Rep. Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., was re-elected as leader of House Democrats Wednesday with the support of a majority of her colleagues after a high profile, serious challenge from Ohio Rep. Tim Ryan, who promised a more inclusive Democratic Party.
This was the most serious challenger to Pelosi's leadership, a post she's held since 2003. Sixty-three members of her 198 member caucus voted in a secret ballot against her, showing deep discontent among her colleagues.
After a disappointing election where House Democrats picked up only six seats, unease over the current leadership escalated. Critics wanted new, younger leaders and more say in a caucus that has been tightly controlled by Pelosi and her lieutenants, Reps. Steny Hoyer of Maryland and James Clyburn of South Carolina, both also in their mid-70s.
Speaking with reporters after the vote, Pelosi said she's "heartbroken" that Democrats didn't win the White House but expressed confidence in the party's future electoral success.
"We know how to win elections. We've done it in the past and we'll do it again," Pelosi said.
Pelosi postponed the election by two weeks to appease the concerned, and she proposed changes to how the Democratic caucus works, including allowing committee leaders to have more say in how their respective committee operates and the addition of three new positions that would include younger and newer members.
Ryan, 43, who represents the blue-collar town of Youngstown, Ohio, promised a new vision with a new generation of leadership. He ran on the plank that Democratic messaging and focus has played too much into identity politics and the party did too little to speak to struggling white, middle-class voters. Also just as importantly, he promised to open up leadership to younger, newer members.
That message resonated.
Ryan bested the last significant challenge to Pelosi, which was waged by Rep. Heath Shuler of North Carolina in 2010 when he won the support of 43 Democrats after Republicans regained the majority.
He has been expressing concern that Pelosi, a San Francisco elite, is unable to appeal to workers in steel mills and those fighting to stay in the middle class. Despite losing, he's resolute that the Democrats' message needs to change.
"We need to have an economic message that resonates in every corner of the country," he told reporters.
Ryan emerged after the vote flanked with his core supporters, saying he's "disappointed" but pleased that he was able to win the support of one-third of the Caucus despite Pelosi's tendency to quell dissent.
"I think thy'll be a lot more people who are going to be ok standing up and speaking out," Ryan said.
Pelosi allies have questioned Ryan's intentions, saying that this is simply a publicity tour to elevate his profile. Ryan is considering a run for Ohio governor in 2018. He said Wednesday that it's a conversation that he will have with his wife and children and that he's not ready to commit to future terms in Congress.
Pelosi and her supporters defended Pelosi through out, saying she's led the caucus through ups and downs.
Pelosi did not speak directly to her colleagues but instead had six supporters make the case for her. They divided their time among the slotted 11 minutes and all touched on the theme of the need for experience, according to a source in the room.
"I'm convinced Nancy Pelosi is best equipped to lead this caucus in what is a dangerous time," Rep. Bill Pascrell, D-N.J. told his colleagues.
"We need the very best to lead us ... No one is a better tactician than Nancy Pelosi," said fellow Californian, Rep. Adam Schiff.
Democrats also elected the first woman of color to leadership. Rep. Linda Sanchez of California barely beat fellow Californian, Rep. Barbara Lee, by a vote of 98 to 96, for the position of vice-chair.