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Breaking Through the House Ceiling

Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call/Getty Images
Newly elected members of the House of Representatives Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (NY) and Deb Haaland (NM) after the congressional freshman class photo, the Capitol, Washington, D.C., November 14, 2018

The Democrats have regained control of the House, thanks in large part to women. A majority of the seats that flipped from red to blue were won by women, many of them women of color, and many of them first-time candidates. In fact, it has been a year of firsts for the House: the election of the first two Native American women; the first two Muslim women; the first two Latinx women from Texas; the first black woman from Massachusetts; the first black woman from Connecticut; the first women from Iowa; the first lesbian mother; the youngest women in Congress… the list goes on. Nancy Pelosi—a ceiling crasher herself as the first woman Speaker of the House—is hoping to ride this wave back to the Speaker’s rostrum, but these women, though they have gender in common, are far from united in her support.

At least thirty-four new Democratic women will be sworn into the House in January, and with them, the House will take a step in the direction of becoming more representative. There will be 89 Democratic women and 102 women total—a historic high. When you add the women in the Senate, the number jumps to 106 Democratic women and 125 women total. I am a co-founder of Project 100, an organization started after the 2016 election to elect more progressive women to Congress. When we launched a year ago, many Washington insiders told us that our initial target—100 progressive women in Congress by 2020, the 100th anniversary of women’s suffrage—was too ambitious. The women elected this year have proven otherwise. In addition to changing the makeup of the House, this group of women also has the potential to shape the future of the Democratic Party.

On November 28, the Democratic Caucus, including all the newly elected members, will gather for a closed-door meeting to select nominees for the senior leadership positions. The nominees will then go to a floor vote on January 3, the first day of Congress’s next session. These elections will be the first opportunity for new members to assert themselves. Many of the newly elected women campaigned on promises of change, different voices, and fresh leadership, and some were explicit in their opposition to Nancy Pelosi.

Nobody represents the old guard better than Pelosi, who has been in Congress since 1987 and has presided over the House Democratic Caucus for the past sixteen years, serving as Speaker from 2007 to 2011. Pelosi was the first woman to be elected to that post, and if she reclaims the gavel, she will become the first person to return to the Speaker’s rostrum since 1955. Pelosi ramped up her campaign for Speaker the day after the midterms, writing to every member of her new Caucus.

In an interview with CNN, Pelosi said she was 100 percent confident that she would be elected. The Democrats’ success in the midterms has undoubtedly strengthened her position. During the campaign cycle, the Republicans seemed to be having some success villainizing Pelosi much as they did Hillary Clinton, in order to rile up and turn out the Republican base. But this strategy proved less successful than the Republicans hoped. What’s more, Pelosi has been credited with the Democrats’ midterm approach of focusing on healthcare and local issues, not talking about Trump, and not getting dragged into debating Trump agenda items such as immigration.  

Nancy Pelosi’s spokesman, Drew Hammill, placed blame on the GOP for creating opposition to Pelosi in a post-election statement: “Democrats don’t let Republicans choose their leaders. The election proved that the GOP attacks on Pelosi simply do not work.”

Pelosi and her allies have also cited her gender as doubly important at this particular moment. “It’s important that it not be five white guys at the table,” Pelosi told the Boston Globe in May, referring to the president and the two senior leadership positions in the House and Senate. “I have no intention of walking away from that table.”

Some Pelosi allies have tried to position her bid for Speaker within the framework of the women’s wave. Former Rep. Steve Israel writes in The Atlantic that “a demotion for Pelosi would make a rather odd coda to what David Wasserman of The Cook Political Report called ‘the year of the fired up woman’… Why fire the top woman?”

But there are women who won’t support a Pelosi coronation. Elissa Slotkin (MI), Abigail Spanberger (VA), and Mikie Sherrill (NJ) all won in swing districts and have been explicit in their opposition. “People want a new generation of leadership on both sides of the aisle, so no, I will not be voting for Speaker Pelosi,” Slotkin told me recently. The GOP spent a lot of money on attack ads against Slotkin and every one featured Pelosi, but Slotkin said “the attack ads exacerbated a problem that was already there.”

It’s not just moderates in swing districts who have spoken out against Pelosi. Pelosi has faced opposition from both wings of the party. Moderates in purple districts have strived to distance themselves from Pelosi because of her reputation as a “San Francisco socialist” who only represents the interests of the “coastal elite.” To her left, some progressives in solid blue districts view her as too centrist and want a more radical leadership.  In Michigan, Rashida Tlaib ran a progressive campaign in a blue district, and when asked by CNN if she would vote for Nancy Pelosi, she said, “No, probably not… Supporting big banks and supporting efforts that I don’t think put the people first is troubling.” The most high-profile of the new left-wing intake, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (NY), has not announced whether she’ll support Pelosi, but she and Rashida Tlaib spent part of their first day of congressional orientation with climate change activists staging a sit-in outside Pelosi’s office.

Pelosi has made some significant inroads with the progressive wing of the party. Rep. Pramila Jayapal (WA), one of the leaders of the Congressional Progressive Caucus, officially endorsed Pelosi for Speaker shortly after leaving a meeting in which Pelosi promised to give progressive House leaders more power in the next Congress, including more representation on what are known as the “A committees”: Appropriations, Ways and Means, Energy and Commerce, Financial Services, and Intelligence.

Given that Republican House members can be expected to vote unanimously against Pelosi’s becoming Speaker again, it would take between fifteen and twenty Democrats (depending on the results of three races yet to be called) also denying her in the floor vote to stop her. The day after the midterms, a small group of Pelosi critics held a conference call to begin planning their opposition. Nine members subsequently wrote a letter to the Democratic Caucus requesting a discussion at the next meeting about changing the rules for electing a Speaker nominee, and they have begun reaching out to other newly elected Pelosi critics. The group claims to have the numbers to block Pelosi. Seventeen Democrats have reportedly signed a letter saying they will not vote for Pelosi on the floor. The majority of these signatories are from the more moderate arm of the party, and only three are women. “We’re the voices of a silent majority who want new leadership & to protect new members,” Rep. Seth Moulton (MA) wrote in a tweet. Moulton, a former Marine and member of the politically moderate New Democrat Coalition, has been in Congress for just two terms, but he has already attracted a great deal of attention, more for his ambition than for any legislative accomplishments.

Building momentum to oust Pelosi may prove difficult without an alternative candidate. Nobody has announced a plan to challenge Pelosi, though Rep. Marcia Fudge of Ohio told the Cleveland Plain Dealer that she’s considering a bid. Fudge is a member of the Congressional Black Caucus and the Congressional Progressive Caucus, and she is particularly dismayed by the lack of racial diversity in the current party leadership. “When you look at the people who support this party the most, they are women and African Americans and especially African-American women,” she said. “We keep talking about diversity, but there is nothing diverse about the top of our ticket. We have to not just talk the talk, but walk the walk.” However, after meeting with Pelosi, Fudge struck a slightly more sanguine note with reporters. Fudge said that she and Pelosi discussed succession planning and building a more inclusive caucus and that if Pelosi pledges to serve only one more term as Speaker, that would satisfy her concerns and earn her support.

According to Kelly Dittmar, a political scientist at the Center for American Women and Politics at Rutgers, the members of the new House majority will be considering their options now. If Pelosi is still a power to be reckoned with in Congress, will they want to cross her now—when she could soon have the power to control committee appointments and other forms of preferment? “I think Nancy Pelosi understands the political calculation that people had to make on the campaign trail,” Dittmar told me, “but it will be different if they actively oppose her once they’re in office, in terms of how that might bode for their relationship and their influence. It does have implications.”

Slotkin, for one, will not be intimidated. “It isn’t that there’s just one woman in Congress that’s capable of leading,” she said. “There’s a whole new generation coming up, and a whole new generation of women that were just elected. It’s not one or nothing.”

Other Pelosi critics, such as Moulton and Rep. Tim Ryan (OH), argue that pushing new members to vote for Pelosi when they promised not to could hurt their chances of re-election. But Jennifer Lawless, a political scientist at the University of Virginia, sees a way they could thread this needle. “It looks like for the other leadership positions, there are competitive elections,” she told me, referring to positions like House Majority Leader, Whip, and Caucus Chair. “And it seems that in all of those cases, these new members could vote out the old guard and bring in somebody new yet still preserve her as Speaker in some ways as a reward for winning back the House. So, it might be that these new members are able to have their cake and eat it too.”

Regardless of whether Pelosi reclaims the gavel, the Democratic party leadership looks set to become more diverse and possibly more progressive. But reinforced by the party’s midterm wins, Pelosi seems likely to capitalize on her reputation for being a shrewd and effective legislative operator. “I have a day job here that is different from just what’s happening on the political side,” Pelosi said at a recent news conference. “It doesn’t matter to me whether they support me,” she said, of her critics. “What matters is that they support the Democratic agenda to make progress for America’s working families…That’s what’s important.”