Nancy Pelosi’s prestige and power as House speaker took a hit as Tuesday’s Democratic losses left her heading into what could be her last term in Congress with a diminished majority and an emboldened Republican conference.
Democrats broadly fell short of expectations in Tuesday’s elections, leaving Pelosi with less room to maneuver an ideologically diverse caucus, and possibly still contending with a Republican-led Senate even if Joe Biden ends up edging out President Donald Trump.
In a letter to colleagues Wednesday, Pelosi said it was a “challenging election, all of our candidates,” but she claimed success in her party’s strategy of “‘mobilization, messaging and money,’ forcing Republicans to defend their own territory.”
At least seven House Democratic incumbents lost their re-election races, including first-term moderates in Florida, New Mexico and South Carolina and even the long-serving chairman of the House Agriculture Committee.
This has immediate implications for Pelosi’s leverage leading the party’s negotiations with the Trump administration on a new round of coronavirus relief. There has been grumbling — including from some of the Democrats who lost Tuesday — about her top-down approach to the talks and her resolve to hold out for a package worth more than $2 trillion.
Pelosi will also face pressure from the growing progressive wing of the party, which will have additional clout with a handful of new members who won primaries against senior incumbents. While Republicans depict Pelosi as a liberal lightning rod, members on the left of her caucus complain she has actually been too timid when it comes to proposals like Medicare for All and the environmental measures included in the Green New Deal.
“A reduced majority complicates everything,” said Representative Gerald Connolly, a Virginia Democrat. “It amplifies the voices and ability of those inside the caucus who want to reshape, change or reduce what a bill is.”
This will set up a reckoning among House Democrats, as some moderates blame their defeat in part on the progressive embrace of issues like defunding the police and leaning into being labeled as socialist, according to one senior lawmaker who is close to Pelosi.
The speaker often points to her record of balancing varied views from factions within her party. “I’m used to building consensus in my own caucus,” she said in a recent interview on MSNBC.
But this new soul-searching comes just two weeks before newly elected and returning Democrats gather in Washington to elect party leaders for the next Congress. The lawmaker said while Pelosi is a skilled leader, her rigid control of the caucus and the stimulus talks hurt members who needed to define themselves for their constituents.
Pelosi, 80, promised two years ago that she would not seek to stay on as speaker beyond 2023 — a decision made to pacify demands inside her party for a new generation of leadership. She has already said she will run again for speaker, but she has not spoken about her plans beyond that.
That means the next two years may not only be Pelosi’s last as speaker, but also her final term in Congress.
“Today is not about the race for speaker. Today is about the race for the White House and ensuring that our members and candidates in uncalled races have the support they need. That is our focus,” said Drew Hammill, Pelosi’s spokesman.
House Republican Leader Kevin McCarthy appeared to go on the offensive Wednesday — even though his own party remains in the minority.
“In districts all across the country, Americans rejected socialism and voted for freedom,” McCarthy said on Twitter. “Nancy Pelosi: you’ve been put on notice.”
Pelosi on Tuesday night underscored that Democrats would retain the House majority, with many districts still counting votes. “Again we look forward to coming together in our Democratic majority in the Congress of the United States,” she said.
Democratic Representative Cheri Bustos, the head of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee who won her own surprisingly close re-election race in Illinois, defended the party’s strategy of spending more than $75 million to support Democrats from Republican-leaning districts.
“Going into this election, we knew President Trump would likely carry many of those districts again. While votes are still being counted, it appears that did indeed happen,” Bustos said in a letter to colleagues obtained by Bloomberg. Still, she said, “every dime was well spent.”
Connolly also said some of this year’s disappointment was due to Democrats over-performing in the 2018 midterms, taking districts that solidly favored Trump. But he acknowledged that the outcome of this year’s election didn’t match the size of Democrats’ ambitions.
“The bigger story is the missed opportunities in places we thought we could win — in Texas, Indiana, Missouri,” Connolly said. “We were going to take some losses, but hopefully make them up elsewhere. The question is: ‘why did that not happen?’”
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