, they thought the election results meant it was time for her to step aside: “I just don’t think you can look at the election and say we should keep doing what we’ve been doing.”
A powerful force in Democratic politics and prolific fundraiser, Pelosi is also known as an effective vote counter — and is likely taking into account potential defections. Ryan has only 12 public endorsements, but he has argued that it’s time for a change and that what House Democrats are doing now is “not working.” He’s charged that Pelosi is running only to further empower herself, to the detriment of the rest of the caucus, a charge Pelosi dismissed in an interview with the Huffington Post as “almost pathetic.”
“Candidates that rely on dozens upon dozens of double-crossers are called losing candidates,” a senior Democratic aide said about potential Ryan supporters.
It’s clear that Pelosi has taken some of the criticism directed her way to heart: she announced a series of changes to the leadership structure, for instance making the chair of the Democratic Policy and Communications Committee an elected position for a member that’s served less than three terms. She’s also appointed a slew of younger members to leadership positions.
Pelosi’s supporters have consistently said that it’s precisely because of her long-term experience that she’s the right person to lead the caucus under a Trump presidency.
“She is steady, and experienced. She worked with Bush when she needed to, and effectively pushed against him when she needed to — I'm thinking specifically about the Iraq war and his desire to privatize Social Security,” said Rep. Eric Swalwell, a 34-year-old California congressman whom Pelosi named as co-chair of the Policy and Steering Committee. “She is the best leader for Democrats, and she's working to infuse that with new energy and is constantly elevating younger members.”
Reps. Zoe Lofgren, Anna Eshoo, and Ro Khanna, all of California, echoed that sentiment in a recent Mercury News op-ed.
“[S]niping about Nancy Pelosi’s age and undermining her leadership is not a strategy to protect hard-working families from Republicans’ destructive agenda or win back the House. Democrats need our most formidable strategist, our toughest negotiator, and our most battle-tested champion facing down President Trump and Speaker Ryan,” they wrote.
Another Pelosi supporter felt that members clamoring for her ousting were displacing anger that should be directed instead at the Hillary Clinton campaign.
“We picked up seats and it could have been a lot worse. Try something better, but don't try something different for the sake of trying something different. Don’t blame Nancy Pelosi because you’re mad at Hillary Clinton,” the supporter said.
Ryan says that he believes that it’s not just about fighting Trump, but about bringing voters back into the party.
"I think I can make a big, big difference pulling those Trump voters back because those are the voters who voted for me,” he told reporters on Tuesday night.
Ryan sounded optimistic ahead of Wednesday morning’s vote. "We're within striking distance. We really are. And we'll see. There's a lot of undecided voters. If they break our way we'll have a really, really good chance of winning.”
Paul McLeod contributed to this report.