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Young Democrats ready their plans for a post-Pelosi shake-up

As House Democrats' top three leaders — all in their 80s — face calls for generational change, a new, younger guard campaigns to replace them.
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House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., finishes up a news conference in the Capitol Visitor Center on April 28.Tom Williams / CQ-Roll Call, Inc via Getty Images file

House Democrats have unified as they fight to retain their fragile majority in next month’s midterms. But if they lose, as many election prognosticators predict they will, that unity will likely be short-lived.

A Democratic defeat at the polls is expected to prompt rank-and-file members to push aggressively to replace the party’s Big Three — Speaker Nancy Pelosi, Majority Leader Steny Hoyer and Majority Whip Jim Clyburn, all octogenarians — with a new, younger generation of leaders. 

President Joe Biden would also be in his 80s if he runs for a second term in 2024.

Even before Election Day, younger House members haven't made a secret of their desire for change. Rep. Elissa Slotkin, 46, a moderate Michigan Democrat, has called for “new blood” and a “new generation” to step up and lead the Democratic Party. Rep. Dean Phillips, 53, another moderate Democrat who represents Minnesota, agreed, telling NBC News on Friday: “Rep. Slotkin shares the same perspective as me and the majority of the class of 2018.”

For the past several years, a trio of ambitious young Democrats — Reps. Hakeem Jeffries, 52; Katherine Clark, 59; and Pete Aguilar, 43 — have been laying the groundwork to take the reins of the Democratic Caucus in a post-Pelosi world. And other eager Democrats, sensing the rare opportunity to move up in the pecking order, have launched challenges to that unofficial leadership slate.

Pelosi, 82, has led her caucus for nearly two decades and previously indicated that this election cycle would be her last, although she has dodged questions about her political future more recently. Her longtime spokesman and trusted adviser, Drew Hammill, repeated a familiar refrain: “The speaker is not on a shift, she’s on a mission.” 

Democrats argue it would be hard to oust the two-time speaker if she leads her party to an unexpected victory on Nov. 8. But given Biden’s unpopularity and the GOP lead on the generic congressional ballot (which asks only which party people would support), the more likely scenario is a bad election night for House Democrats.

Even if Pelosi were to retire, some Democrats say that Hoyer and Clyburn could try to hang on to their respective number two and number three posts, or run for the top job. But many of their colleagues warn that would lead to a messy fight and end badly for the highly revered old bulls.

“I think [Hoyer and Clyburn] do try to stick around, but the paint has dried on the generational-change decision. If people don’t see that, they’re going to be in for a rude awakening,” one Democratic lawmaker, who has served decades with Pelosi, Hoyer and Clyburn, told NBC News.

“It’ll be unfortunate. They’re both beloved; they’re great legislators, great people. And it could just be that the caucus has shifted under everyone’s feet — not just theirs, but everyone’s.”

A Democratic aide agreed: “It’s an inevitability that’s really hard for them to swallow right now.”

A new generation

All of the Democrats angling for leadership positions have said their top priority this fall is to preserve the party's narrow five-seat majority in the House. They've been crisscrossing the country, raising loads of cash and stumping for their vulnerable colleagues. But after the election, these leadership candidates also hope that their work pays off as they call in their political chits and lock down support.

If Pelosi, Hoyer and Clyburn head for the exits, the leadership matchups become pretty clear. Jeffries, a popular member of the Congressional Black Caucus who serves as Democratic Caucus chairman, has spent years forging relationships across the caucus and has positioned himself as Pelosi’s heir apparent. If he succeeds, the Brooklyn native would make history as the first Black minority leader or speaker of the House, seizing the leadership baton from another historical figure, Pelosi, the nation’s first female speaker.

Democratic Caucus Chair Hakeem Jeffries, D-N.Y., conducts a news conference in the Capitol Visitor Center on Sept. 20, 2022.
Democratic Caucus Chair Hakeem Jeffries, D-N.Y., at a news conference in the Capitol Visitor Center on Sept. 20.Tom Williams / CQ-Roll Call, Inc via Getty Images file

But Jeffries is expected to face a challenge from Adam Schiff, 62, chair of the House Intelligence Committee; Schiff, a top Pelosi ally and fellow Californian, has reached out to colleagues to gauge support for a run at the top job. Schiff raised his national profile by leading the Democrats’ first impeachment trial of former President Donald Trump. A prolific fundraiser, he is on track to appear at 150 campaign events for Democrats this election cycle and is preparing to launch a six-day campaign swing through California, New Hampshire, New York and Ohio, a source familiar with his plans said.

Once friendly rivals, Jeffries and Clark are now close allies hoping to move in tandem into the number one and number two slots, sources say. Like Jeffries, Clark has spent the past two elections building support across the caucus. The Massachusetts Democrat has significant support from fellow female members and has stayed close to the Black, Hispanic and Asian caucuses — big voting blocs in the diverse 220-member Democratic Caucus.

Clark could face off with Rep. Pramila Jayapal, 57, chair of the Congressional Progressive Caucus, and the first Indian American woman to serve in the House. The Washington Democrat has said she has been looking for another leadership opportunity but has not explicitly stated which spot she would consider. Moving from ideological leader to a top leader of the whole caucus would be a difficult jump, given that Jayapal would need a broad base of support to win. Last year, she infuriated moderates by blocking passage of an infrastructure bill to try to pressure the Senate to take up Biden’s Build Back Better agenda. In the end, Democrats passed both the roads and bridges bill and a pared-down climate and health care bill, collectively called the Inflation Reduction Act.

“I don’t think we miscalculated,” Jayapal told reporters in a recent meeting in her office. “I don’t know that it makes sense to keep rehashing that but I still think we did a pretty darn good job of getting done what we needed to get done.”

Rep. Katherine Clark, D-Mass., speaks during the news conference after the House Democrats caucus meeting in the Capitol on Sept. 14, 2022.
Rep. Katherine Clark, D-Mass., speaks at a news conference after the House Democratic Caucus meeting in the Capitol on Sept. 14.Bill Clark / CQ-Roll Call, Inc via Getty Images file

In a minority, Aguilar, the highest-ranking Hispanic in Congress, would likely run for the number three slot, assistant leader, while Rep. Joe Neguse, 38, the son of Eritrean immigrants and a rising star in the party, has been aggressively locking down votes to succeed Jeffries as caucus chair, colleagues said. Both Neguse and Aguilar are talented communicators, and neither face any challengers at the moment, though that could change after the election if there’s a big reshuffling.

“My assumption is that nobody’s going to be unopposed. We’re the Democratic Party,” said one House Democrat who's closely tracking the races.

In a sign of how hungry Democrats are to climb the leadership ladder, candidates have been flocking to the race for caucus vice chair, a lower-tier position. They include Reps. Ted Lieu, 53, of California, and Debbie Dingell, 68, of Michigan, two co-chairs of the House Policy and Communications Committee — the Democrats’ policy and messaging arm — as well as Congressional Black Caucus Chair Joyce Beatty, 72, of Ohio, and Rep. Madeleine Dean, 63, vice chair of the Judiciary Committee, of Pennsylvania.

Rep. Adam Schiff, a D-Calif., during a hearing of the Select Committee to Investigate the January 6th Attack on the U.S. Capitol, on July 12, 2022.
Rep. Adam Schiff, a D-Calif., during a hearing of the House Jan. 6 committee on July 12.Al Drago / Bloomberg via Getty Images file

Like Slotkin and Phillips, Dean was also swept into Congress in the 2018 anti-Trump wave election. She said Jeffries, Clark and Aguilar already represent “generational change, new blood, new voices, diverse experience and talent, and diversity of geography.

“We’re already in motion to make that change. And that’s one of the reasons I’m running: I want to make sure that I offer a set of skills, background, experience to make our caucus as effective as possible,” Dean said in an interview Friday.

“At some point there certainly will be a transition at the top three,” she continued. “But when and where they do that, I’m not of the style to say anybody’s gotta go. They have served us so well. I’m so proud to serve with them, so lucky to come in under that leadership four years ago.”

The old guard

Pelosi, Hoyer and Clyburn have not taken their foot off the gas. They’ve been traveling the country and campaigning with colleagues in a desperate fight to hang on to the majority. Pelosi has raised a whopping $213 million for her party this cycle, according to the Democrats’ campaign committee, while Hoyer and Clyburn have added millions more to campaign coffers.

Asked by NBC’s Andrea Mitchell this week about Slotkin’s calls for new blood, Pelosi suggested she had no problem with at-risk members using her as a foil in their re-election campaigns, channeling the late Raiders owner Al Davis: “Just win, baby. Just win.” But the speaker rattled off a long list of her and Biden’s legislative victories, adding, “There’s no substitute for experience.”

For Clyburn, 82, there may be no greater political pinnacle than right now. The South Carolinian, the highest-ranking Black lawmaker in Congress, played the role of kingmaker two years ago, endorsing Biden and giving him the critical boost he needed to win the Palmetto State primary — and the Democratic nomination. In turn, Biden picked Black candidates for powerful roles: Kamala Harris became vice president, Lloyd Austin became Defense Department secretary and Ketanji Brown Jackson joined the Supreme Court.

In a recent interview on NBC’s “Meet the Press Now,” Clyburn indicated he plans to stick around: “I’m always going to be in leadership in one capacity or another at this particular juncture in my life” but added that it could be in an “advisory” role.

Democratic sources said there was no scenario in which Jeffries and his political mentor and friend Clyburn both run for minority leader. That would be worked out in the Black Caucus first.

Neither Clyburn nor Hoyer, 83, have made calls to colleagues in seek of support, lawmakers said, but they've been active on the campaign trail. Hoyer campaigned with colleagues in New York and traveled to 57 congressional districts in 26 states, his team said.

Hoyer "is proud to have the support of his colleagues and the American people, and looks forward to building on this strong record by strengthening our majority and furthering efforts to ensure workers and families have the tools they need to make it in America," said Hoyer spokeswoman Margaret Mulkerrin.

CORRECTION (Oct. 24, 2022, 3:24 p.m.): A previous version of this article misstated the historical significance of Rep. Pramila Jayapal’s election to Congress in 2016. She is the first Indian American woman to serve in the U.S. House, not the first Indian American.