House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (Calif.) won an eighth term leading the Democratic caucus Wednesday, prevailing in a contest that became a vote of confidence in her continued stewardship and an early proxy battle over the future of the Democratic Party.
Pelosi easily beat Rep. Tim Ryan (D-Ohio), a seven-term lawmaker who launched an upstart bid to lead House Democrats two weeks ago in response to the partyâs disappointing November election results and concerns that Democrats have become out of touch with working-class voters in key swing states such as Pennsylvania, Michigan and Ohio.
But Pelosiâs margin of victory, 134 votes to 63 for Ryan, signaled a large degree of discontent with her leadership after 14 years atop the caucus and, more broadly, with the Democratic policy agenda that many lawmakers say has grown stale. While she cleared her self-declared margin of victory, a two-thirds majority, many Democrats were stunned that almost a third of the caucus was willing to vote for a backbench lawmaker with no major policy or political experience.
Many were left wondering whether a more seasoned Democrat could have actually toppled Pelosi, with several privately suggesting these next two years would have to be Pelosiâs last as leader. Ryanâs 63 votes marked the largest bloc of opposition Pelosi has faced since winning a deputy leadership position 15 years ago that set her on a course to become the first female House speaker.
Although they came up well short, Ryan and his band of supporters declared a symbolic victory in prompting Pelosi to propose elevating junior lawmakers and lead a more inclusive leadership table. They also declared that the partyâs economic agenda, at times neglected by their presidential nominee, Hillary Clinton, would move to the front and center alongside the cultural issues that dominated the 2016 campaign.
âWeâre going to win as Democrats if we have an economic message that resonates in every part of the country,â Ryan told reporters after his defeat. âWe are disappointed, because I like to win. â¦ But the party is better off,â he added.
Afterward, Pelosi publicly congratulated Ryan and acknowledged that he had run âa very aggressive campaign.â She told reporters that it forced her to work harder than two previous challenges to lead the caucus.
âI quite frankly feel more liberated than I ever have,â she said.
After gaining just six seats in the November elections â despite Pelosiâs proclamation they would gain more than 20 â she was left more vulnerable than at any moment in her leadership tenure, more so than in 2010, when she oversaw the loss of 63 seats and the majority.
She began the campaign in a boastful mode, declaring that she had âmore than two-thirdsâ of the votes locked up, but she ended issuing a series of letters that amounted to concessions to an anxious rank-and-file looking for new ideas if not new leaders.
Pelosi tried to placate junior lawmakers by offering new or modified positions, including the new position of âvice-ranking memberâ on the more than 20 standing House committees and reserving it for lawmakers who have 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.
Rep. Beto OâRourke (D-Tex.), 44, credited Ryanâs challenge with forcing those proposals. âThatâs partly a response to the competition in the caucus for votes, and thatâs a healthy thing,â OâRourke, first elected in 2012, said.
At 76, Pelosi is 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 E. Clyburn (D-S.C.), the assistant to the leader.
Hoyer and Clyburn were unchallenged Wednesday for their reelection, and the caucus elevated Rep. Joseph Crowley (D-N.Y.) to the No. 4 post of caucus chairman, and Rep. Linda T. SÃ¡nchez (D-Calif.) became the first Latina in leadership as caucus vice-chairman.
Republicans, after years of vilifying Pelosiâs West Coast liberalism, were gleeful at the stasis among Democratic leaders. The National Republican Congressional Committee immediately hung a âCongrats Nancy!â poster atop a âHire Pelosiâ banner that had been affixed to Republican National Committee headquarters this week.
Others remain upset at Pelosiâs control of the House campaign arm, the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, which has overseen a series of poor election performances. âWe should have been recruiting earlier, we should have better targeting. I think our messaging was off,â Rep. Ruben Gallego (D-Ariz.) said Tuesday in an interview.
Some of Pelosiâs biggest detractors fear that the results will only empower the more coastal liberal wings. âNothingâs going to change anytime soon. Weâre going to be in the minority for the next 15 years,â said Rep. Kurt Schrader (D-Ore.), co-chairman of the Blue Dog Coalition, a centrist group.Â He added that Democrats need to develop âa farm team thatâs not just the socialist side of our party.â
Some longtime critics supported her but in a fashion that suggested that she has less leeway than in the past. âIf I think changing engines is going to get us there faster and more efficiently and effectively, I would do that. Iâve told that to Nancy,â said Rep. BillÂ Pascrell Jr. (D-N.J.), who helped nominate Pelosi on Wednesday.
Pelosiâs most loyal backers reminded detractors that House Democrats are now in a comeback situation facing President-elect Donald Trump, who will employ an aggressive set of media skills unlike any recent president.
âThe role of leader is one of tactician, of negotiator, of knowing all the rules, of having all the tools to stand up when necessary to Donald Trump,â said Rep. Jan Schakowsky (D-Ill.). âSheâs effectively done that and is ready for this fight.â
Mike DeBonis contributed to this report.