5 things to watch in House Democrats’ leadership elections

Virtual elections will determine ideological, racial and gender breakdown of Democratic leadership

All but four of the House Democratic leadership members pictured are seeking to return to the team next Congress. The caucus holds leadership elections this week  (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call file photo)
All but four of the House Democratic leadership members pictured are seeking to return to the team next Congress. The caucus holds leadership elections this week (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call file photo)
Posted November 17, 2020 at 5:00am

House Democrats this week will elect most of their leadership team for the 117th Congress, making choices in contested races that will determine the ideological, racial and gender balance of caucus decision-makers.

The Democratic Caucus will meet virtually Wednesday and Thursday to vote for all leadership positions, except Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee chair and freshman leadership representative. The DCCC election will occur the week of Nov. 30. The freshman class has yet to set a date for its election.

[House Democrats’ leadership races reflect coming generational change]

This week’s elections include three contested races: assistant speaker, caucus vice chair and caucus leadership representative, a position reserved for members who’ve served five terms or less.

Here are five things to watch:

Virtual election

As with many 2020 events, the COVID-19 pandemic prompted Democrats to hold their leadership elections virtually. If the voting application Democrats set up for the elections works well, it could be used in the future to replace paper ballots, which are time-consuming to count.

The encrypted application, automatically downloaded on members’ House-issued iPhones, was designed “in partnership with some of the nation’s leading cryptologists,” Democratic Caucus Chairman Hakeem Jeffries said in a “Dear Colleague” letter Friday.

“Votes will be secured by end-to-end encryption, and a Member’s vote will remain secret to everyone except for the Member themself,” the New York Democrat added. “Each candidate will have a team of Member tellers to monitor the encrypted electronic transmission and tabulation of votes during every election.”

The caucus will convene at 9 a.m. Wednesday over a video call to hear from candidates and vote, starting with Democratic Caucus chair since Jeffries, who is unopposed for a second term, oversees the remaining elections. Those are typically held in ranking order but could be shuffled to accommodate Wednesday’s hard stop at noon. Remaining elections will be rolled to Thursday’s session, which begins at 10 a.m.

Every candidate can have supporters give nominating speeches and make remarks to the caucus.

Jeffries and other leaders running uncontested, including the top three of Speaker Nancy Pelosi, Majority Leader Steny H. Hoyer and Majority Whip James E. Clyburn, will likely be reelected by acclamation.

In races where a vote tally is ordered, members will have 15 minutes to vote on the app. Results will be announced on the video call.

The first contested race is for the No. 4 position of assistant speaker. It’s a two-way match between Massachusetts Rep. Katherine M. Clark, the current caucus vice chairwoman, and Rhode Island Rep. David Cicilline, who chairs the Democratic Policy and Communications Committee. California’s Tony Cárdenas was running, but dropped out to run for DCCC chair.

The No. 6 position of vice chair is a two-way race between Pete Aguilar of California and Robin Kelly of Illinois. Deb Haaland of New Mexico withdrew from the race Sunday.

There are four candidates running for the four DPCC co-chair slots (the caucus voted earlier this fall to turn the chair position Cicilline holds into a fourth co-chair), so their vote could occur by acclamation.

The current three DPCC co-chairs, Michigan’s Debbie Dingell, California’s Ted Lieu and Pennsylvania’s Matt Cartwright, are running for a second term and Colorado’s Joe Neguse, currently a freshman leadership representative, is seeking a first term leading the messaging arm.

Three candidates are running for caucus leadership representative: Michigan Rep. Brenda Lawrence and freshman Reps. Jason Crow of Colorado and Colin Allred of Texas. Only members who have served five terms or less get to vote.

Diversity

Diversity is always a factor in leadership races, but it’s most prevalent in the vice chair race pitting a Latino against a Black woman.

The only Latino member currently in leadership, Assistant Speaker Ben Ray Luján, is headed to the Senate. That means Aguilar, if elected, would become the highest-ranking Latino in leadership.

“I’ve got wide support from the Hispanic Caucus,” Aguilar said. “They’re my home. That’s where I identify, where I have lunch.”

There are no Black women on the elected leadership team, but California’s Barbara Lee, who unsuccessfully ran against Jeffries for caucus chair in 2018, is co-chair of the Democratic Steering and Policy Committee, a speaker-appointed position.

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Kelly, if elected, would be the first Black woman in a top leadership post since Shirley Chisholm was elected caucus secretary in 1977. That position was later replaced by the vice chair role.

A senior Democratic aide said the timing is ripe with Sen. Kamala Harris making history as the first Black female vice president. “I think that it is only fair and right that possibly translates into Democratic leadership,” the aide said.

The gender balance of the leadership team will rest on the outcome of the assistant speaker, caucus vice chair and caucus leadership representative elections, where women are running against men.

If Clark is elected assistant speaker, she’ll become the second-highest-ranking House Democratic woman ever behind Pelosi.

The leadership elections may also set records for LGBTQ represenatation. Cicilline, the first openly gay representative elected to leadership, would get a promotion if he wins assistant speaker. If he and Sean Patrick Maloney, who is running for DCCC chair, both prevail, there’d be a record two openly gay Democratic leaders.

Caucus endorsements

The Congressional LGBTQ+ Equality Caucus has endorsed Cicilline and Maloney. Both are co-chairs of the group.

It’s unclear how much impact the endorsement will have as it only requires two-thirds support of the group’s seven co-chairs (all LGBTQ members). The other Equality Caucus members are not bound to vote for Cicilline.

A caucus endorsement that may carry more weight, however, is the moderate New Democrat Coalition’s endorsement of Aguilar for vice chair. That required two-thirds support of the coalition’s leadership and a simple majority of its overall 104 members.

Aguilar, the New Democrats’ whip, “far surpassed the needed votes to get the endorsement,” Coalition Chairman Derek Kilmer told CQ Roll Call.

This is the first time the New Democrats, the largest ideological caucus in the House, has endorsed in a leadership race.

“Our support for Pete is grounded in having seen him up close and personal. He understands the diversity and backgrounds of districts our members come from,” Kilmer said.

On Monday, the Hispanic Caucus followed suit and endorsed Aguilar. The Hispanic Caucus also endorsed Cárdenas for DCCC chair.

Ideology

One reason the New Democrats endorsed Aguilar is because moderates have been underrepresented in leadership. Most of the Democrats who lost reelection this cycle are moderates.

The current leadership team has only two New Democrats: Cheri Bustos, the outgoing DCCC chairwoman, and Veronica Escobar, a freshman leadership representative who is also in the Congressional Progressive Caucus.

Most of the leadership team are members of the Progressive Caucus, although a few, like the top three, are unaffiliated.

The two DCCC candidates, Cárdenas and Maloney, are both New Democrats. Bustos will remain in leadership because Pelosi named her as one of the Steering co-chairs.

All three candidates for caucus leadership representative are New Democrats, so moderates will still have at least three seats at the leadership table. An Aguilar win would make it four.

Candidates in contested races, regardless of ideology, are all campaigning on their ability to bring the caucus together. That objective is more urgent with Democrats fighting among themselves after their election losses.

Cicilline said the election “reinforces the need for someone in leadership who has a proven record of bringing people together and forging consensus … and doing it with a very keen eye to making sure we protect our majority.”

Clark is campaigning on a unifying message as well, touting her recruitment and mentorship of members in swing districts and her efforts as vice chairwoman to connect different sections of the caucus.

Texas Rep. Sylvia R. Garcia is backing Clark because “she’s got a knack for bringing people together.” She is whipping votes for Clark and said many Hispanic Caucus members who backed Cárdenas will likely vote for Clark.

Lawrence said Democrats are a big-tent party, and it’s not realistic to expect or ask people to “fall in line.” Rather, she plans to find ways to “get everybody’s voice” in legislation.

Loser landing spots

When Democrats face difficult leadership contests, Pelosi often steps in and finds ways to keep allies around.

The pattern started when Democrats lost the majority in 2010 and Pelosi created an assistant leader position (the minority equivalent of assistant speaker) for Clyburn to remain the No. 3 and avoid a battle against Hoyer for whip.

Two years ago, Pelosi wanted to clear the path for Luján to become assistant speaker after he helped Democrats win the majority as DCCC chairman. Cicilline agreed to drop out of that race after Pelosi created the DPCC chair position for him to oversee the co-chairs.

After Bustos decided not to run again for DCCC chair, Pelosi quickly appointed her as one of the Steering and Policy co-chairs to keep her in leadership.

It’s feasible Pelosi may find spots for the losers in the contested races, especially Clark or Cicilline.

Rep. Mark Pocan, who co-chairs the Progressive Caucus, has endorsed Clark, but said, “I wish we could have them both in different positions.”

Asked if he thinks Pelosi may fulfill that wish, the Wisconsin Democrat said, “You never know. Nancy always has a creative way of adding spots.”