Dem losses could lead to calls for leadership changes in Congress

Who controls the Senate and whether Speaker Nancy Pelosi will face a challenge remain open questions

Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., receives the gavel from outgoing House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., in the Capitol's House chamber before she was sworn in on the first day of the 116th Congress on January 3, 2019. Questions remain on whether she will hold the gavel in the 117th. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)
Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., receives the gavel from outgoing House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., in the Capitol's House chamber before she was sworn in on the first day of the 116th Congress on January 3, 2019. Questions remain on whether she will hold the gavel in the 117th. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)
Posted November 4, 2020 at 5:44pm

That was unexpected.

With House Republicans performing better than projected in key congressional races, Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy appears to be a lock to stay atop the Republican Conference. Speaker Nancy Pelosi, meanwhile, could face a surprise uprising among Democrats.

The Senate majority is looking more likely to remain in GOP control, as Democrats’ chances of taking back the chamber have narrowed significantly.

House Democrats are expected to hold their majority, but they may not grow it as leaders predicted, which could cause more junior members to make another push for generational change in the party’s top ranks.

If President Donald Trump wins reelection against former Vice President Joe Biden, rank-and-file members could blame Pelosi as the highest-ranking elected Democrat.

However, it’s not clear anyone would be willing to challenge Pelosi, who is revered for her ability to twist votes. Few Democrats could argue they would’ve done anything differently, as the caucus widely agreed the party was in good shape heading into the election. And without an opponent offering a different approach, any frustration toward Pelosi is unlikely to be enough to take her down.

“Today is not about the race for speaker,” Pelosi spokesman Drew Hammill said. “Today is about the race for the White House and ensuring that our members and candidates in uncalled races have the support they need. That is our focus.”

McCarthy, who told reporters Wednesday he expects Trump to prevail, cited Pelosi’s vulnerability in needing to win support from a majority of the House to be reelected speaker in January.

Loading the player...

“I know the vote on the floor is difficult for [the] speaker,” the California Republican said. “As our numbers continue to grow, I think at the end of the day no matter where we end up, that we’ll be able to have a very big say or even run the floor when it comes to policy.”

Democrats failing to pick up seats they targeted also makes it difficult for the party’s campaign chairwoman, Rep. Cheri Bustos, whose reelection race in northwest Illinois has yet to be called, to run for another term leading the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee.

Although not all House races have been called, Republicans as of midafternoon Wednesday had ousted seven Democrats and not lost a single incumbent. Democrats so far flipped two open House seats in North Carolina that became more favorable to their party after redistricting.

Senate status quo?

The balance of power in the Senate is still unclear.

An unresolved presidential race, outstanding North Carolina Senate race, a looming runoff in Georgia, and an expected photo finish in Michigan could delay a final resolution over who controls the chamber for some time.

Even if Democrats are successful, their majority would be narrow, making it difficult to pass legislation in a chamber that’s become extremely polarized in recent years. Eliminating the legislative filibuster becomes more of a pipe dream.

“This is no time to declare war on our institutions because one side is angry that the framers made it hard to achieve radical change,” McConnell said in his acceptance speech Tuesday night after defeating Democrat Amy McGrath.

If McConnell remains majority leader, a shakeup in leadership is not expected.

Senate Democratic leadership is also unlikely to change significantly, regardless of whether they end up in the minority or majority. Charles E. Schumer, as the head of the Senate Democrats, appoints new leadership every two years. The New York Democrat has not yet commented on the results.

One place the party could make a change is at the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, led by Nevada Sen. Catherine Cortez Masto.

The DSCC had high hopes of ousting several of the 23 Republicans up this cycle. However, after well-financed candidates suffered losses in Maine, South Carolina, Kentucky and Iowa, the committee has so far only been able to flip two seats, Mark Kelly in Arizona and John Hickenlooper in Colorado.

The Democrats also lost Sen. Doug Jones’ seat in Alabama.

Pelosi’s predicament

The 2020 cycle is becoming reminiscent of 2016 in that Democrats have underperformed their own expectations.

Four years ago, as Trump won the White House and Republicans held the Senate, Democrats made modest gains in the House — short of the double-digit boost they were predicting. A group of House Democrats, led by Ohio Rep. Tim Ryan, blamed Pelosi for four straight election losses since the party lost the majority in 2010. Ryan ran against the California Democrat for minority leader, but Pelosi easily fended off the challenge, 134-63.

However, a similar uprising this year could spell trouble for Pelosi because winning the speakership requires her to not only win a simple majority vote in her caucus but to get support from a majority of all House members on the floor. If Democrats’ majority narrows, so too does Pelosi’s cushion for intraparty defections.

California Rep. Ami Bera, who leads the moderate New Democrat Coalition’s political arm, told CQ Roll Call he doesn’t anticipate a leadership change. Rather, he expects the party to break down its polling and analytics to determine what went wrong.

“I don’t think this was a failure of leadership,” Bera said. “I just think there’s something with the Trump voter that we might be missing.”

But even after the 2018 cycle, in which Democrats flipped seats and took control of the House, Pelosi faced opposition, securing support by agreeing not to serve beyond 2022.

Pelosi declined to say Tuesday whether she’d keep that promise, saying she would reveal her plans “when it is appropriate and when it matters.”

With potential for a narrower majority, Pelosi likely will need to solidify that commitment to keep from adding to what could be up to a dozen Democrats returning next Congress who did not support her for speaker in 2019.