Facing an uphill battle to reclaim the House in November, many Democrats are speculating whether Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi might leave Congress after the elections and are wondering what sort of fallout the leadership structure would face if she did.
While the California lawmaker’s intentions are essentially unknowable — her top aides had no idea she would stay on in the wake of Republicans winning the House in 2010, when it was widely expected she would step down — people who know Pelosi well say it is unlikely she would opt for a quick exit.
In interviews with more than two dozen lawmakers, aides and lobbyists, some instead predict that Pelosi will stay in Congress to help set the stage for a successor, rather than allow Minority Whip Steny Hoyer (Md.) to simply move up the ranks to replace her.
“She’s worked so hard,” a Pelosi ally on K Street said. “I don’t think she would step out unless she felt she had someone as a replacement.”
It is not a consensus view. “Ridiculous,” said Nadeam Elshami, a Pelosi spokesman.
“I don’t believe that she’s the kind of person who would try [to] ordain a successor because she respects the Caucus’ decision-making and understands that you can’t impose a leader on a group of people like this,” said Rep. Robert Andrews (D-N.J.), a top ally.
But it is a view held by many knowledgeable Democrats, none of whom were willing to say so on the record for fear of provoking the ire of both Pelosi and Hoyer.
Budget ranking member Chris Van Hollen’s (Md.) name is mentioned most often as the protégé Pelosi might tap, followed by Democratic Caucus Vice Chairman Xavier Becerra (Calif.), though Becerra’s relationship with Pelosi has cooled since he tacked to her left during the health care fight. Both men at one time served as Assistant to the Speaker under Pelosi.
There is little chance of a challenge to Hoyer should Pelosi retire right after the November elections, if simply because Hoyer currently has a lock on the Democratic Caucus.
“Who, Becerra? Larson? Van Hollen? Stop it,” a former Pelosi aide said, referring to potential Hoyer challengers, including current Caucus Chairman John Larson (Conn.).
Hoyer has also worked to project his loyalty to the California Democrat.
“I think if you asked every member of the Caucus, they would say that I have worked closely with Nancy and been supportive of Nancy,” he told reporters at a breakfast last week.
But it’s precisely because of Hoyer’s hold on the second-ranking position that some Democrats predict Pelosi won’t leave at the end of the 112th Congress.
The Pelosi-Hoyer relationship stretches back to their days working for the late Sen. Daniel Brewster (D-Md.) in the 1960s.
Six years ago, when Democrats won the House, Pelosi backed the late Rep. John Murtha (D-Pa.) over Hoyer for Majority Leader. In 2001, they campaigned against each other for Whip.
As Democratic lawmakers brace for the possibility of spending another two years in the minority, they say Pelosi’s fundraising prowess is of vital importance.
“There’s no one who works harder than Nancy Pelosi, and there’s no one who raises more money than she does,” said retiring Rep. Heath Shuler (N.C.), who challenged Pelosi for Minority Leader in 2010, garnering 43 votes.
“In light of the super PACs, she’s the finger in the dyke, financially. She raises mega dollars and no one else does,” another Democratic lawmaker said.
Chatter about Pelosi’s possible retirement was energized in December when her daughter Alexandra Pelosi told reporter Jeffrey Scott Shapiro that her mother wanted to leave Congress.
“She would retire right now, if the donors she has didn’t want her to stay so badly,” Alexandra Pelosi said. “She has very few days left. She’s 71, she wants to have a life, she’s done.”
Pelosi’s office fought furiously to tamp down the report, and Alexandra Pelosi told reporters she was “merely projecting my own personal opinions.”
But neither denied she had made the remarks, and the interview shocked Congressional Democrats, some of whom said they consider it a critical piece of evidence of Pelosi’s thinking.
Most surprising, perhaps, was the outlet that reported the news: a website edited by the late Andrew Breitbart, a conservative pundit not known for his access to top Democrats.
Shapiro said he called Alexandra Pelosi on an unrelated matter and she “just threw it out there” as one of many topics broached, indicating that she knew about the Minority Leader’s intentions from their many conversations as mother and daughter.
Yet Pelosi has not slowed down a bit, even if she does want to leave. The famously hardworking lawmaker has kept up a punishing travel schedule.
This cycle, she has raised $56.5 million at 556 events in 43 cities and two U.S. territories, according to a document produced by her office.
The numbers are even more impressive because they only include money directly raised by Pelosi, not through direct mail, email and telemarketing using her likeness.
When asked if Pelosi had indicated to him whether she was retiring, Rep. George Miller (D-Calif.), a close Pelosi confidant, said, “That’s her business, but I get no indication of that at all.”
And one argument that could be used to push Pelosi toward the exit, that the time has come for the next generation of leaders, is inert. Hoyer and Assistant Minority Leader James Clyburn (S.C.) are approximately the same age as she is. Pelosi is 72, Hoyer is 73, and Clyburn is 72.
Pelosi herself recently vowed that Democrats would take back the House.
“You just wait and see on Election Day,” she said when asked about predictions by political handicappers that Democrats are unlikely to win control of the House. “Let me just whisper this to you. You won’t share it with anyone. Let them think that. Let them think that.”
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., carries a musket on stage as he speaks during the American Conservative Union's Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) at National Harbor, Md., on Thursday March 6, 2014.