House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi is facing mounting pressure over her future, with calls from members of her own party to step aside as discussions about potential successors gain more traction -- both in the national spotlight and among members of Congress.
Pelosi has repeatedly said she's not going anywhere, and she's challenging anyone who wants to run for speaker -- should Democrats retake the House in November -- to prove they have what it takes to lead the party.
The future of Democratic leadership in the House is a topic many in the party's leadership are desperate to keep out of the headlines ahead of the midterms, hoping to keep the spotlight on an energized base rather than intraparty debates.
While Democrats feel optimistic about their chances at retaking the House, who will lead the party is another question all together. With so many variables at stake --mostly whether Pelosi can get the 218 votes needed to become speaker -- and no clear next-in-line candidate, some members are positioning themselves, preparing for a possible vacancy at the top of the party. Those conversations are largely taking place behind the scenes at this point -- though some of have spilled over into public view this week -- but all under the context as possible backup scenarios if Pelosi doesn't run.
"Where two or more members are gathered in Washington, invariably the discussion about House leadership comes up," Democratic Rep. Brian Higgins of New York, who has already stated he won't support Pelosi this fall, told CNN in a phone interview Thursday.
One of Pelosi's closest allies, however, is publicly expressing interest in the speaker's gavel. Rep. James Clyburn of South Carolina, the No. 3 Democrat in the House, says he'll support Pelosi if she decides to stay -- but he's also ready to step in if she doesn't.
For her part, Pelosi is counting on her experience as well as her colossal fundraising power to shore up her path to return to the speakership.
Pelosi was also lauded by her party for helping to usher through the Affordable Care Act when Democrats controlled the House during the first two years under President Barack Obama. Since Republicans have taken back the majority, she has largely kept her caucus together in opposing big Republican initiatives and has had no major defections on key votes. Even those who want to see new leadership still routinely praise her 15-year tenure as leader of the caucus.
As Pelosi put it to MSNBC last weekend, "I think I'm the best person for the job."
Clyburn shows interest if Pelosi leaves
Clyburn, if elected speaker, would be the first black Democratic Speaker of the US House of Representatives.
"If the opportunity is there I would absolutely do it," Clyburn told The New York Times, citing a verse from scripture on the importance of "keeping your lamps trimmed and burning to be ready when the bridegroom comes."
Clyburn also told Politico earlier this month, "If the opportunity is there, absolutely. I have been preparing myself for this role since my pre-teenage years."
A host of other names are frequently mentioned by lawmakers and aides as potential Pelosi-alternatives, including other members of the Congressional Black Caucus, such as the chairman, Rep. Cedric Richmond of Louisiana, and Rep. Hakeem Jeffries of New York. Rep. Cheri Bustos of Illinois and Rep. Ben Ray Luján of New Mexico are two other names, among many more, who get dropped as potential candidates seeking higher leadership positions.
House Minority Whip Steny Hoyer, the current No. 2 Democrat in the House, is also considered a likely contender for the top spot should Pelosi step aside. He and Clyburn vied for the whip position in 2010, but after it was clear Clyburn would not get enough support, he was offered the newly-created position of Assistant Democratic Leader, averting a divisive caucus vote between Clyburn and Hoyer.
Rep. Tim Ryan of Ohio, who challenged Pelosi in the last leadership race in 2016, has said he's considering launching another challenge if Pelosi stays.
But there's no consensus around any successor, as most are keeping their powder dry until the month after the midterms when it's clear what Pelosi will do and when other leadership campaigns launch into full swing. The caucus elections, which take place on a secret ballot, are slated for the week of December 5.
"I look forward to seeing the results of the election and assessing who opts to run for leadership after the outcome," said Rep. Dan Lipinski of Illinois, who voted against Pelosi in 2016.
Headwinds for Pelosi from Democrats
Pelosi has faced dissension in the Democratic Party this cycle, as a growing number of candidates and some incumbents have expressed ambivalence towards her potential bid for speaker, including rising Democratic star Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, who told CNN it was "far too early" to back a candidate for speaker following her surprise primary win in June, and Massachusetts Rep. Seth Moulton, who called for "a new generation of leadership," in a July interview with CNN.
Supporters of Pelosi say she's getting unfair treatment that's largely based on her age rather than her abilities and leadership of the party. While at least 37 new Democratic candidates and incumbents, according to a CNN count, have said they won't support Pelosi, many others are showing deference to whatever decision she ultimately makes.
Before the Times published its interview with Clyburn this week, Rep. Elijah Cummings of Maryland was asked Sunday on ABC's "This Week" if he felt it was time for an African American speaker. He said he thought it was "quite possible."
"But I'd bet everything I've got that Nancy Pelosi will be Speaker, period," he added.
In an interview with McClatchy, the 78-year-old Clyburn pledged a Clyburn speakership would be "transitional," not "custodial," and that he'd seek to make the Democratic Party more attractive "to young African Americans who still feel ... take(n) for granted."
"I think our party needs to be transformed and that's what I'm talking about," Clyburn said.
But Pelosi seemed unruffled at the prospect of others showing interest in the speakership, telling the Times, "What I have always tried to do is build a bridge to the future, and hope that would be in the majority. If people want to be the bridge that I'm building toward, they have to show what's on the other side of the bridge."
Pelosi's positive numbers
Pelosi's confidence is well-founded — internal documents obtained by CNN from the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee show that the House minority leader raised an impressive $83 million through June for the 2018 election cycle, more than doubling the party's next highest fundraiser, DCCC chair Rep. Ben Ray Lujan, who raised $35 million. Clyburn, for his part, has raised $3.7 million for the party's House campaign arm.
In The New York Times interview, Pelosi challenged anyone who wants to run for speaker to prove they have the fundraising prowess it takes to lead the party, as well as demonstrate they have "a following" and "a vision for the country."
Despite aggressive messaging by Republicans to paint Pelosi as a villain, the idea of another Pelosi speakership doesn't seem to sway voters one way or the other — in a CNN poll out this week, just 34% of registered voters said Pelosi will be an extremely or very important factor in their vote in 2018, putting her at the bottom of their voting considerations.
While leadership race chatter will undoubtedly ramp up again when members return next month from recess, Democrats -- both Pelosi detractors and supporters -- are still largely trying to stay on message for now.
Rep. Ruben Gallego of Arizona, who voted against Pelosi during the leadership race in 2016, reiterated over the weekend on MSNBC the common refrain that Democrats should solely focus on winning back the majority.
"Because until then, this is all a moot point," he said.
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