House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi is quietly courting Democratic candidates who’ve kept her at arm’s length throughout the campaign season, aiming to placate potential adversaries who could block her from the speakership.
The California Democrat’s efforts — from nudging her donors toward candidates, to appearing at private fundraisers for House hopefuls who can’t be seen with her publicly — are focused on the Democrats in competitive races who are most likely to win. While it’s too early to say whether she would have the 218 votes to claim the speaker’s gavel should her party claim House majority, Pelosi has clearly made inroads.
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Of the 43 Democratic candidates in districts that POLITICO rates “lean-Democrat,” “likely-Democrat” or “toss-up” — the swath of GOP-held seats most likely to flip — only 11 have said they would not back Pelosi for speaker. Of those 11, only five would confirm that they would vote against Pelosi on the House floor next year.
Indeed, while much of the narrative surrounding candidates and Pelosi over the past year has focused on dozens of hopefuls who have called for her to step aside and vowed to oppose her for the speakership, a closer examination of those most likely to win on Nov. 6 reveals that the number of anti-Pelosi absolutists is relatively small.
While Pelosi is not currently asking candidates for votes, she’s clearly trying to ease her path. The minority leader has raised $6.7 million for “Red to Blue” candidates trying to oust GOP incumbents. She’s set up phone-banking and texting operations for one California House candidate who hasn’t clarified a position on her to lead the caucus. And she’s sent more than 30 of her staffers out to toss-up districts —including places where candidates have distanced themselves from Pelosi on the trail.
“There’s a charm offensive underway, and there’s a real effort on [Pelosi’s] part to reach out to these campaigns and offer help, even to those who seem to be distancing himself or flat out rejecting her,” said a senior Democratic aide. “They know what the political reality is.”
Added another Democratic operative working on House campaigns: “She’s endearing herself to these candidates and she’s building relationships with them, laying that groundwork. But her primary objective is flipping the House.”
Pelosi’s office would not comment for this story.
Still, Pelosi’s spadework doesn’t guarantee success: A small but determined group of candidates could complicate her path to the speakership. The five candidates with solid prospects of winning on Election Day, who have confirmed to POLITICO that they would vote against her on the floor, are Conor Lamb of Pennsylvania, Abigail Spanberger of Virginia, Paul Davis of Kansas, Dan McCready of North Carolina and — after publication of this story — Jason Crow of Colorado.
“I’m a Marine and a Christian. I keep my word,” McCready said in an interview when asked about the possibility of changing his mind and supporting Pelosi.
That pool could grow if Democrats in Republican-leaning districts win. Indeed, staff on many of these campaigns told POLITICO they worried about being attacked by Republican challengers in 2020 if the first vote they take is to vote for Pelosi after implying they would not.
Some Democratic political consultants and a handful of lawmakers have encouraged candidates to break with her if it can help get them elected. While Pelosi has had to keep a low profile on the campaign trail because of her status as an election-season lightning rod, some of her more vocal critics within the party — such as Reps. Seth Moulton of Massachusetts and Tim Ryan of Ohio — have been campaigning publicly with Democratic hopefuls in red-leaning districts.
Republicans have worked to tie Democratic candidates to Pelosi, running more than 260 different anti-Pelosi TV ads in 74 House districts during the final months of the campaign cycle. That’s forced many candidates to mimic the “Lamb model”: declaring flatly in an ad never to support Pelosi.
But most candidates adopting that strategy are from “reach” districts and unlikely to win. If they do prevail, Pelosi allies’ thinking goes, it would mean a big night for Democrats, and more leeway for Pelosi to muster the 218 votes she needs.
Most of the party’s contenders in “toss-up, “lean” and “likely” Democratic districts fall into three categories on the Pelosi question: Embrace her, decline to weigh in until after the election or call vaguely for “new leadership.” Multiple Democratic leadership sources — and even some of Pelosi’s critics — believe she could win over candidates who have not said specifically they’ll vote against her on the House floor.
Multiple senior Democratic sources also noted that some candidates haven’t specified what they mean by not supporting Pelosi. A vote against Pelosi in caucus — a secret-ballot election in which she would need a simple majority of Democrats to win the nomination for speaker — is one thing. A vote against her on the House floor, when she’d need 218 votes and likely could afford only a small number of defections — is another thing entirely.
These sources expect some candidates who have bucked Pelosi on the campaign trail to vote against her in caucus, then back her on the floor. After the 2016 election, more than 60 Democrats voted against Pelosi behind closed doors, but only four followed up by opposing her on the floor.
Some senior Democratic sources are also already discussing the possibility of trying to persuade some Pelosi opponents to skip the vote or vote present. That would give Pelosi a bigger buffer, while allowing these candidates to say they never voted for her.
Democrats such as McCready say that wouldn’t fly with them. But other candidates in “toss-up,” “lean” or “likely” Democratic seats, who have come out against Pelosi, have not specified whether that would mean voting against her on the House floor. They include: Mikie Sherrill and Jeff Van Drew of New Jersey, Jared Golden of Maine and Gil Cisneros of California.
Aides to those candidates declined to comment for this story or did not respond.
Van Drew suggested recently that he’s open to negotiation. While the candidate running for an open New Jersey seat said “Pelosi will not have my support as leader in the next session,” he recently signed a letter vowing to back the candidate for speaker who promises to make certain changes to House rules.
Some anti-Pelosi House Democrats believe the incoming class of lawmakers, fresh off campaigns in which they’ve touted themselves as change agents, would band together and oppose her. But others are skeptical that the incoming freshmen would stand up to Pelosi and throw the caucus into chaos after Democrats just won the majority.
Pelosi has been leader for more than a decade for a reason: She knows how to win people over, with flattery or arm-twisting. Among her current tactics is using her fundraising prowess to build chits with candidates without drawing the attention of their Republican opponents.
Pelosi has personally donated to more than 25 of those candidates most likely to win. And she’s personally called or had her staff reach out to candidates with encouragement and praise.
The Pelosi-aligned House Majority PAC has also spent millions on ads helping these candidates in “lean” and “likely” Democrat as well as “toss-up” districts. Many of those candidates have embraced Pelosi outright or have called for “new leadership,” but stopped short of saying they would vote against her.
Democratic hopefuls Andy Kim of New Jersey and Anthony Brindisi of New York have both called for new blood. “It’s time we have new leadership on both sides of the aisle in Washington to get the job done,” Kim said this summer. Brindisi struck a similar tone, saying earlier this year: “I believe it’s time for new leadership on both sides of the aisle.”
But both have accepted money from Pelosi’s PAC. House Majority PAC spent $3.1 million to help Kim and $2.2 million to boost Brindisi.
Neither candidate would say whether they’d buck Pelosi on the floor if they win and Democrats are in the majority.