With historically narrow majority, Pelosi can only afford a handful of defections in speaker vote

Some Democrats who opposed her in 2019 may have to switch

Nancy Pelosi will likely have a caucus of just 222 Democrats to draw from in the floor vote for speaker next month. (Caroline Brehman/CQ Roll Call)
Nancy Pelosi will likely have a caucus of just 222 Democrats to draw from in the floor vote for speaker next month. (Caroline Brehman/CQ Roll Call)
Posted December 2, 2020 at 6:00am

After losing at least a dozen House seats in the 2020 elections, Nancy Pelosi has almost no margin for error in her race for another term as speaker. While Democrats are facing their smallest House majority in more than a century, political prospects have improved for some of the returning members who didn’t support her two years ago, giving her a path to stay in power.

In January 2019, Pelosi was elected speaker with 220 votes over Republican leader Kevin McCarthy’s 192. Among Democrats, 15 did not vote for her. Next month, Pelosi will likely have a total caucus of just 222 Democrats to draw from, which means she can only afford a handful of defections to prevent Republicans from electing McCarthy. Two years ago, six GOP members didn’t vote for the California Republican. But one of them, Michigan’s Justin Amash, didn’t seek reelection this year and the others could likely be kept in line if the party smelled a potential upset brewing.

Pelosi has proved her ability to keep her caucus in line and her allies are confident she’ll have the votes necessary. Yet this is shaping up to be a very close vote. 

Of the 15 Democrats who defected two years ago, three lost reelection in 2020 (South Carolina}s Joe Cunningham, New York’s Max Rose and Utah’s Ben McAdams), while New Jersey’s Jeff Van Drew switched to the GOP last December and won reelection as a Republican. That leaves a pool of 11 Democrats for Pelosi to get a few extra votes.

Rep. Anthony Brindisi is in significant danger of losing reelection in New York’s 22nd, so he’s likely off the table as a potential swing vote. 

The precise number of votes Pelosi needs isn’t clear without knowing how many total members will be seated and voting and how many will vote present. It’s likely however, that the speaker can’t afford for all the remaining 10 Democrats who didn’t support her last time to do the same in January. And two defectors already look set.

Elissa Slotkin was first elected in 2018 in Michigan’s 8th District, which Trump had won by nearly 7 points two years previously. Slotkin promptly voted “present” for speaker instead of supporting Pelosi. This year, she won reelection by a narrow 51 percent to 47 percent margin in a race that wasn’t considered a key battleground for much of the cycle. Trump carried her district again (albeit more narrowly, according to Bloomberg Government’s Greg Giroux) and Slotkin explicitly told Politico she would not be supporting Pelosi for speaker next year.

Jared Golden was also first elected in 2018 in Maine’s 2nd District after defeating a GOP incumbent through the state’s ranked-choice voting process. And Golden cast his first vote for speaker for Illinois Democrat Cheri Bustos. He was in firm control of his race this year, but won by just 53 percent to 47 percent while Trump defeated Joe Biden at the top of the ballot for a single Electoral College vote. The New York Times recently reported Golden would not support Pelosi this time either. 

A handful of 2019 defectors are in a more favorable political position compared to two years ago, and are vital to Pelosi’s path to maintaining her role as speaker.   

Jason Crow was first elected in 2018 after knocking off GOP Rep. Mike Coffman 54 percent to 43 percent in Colorado’s 6th District in what was supposed to be a close race. But Crow’s initial double-digit win appeared to give him some breathing room, considering he agreed to be an impeachment manager in 2019 and seems less concerned about being tied to national Democrats. He was just reelected by 17 points and isn’t likely to be particularly vulnerable in 2022, depending on redistricting. His office said he would support Pelosi next year. 

Jim Cooper is no newbie to Congress considering he’s served 30 years in the House over two separate tenures. Most recently, he ran unopposed this year in Tennessee’s 5th District. Cooper voted “present” in the speaker vote two years ago, but told CQ Roll Call in a statement he will vote for Pelosi in January “because she has led a contentious Democratic Caucus well during the pandemic and the Trump presidency.” Hillary Clinton won his Nashville-area seat by 18 points four years ago, so he’s not really risking much by supporting Pelosi. 

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Mikie Sherrill was first elected in 2018 by 15 points in an open seat in New Jersey’s 11th District that had been held by Republicans for generations. She proved to be a good fundraiser and was just reelected 53 percent to 47 percent in a race that was not considered particularly competitive. After voting for Bustos two years ago, it’s not hard to see how Sherrill could be persuaded to vote for Pelosi one time. She told CQ Roll Call on Nov. 20 she hadn’t decided yet.

Kurt Schrader was first elected in Oregon’s 5th District in 2008 when it was open. By the presidential numbers, the Willamette Valley seat is competitive, but Republicans have struggled to recruit a top-tier challenger for the last two decades. Schrader just won reelection by 7 points, a fairly narrow margin for a race that received no national attention. He told CQ Roll Call he’s open to supporting Pelosi after voting for Ohio Democrat Marcia L. Fudge two years ago, particularly with assurances that this would be Pelosi’s final term in leadership. “She’s sounding much better now,” Schrader said.

With that quartet of members, Pelosi would likely get what she needs, which is good because the remaining persuadables are less certain.

Abigail Spanberger’s political situation is in flux. She was first elected in 2018 to Virginia’s 7th District, which Trump won by 6.5 points in 2016, and then voted for Bustos for speaker. Spanberger was just reelected 51 percent to 49 percent in the same Richmond-area seat, but Biden won it by a point this year. That could give her more political breathing room, as well as a potentially redrawn and more Democratic seat in redistricting prior to the 2022 elections. In a recent private call that was made public, Spanberger lit into some of her Democratic colleagues who she thought were unwilling to denounce socialism. But she was explicit in her desire for new leadership in her first campaign (Schrader has expressed similar concerns) and it’s unclear what the congresswoman will do in January.

Kathleen Rice was first elected in 2014 and just won reelection by 13 points. Considering Clinton won New York’s 4th District by 10 points in 2016, Rice doesn’t have the same electoral challenges as other colleagues who didn’t vote for Pelosi last time. According to multiple sources, the problem is more personal. Maybe she can get from a vote for Georgia’s Stacey Abrams two years ago (the speaker doesn’t have to be a member of the House) to a “yes” with assurances that this will really be Pelosi’s last term in leadership. Rice told CQ Roll Call on Nov. 19 she was more focused on Brindisi’s race and committee chair elections than the January speaker vote. “There’s time to think about that,” she said.

Ron Kind just won reelection narrowly, 51 percent to 49 percent, against Republican Derrick Van Orden in a late-breaking race in Wisconsin. Trump won the 3rd District by 4 points in 2016 and likely won it again. After years of falling short of seriously challenging the congressman, Republicans finally gave him a scare and will be emboldened to take him on again in two years. Kind, who voted for Georgia Democrat John Lewis for speaker two years ago, might be one of the Democrats allowed to defect again in January.

Conor Lamb was first elected in a 2018 special election, then reelected that November in a redrawn district that Trump carried by nearly 3 points. This year, Lamb won reelection 51 percent to 49 percent against Sean Parnell, one of the most highly touted GOP challengers of the cycle, who had a prime-time speaking slot at this summer’s Republican National Convention. Lamb voted for Massachusetts Rep. Joseph P. Kenndy III two years ago and looks like a candidate to defect from Pelosi again with Parnell breathing down his neck. Lamb ignored a CQ Roll reporter who approached him Nov. 20 to ask if he would support Pelosi.

The 2019 defectors are not the only potential Democrats in a difficult position on the speaker vote.

Matt Cartwright was reelected by 9 points in 2018 in a redrawn 8th District in Pennsylvania and voted for Pelosi. But he was just reelected 52 percent to 48 percent. Trump won his district by 10 points in 2016 and likely won it by a significant margin again, putting the congressman at significant risk to start the midterm cycle. But his position in leadership makes a defection difficult.  

The vote

While it’s clear the vote for speaker will be tight, the precise number Pelosi needs is unclear. 

With extremely close races in Iowa and New York that could see litigation, there’s a chance all 435 members won’t be seated at the beginning of January. And Pelosi just needs a majority of the votes cast for a person by name, so “present” votes lower the threshold to prevail. Back in 2015, Republican John A. Boehner needed just 205 votes to become speaker. (He received 216.) 

While Pelosi allies claim the speaker is not the liability or focus she once was, GOP advertising tells a different story. 

According to an item in Politico in early September, Pelosi was mentioned in just 44 unique GOP ads up to that point, compared to 130,000 total in the 2018 cycle. But Pelosi mentions, both by name and her image, spiked soon after that. And by the end of the cycle, Pelosi was featured in about the same percentage of GOP ads in 2020 as she was in 2018, according to Kantar/CMAG. 

But being the public face of a liberal party isn’t the only complication in Pelosi’s path. “It would be helpful if there was a more clear sign that this would be the last iteration of this leadership team,” according to one senior Capitol Hill aide. Pelosi said Nov. 18 that she would abide by the pledge she made two years ago to give up the gavel after the next Congress. While Pelosi has some leverage with committee assignments and appointments, making assurances that this really is the beginning of the end for her is likely enough to get her over the top.

Lindsey McPherson contributed to this report.

Nathan L. Gonzales is an elections analyst for CQ Roll Call.