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Energy and Commerce Race Heats Up as Election Nears

Ranking member rivals Eshoo and Pallone chatted earlier this year at a press conference. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)

After a quiet couple of months, the race to be the ranking Democrat on the Energy and Commerce Committee is heating up again.  

As the November election nears, the two Democrats vying for the party's top spot on the panel are stepping up efforts to show off their clout.  

Rep. Frank Pallone Jr. of New Jersey made the bolder move on Thursday, releasing a letter signed by 50 of his supporters that outlines why they think he should be given the assignment over his opponent, Rep. Anna G. Eshoo of California. "First and foremost, seniority is critical to this institution and Frank is the next most member of the Committee," they wrote in the letter, obtained by CQ Roll Call, of Pallone, who is the current No. 3 on the committee, while Eshoo falls behind at No. 5.  

Members backing Pallone to succeed the retiring ranking member Henry A. Waxman, D-Calif., also added that their candidate "has been a staunch advocate of the Party's ideals" in his role as the House Democratic Caucus' point person on communication and messaging, "yet he also understands that our Caucus represents many different points of view."  

Pallone's supporters represent great diversity across the caucus. There are influential members of the Congressional Black Caucus — including former chairman Emanuel Cleaver — and the chairman of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus, Rubén Hinojosa. The CBC and CHC are two voting blocs that put a premium on seniority.  

The letter has signatures from ranking members of other committees, such as Peter A. DeFazio of Natural Resources, John Conyers Jr. of Judiciary and Bennie Thompson of Homeland Security.  

Pallone has also drawn support from "Blue Dogs" like John Barrow of Georgia and Kurt Schrader of Oregon, as well as staunch progressives like Jan Schakowsky of Illinois, Jerrold Nadler of New York and Keith Ellison of Minnesota.  

More quietly, Minority Whip Steny H. Hoyer, D-Md., is helping to bolster the Pallone operation behind the scenes.  

Eshoo, who is making the case that seniority doesn't have to trump all when it comes to making a run for a committee leadership position, has never released a letter that puts members on the record for their support.  

But that doesn't mean those backing her have not made themselves known.  

Democrats who have attended or organized events on Eshoo's behalf include fellow Californians Tony Cardenas, Barbara Lee, Jared Huffman, Zoe Lofgren, Doris Matsui, Eric Swalwell and Jackie Speier.  

Those who have endorsed her also defy geographical lines: Many East Coast members are backing the West Coast lawmaker instead of their neighbor from New Jersey, and they include New Yorkers Joseph Crowley, the House Democratic Caucus vice-chairman, and Steve Israel, the chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee.  

Add to the list Connecticut Reps. Elizabeth Esty and John B. Larson, and Pennsylvania's Michael Doyle. Last month, freshman Reps. Tulsi Gabbard of Hawaii and Joe Kennedy III of Massachusetts sent a "Dear Colleague" letter out urging members to vote for her in November, when all the various leadership elections take place.  

And in the early days of the ranking member race, Eshoo's close friend, Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., released an endorsement letter — an unprecedented gesture that signaled just how down to the wire the competition could be.  

"I was surprised to see that [Pallone] only had 50 supporters," said Rep. Mike Thompson, D-Calif., who is whipping strongly for Eshoo, in a phone interview Thursday afternoon. "I think Anna is doing remarkably well, she’s over 100 supporters that I know of, for sure."  

A source close to Pallone's campaign told CQ Roll Call that the signers of the letter represented exclusively the Congressman's whip team and core group of backers, and that his support across the rest of the caucus was significant — far more than Eshoo's 100, he contended.  

The race will ultimately be decided by Pallone's and Eshoo's peers who are returning to the House in the 114th Congress, plus new members who come to Capitol Hill in mid-November for freshmen orientation and to vote in leadership elections like that for the Energy and Commerce seat.  

The first round of voting will take place within the Steering and Policy Committee, which will announce a winner to the caucus. The loser at that point can either accept defeat or force a vote in the full caucus, which could for that member yield a different, more favorable, result.  

Abby Livingston contributed to this report. Roll Call Election Map: Race Ratings for Every Seat Get breaking news alerts and more from Roll Call in your inbox or on your iPhone.