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House Democrats will decide Wednesday if they want to give Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi another term or if they want to pass the gavel to Rep. Tim Ryan. Ryan poses a long-shot, but serious challenge to her leadership post, the first she has faced since 2010.
In a closed-door election, the 194-member Democratic caucus will decide the race between Pelosi and Ryan as well as other top positions that will help steer the Democrats for the next two years. The election was originally expected to take place November 17, but Pelosi was forced to move the date to November 30 because of pushback from some members of her caucus who wanted more time to process the party’s Election Day defeat.
Ryan stepped up to challenge Pelosi after Democrats picked up just six seats on November 8 — far fewer than expected. He says that Pelosi and her team, also in their mid-70s, have served their time and that new leadership and new ideas are needed.
“We are not winning elections,” Ryan told NBC News Wednesday, pointing to the loss of nearly 60 seats in the past six years. “There is just no easy way to say this. When I talk to my colleagues, I said, 'Look, this is that uncomfortable family discussion you need to have, like when your parents or spouse tells you something you really don’t want to hear but down deep you know it’s right.'”
Ryan says that Democrats have played too much into identity politics and alienated the whites voters Donald Trump won overwhelmingly, especially in the Rust Belt.
"I think, in part, we try to slice the electorate up. And we try to say, 'You're black, you're brown, you're gay, you're straight, you're a woman, you're a man.' The reality of it is there's no juice in that kind of campaign. There's no energy in that because it's divided,” he said on NBC’s “Meet the Press” Sunday. “And we've got to have someone who can not just go on MSNBC, but go on Fox and Fox Business and CNBC, and go into union halls and fish fries and churches all over the country and start a brush fire about what a new Democratic Party looks like."
The argument against Pelosi is also generational. Ryan, who has written a book on the importance of meditation, says that the current leadership, which includes Rep. Steny Hoyer of Maryland and Rep. James Clyburn of South Carolina, both in their 70s, needs to “increase the number of voices” in Democratic leadership.
Ryan proposed creating a new leadership position dedicated to a member who has served three terms or less. He also suggested that a newly created Committee on Policy Innovation be an “Idea Factory,” and that the head of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, which works to elect Democrats to the House, be nominated and chosen by the entire caucus. Currently, the leader chooses the head of the DCCC and it’s up to the caucus to approve.
Pelosi, who has the backing of President Barack Obama, whom she helped to deliver his major legislative accomplishments, said Ryan's assertion that she can’t talk to white workers is absurd.
“He didn’t even carry his district for Hillary Clinton,” Pelosi told the Huffington Post, “so I don’t know why he’s saying that.”
Leader Pelosi has always run a tight, and obedient, ship. The last challenge to her leadership was in 2010, when Democrats lost their short, four-year majority, but she easily beat moderate Rep. Heath Shuler of North Carolina.
This year, like Ryan, Pelosi has proposed changes to how the Democratic caucus operates, including giving committee chairs more say in how their committees work.
In her letter to colleagues announcing her intention to run for leader once more, she wrote that “House Democrats must be unified, strategic and unwavering.
"These qualities took us to victory in 2006 and I believe they will do so again,” Pelosi wrote. She was referring to the election in Bush’s second term where Democrats picked up an impressive 31 seats, regaining the majority and propelling Pelosi to the speakership.
In addition to her experience, Pelosi also has the advantage of her fundraising prowess. She raised a record-breaking $141 million for Democratic House members in 2016.
Only seven members have come out and publicly supported Ryan, but Ryan insists that he is “within striking distance.” Members vote via secret ballot, giving him faith that “a lot of people are going to be surprised on Wednesday.”
Pelosi told reporters last week that she had the support she needed to continue as leader.
“Without even asking anybody for a vote, I have over 2/3 of the caucus supporting me,” Pelosi said.