ANALYSIS — “You can’t beat somebody with nobody.”
That political axiom explains in just six words why Nancy Pelosi is likely to be elected speaker if Democrats retake the House in November. No one has announced plans to challenge the California Democrat, and it’s unclear if anyone will after the election.
Few need reminding that the midterms are less than a month away. But it’s worth noting that leadership elections are less than two months away.
With the uncertainty over which party will control the House next year, Democrats and Republicans alike have largely avoided talking about intraparty leadership battles, but they’re coming and Democrats do not appear to be ready.
Regardless of which party wins, there will be drama surrounding the speaker’s race. The difference is that the field of Republican candidates has been known since April.
Retiring Speaker Paul D. Ryan wants House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy to succeed him, but the California Republican faces a challenge from Freedom Caucus co-founder Jim Jordan of Ohio. McCarthy also has to quietly contend with Majority Whip Steve Scalise of Louisiana, who would run if he can’t get the votes. All three have been working behind the scenes to build coalitions of support.
The outcome of a Republican speaker’s race is still uncertain, but it’s fair to say one of those three men will likely be speaker if their party holds on to its majority next month.
On the Democratic side, however, there’s no obvious field of candidates ready to run against Pelosi. Similar to the situation with Scalise and McCarthy, House Minority Leader Steny H. Hoyer of Maryland and Assistant Democratic Leader James E. Clyburn of South Carolina are ready to throw their hats in the ring should Pelosi falter but have ruled out running against her.
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So how can Pelosi falter if no one credible is challenging her?
Unlike Republicans, who have a rebel faction called the Freedom Caucus, willing to oppose the establishment leadership, Democrats have no such organized bloc.
Some believe that a wave of Democratic candidates who have either pledged not to back Pelosi for speaker or said they’d prefer new leadership will refuse to vote for her on the floor even if she emerges as the caucus’s choice. (Party caucuses elect their leaders by a simple majority vote of their members but speakers also have to be elected by a majority of the full House, making 218 the magic number.)
This just isn’t realistic. Such a power move by a group of incoming freshmen — who wouldn’t yet have been sworn in, received committee assignments or even figured out how to get around the Capitol Hill complex — would be unprecedented.
Yes, there’s a small group of dissident Democrats who have long been frustrated with and outspoken against the current leadership and who might be willing to help organize such a coup. But would they be able to do so without the Pelosi machine picking off their supporters, particularly the vulnerable freshmen? Unlikely.
Six months elapsed in 2015 between the founding of the Freedom Caucus by a group of nine conservatives and one of those members, North Carolina Rep. Mark Meadows, filing a procedural motion to remove Speaker John A. Boehner from office. It was a few more months after that when Boehner resigned and the Freedom Caucus flexed its muscle to prevent McCarthy from becoming speaker.
It’s hard to see a group of Democrats collecting enough power to block Pelosi from becoming speaker in the next seven weeks.
The best way to oust Pelosi would be for someone to challenge her directly and present an alternative vision and strategy. The fact that no one is talking about doing so suggests she may be unbeatable.
The only Democrat who’s signaled a willingness to run against Pelosi for speaker is Ohio Rep. Tim Ryan, who unsuccessfully challenged her for minority leader in 2016. The caucus vote was 134-63 to re-elect Pelosi as Democratic leader, and that came on the tail of their fourth straight election loss.
Pelosi cannot withstand a fifth loss. Practically everyone agrees on that. But if Democrats retake the House under her leadership — and boosted by a boatload of money she personally raised — why would they push her out?
Again, without a credible challenger to offer something different — whatever that may be — it’s hard to see that happening.
Even Tim Ryan has acknowledged he wouldn’t want to run against Pelosi unless he thought he could win. It’s fair to assume other candidates who would even consider challenging her are asking themselves the same question.
Is there even a member who could beat Pelosi in a head-to-head caucus race for speaker?
One sign that the answer to that question is no: A handful of House Democrats have proposed changing the caucus rules to increase the threshold for their internal speaker vote from a simple majority to 218.
Supporters of the proposal say the change would allow the caucus to avoid a messy floor fight in which their speaker nominee would have to get to that same threshold. Opponents say it would be nearly impossible for any candidate to reach 218 in a contested caucus contest.
The proposal appears to be the only strategy Pelosi opponents have to prevent her from emerging as the caucus’s choice for speaker. They wouldn’t need to float the rule change if they had a candidate who could beat her.
And that brings us back to their underlying issue: “You can’t beat somebody with nobody.”