Some House Democrats have begun to talk more openly about the possibility someone other than Nancy Pelosi may be their leader next year — although, for now, she is still the odds-on favorite to continue leading the caucus.
Leadership jockeying has picked up steam in the wake of House Democratic Caucus Chairman Joseph Crowley’s primary loss last month. The New York Democrat had been seen by many as a potential successor to Pelosi one day.
A few members such as California Reps. Linda T. Sánchez and Barbara Lee are eyeing Crowley’s soon-to-be-open position, but others are discussing and being urged to run for higher posts, including the top spot of Democratic leader.
Rep. Tim Ryan, who challenged Pelosi for her post after the 2016 elections and lost, is considering running against her again.
“I think there are a lot of people talking now, a lot of people thinking about it, which, you know, I’m one of them,” the Ohio Democrat said. “There’s a lot of good people out there. And we’re just having conversations at this point.”
Watch: Pelosi Praises Crowley and His Concession Following Primary Defeat
Most of the discussions are taking place under the assumption that Democrats will take back the majority in November and the race for the top spot will be for speaker.
Many members don’t want to speculate, pointing to the need to focus on winning the House before any real leadership decisions could be made. But potential candidates know they need to start building coalitions early.
Some members, including Ryan, believe the Democratic Caucus needs a generational leadership change regardless of the November results, given that the top three leaders, all in their late 70s, have held power for over a decade and each has been in Congress for at least a quarter-century. But they also acknowledge that a total changing of the guard may not be an easy leap.
“There is a real breadth and depth of talent in our caucus. And I do think that having the top three leadership of the same generation, I think it’s time for that generational change,” Sánchez, the current caucus vice chairwoman, told reporters Wednesday. “And whether there’s transition or not remains to be seen. I want to be part of that transition because I don’t intend to stay in Congress until I’m in my 70s.”
Pelosi spokesman Drew Hammill dismissed current talk of a generational leadership change as unproductive.
“House Democrats are focused on winning in November and if you are rowing in the opposite direction, you are only helping Republicans,” he said.
Talk of a transition to the next generation of leaders has mostly focused on the scenario where Pelosi is unable to get enough votes to be elected speaker on the floor.
While the California Democrat still holds widespread support in the caucus, it is a possible she may not get 218 votes for speaker because a rising number of Democratic candidates have said they won’t support her, if elected.
Few House Democrats doubt that Pelosi has enough support to be elected speaker in a caucus vote, which requires a simple majority of Democratic members. Many also predict she’ll survive a floor vote, securing the 218 votes necessary to be elected speaker, if Democrats win the majority by a wide or even comfortable margin.
But it’s the scenario under which Democrats win a narrow majority that has led to the idea of a “bridge” speaker who could serve for brief period — likely one term — and help groom the next generation of leaders.
Talk of a bridge has picked up since Crowley’s loss, because he was seen as the heir apparent to lead the next generation. There are an abundance of aspiring Democratic leaders who could fill that void but no immediate clear successor.
“Congressman Crowley had sort of been positioned as a next generation leader. And if it came to the point where there was space for next generation people, there’d be a profusion of candidates and a lot of confusion following,” Maryland Rep. Jamie Raskin said.
“Steny Hoyer would be very much a safe harbor, a shelter in the storm in terms of being a bridge to whatever might come next,” Raskin added. “So don’t count him out.”
Ryan said he’s been involved in conversations about Clyburn serving as a bridge candidate if Ryan or another candidate representing a younger generation can’t run and win.
“He’s from the South, he knows how to talk in a very pragmatic way, he’d make history,” Ryan said of the South Carolina Democrat becoming the first black speaker.
Like Pelosi, both Hoyer and Clyburn are widely respected across the caucus. That’s one big reason the trio has maintained power for so long.
But Clyburn holds a much lower leadership profile than Hoyer in terms of fundraising and messaging, factors that matter in leadership elections.
Asked why he thinks Clyburn would be a better bridge candidate than Hoyer, Ryan said, “I think Clyburn brings more votes to the table with the [Congressional Black Caucus] and a lot of relationships that he has.”
One Democratic lawmaker, speaking anonymously to be more candid about private caucus discussions, said Hoyer has for months been positioning himself to be a bridge speaker should the circumstance arise.
More recently, the lawmaker said, some CBC members who are frustrated that their representative in leadership has been relegated to the third position have approached Clyburn about him being the bridge speaker.
Clyburn said his decision on what leadership position he runs for would ultimately depend on what his fellow CBC members think is best.
“I’ve made it very clear to everybody that in the 25 years I’ve been here … I’ve always submitted myself to the wishes of the [CBC],” said Clyburn, a former caucus chairman. “I’m hoping to do anything the Congressional Black Caucus thinks is in the best interest of the caucus.”
Clyburn said he has “absolutely no idea” if Pelosi can be elected speaker but he would not challenge her “in no way, shape or form.”
Hoyer is also unlikely to directly challenge Pelosi. A spokeswoman contacted for this story said only he was “focused on taking back the House and ensuring we have a Democratic Majority in 2019.”
Repeat of 2010?
Another big question is whether Clyburn and Hoyer would run against one another.
The aforementioned lawmaker and another Democratic member — also speaking anonymously to discuss caucus dynamics — suggested the two would not. If the situation for a bridge speaker arose, Hoyer and Clyburn would likely work that out behind the scenes before making the caucus choose, the two Democrats predicted.
Hoyer and Clyburn faced this issue in 2010 when Democrats lost the majority and thus a leadership position, since the speaker has no equivalent in the minority. Clyburn, who had been majority whip, didn’t want to lose his leadership clout, so he decided to challenge Hoyer, who had been majority leader, for the minority whip position.
Clyburn lacked the support to beat Hoyer at the time, and Pelosi ended the intraparty drama by creating the assistant leader position he now holds.
Rep. Emanuel Cleaver II said the entire concept of selecting leaders based on their generation is misguided — a feeling many in the caucus share.
“We make a terrible mistake as a caucus if we begin to consider age,” the Missouri Democrat said. “Because if you do that, what comes next? Is it color? Is it gender?”
Cleaver, a CBC member, was unfamiliar with discussions within the group about pushing Clyburn as a bridge candidate. But should such a speaker be needed, he said both Hoyer and Clyburn would be “ideal” because both are well-liked among the caucus and neither has a long-term desire to stay.
“If it ends up that both Hoyer and Clyburn are interested in a position, Democrats win,” he said. “The caucus wins. Nobody loses in that.”
CBC Chairman Cedric L. Richmond said some members have approached him about the idea of Clyburn serving as a bridge speaker and he understands related discussions are taking place, but he’s not been involved in those talks.
“I think his talent is real, but I think the real issue is, we should not be talking about leadership,” the Louisiana Democrat said, noting the focus should be on the midterms.
Richmond is close with Clyburn; they have dinner together every night when they’re in Washington. He acknowledged that should Clyburn want to be a bridge speaker, he’d probably back him in that quest.
“There’s probably nothing Clyburn could ask for that I wouldn’t support him for,” Richmond said.