Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi is telling Democrats that next year could be the year they take back control of the House.
The response from some: It better be.
In the wake of a dispiriting loss for Democrats in a Georgia special House race, Pelosi is confronting renewed questions about her leadership, especially because she was the focus of a torrent of negative advertising in the Georgia election casting her as a San Francisco liberal and linking her to the Democratic candidate.
The apparent effectiveness of that messaging suggested to some that the 77-year-old Californian could be a liability for Democrats as they aim to regain their majority.
And after she predicted incorrectly that Democrats were poised to take back the House last year, some of Pelosi’s colleagues feel that this time around, she needs to deliver. Pelosi told fellow House Democrats in a letter Wednesday, “The House was in play before the Georgia race. The House remains in play now.”
“If we take back the House in 2018 then I think she’d stay leader,” said Rep. Ruben Gallego, D-Ariz. “If we don’t, then I think it’s incumbent upon her and all of us to reassess who our leadership should be.”
In over a decade leading House Democrats, into the majority and out again, Pelosi has beaten back all comers, including last fall when Democratic Rep. Tim Ryan of Ohio ran against her. Ryan fell well short but garnered dozens of votes, enough to underscore dissatisfaction with Pelosi and with her aging leadership team that has left promising young Democrats with few places to rise.
But after Donald Trump took office and Republicans dove into their agenda of repealing former President Barack Obama’s health care law, Democrats’ united opposition papered over their divisions and their generational divides.
Now, in the wake of the loss in Georgia and three other House special elections where Democrats failed to pull off upset wins, those divisions are rising back up to the surface.
And for some, they point to questions about how their leaders, and Pelosi in particular, have fallen short in crafting an economic message that can counter Trump and yield election victories.
“We as Democrats have to come to terms with the fact that we lost again,” said Rep. Seth Moulton, D-Mass. “We are the party that stands up for working families and the middle class, yet many of them are not voting for us. So it’s time for change. Personally I think it’s time for a new generation of leadership in the party.”
Ryan, Pelosi’s opponent last fall, said that Pelosi’s continued role as the GOP’s favorite bogeyman makes it “a heck of a lot harder” for Democrats as they try to notch victories in the GOP-friendly districts they will need to win next year. Democrats have to pick up 24 House seats to get back into power.
“One of the disappointing things from the last couple days is that that approach has a little bit of punch to it, it still moves voters,” Ryan said.
None of that suggests that Pelosi faces an immediate challenge to her leadership.
Pelosi is a prolific fundraiser for her party, and a savvy legislator with few rivals on Capitol Hill when it comes to cutting the deals necessary to keep government in motion. Even in the minority, the votes she commands are often needed to pass spending bills or other must-pass legislation that House conservatives disdain, and GOP speakers have had to come to her repeatedly hat in hand.
She continues to command a great degree of loyalty from many House Democrats, and allies dismissed the idea that her position was in any kind of jeopardy.
“I’m in my 10th term and I certainly have never seen someone who is smarter in the kind of backroom maneuvering that Nancy Pelosi does,” said Rep. Jan Schakowsky, D-Ill. “We’ve seen her run circles around [former House Speaker] John Boehner and get things done that nobody thought Democrats could do in the minority. That’s Nancy Pelosi.”
Others dismissed the idea that Pelosi really played much of a role in the outcome in Georgia, where Democrat Jon Ossoff lost to Republican Karen Handel by about 5 percentage points. More than $50 million was spent on the race in Atlanta’s wealthy suburbs, making it the costliest House race in history.
“She’s easy to demonize. Do you think people went to the polls and said, ‘Oh my God, we’ve got to stop Nancy Pelosi?’ I don’t think so,” said Rep. John Larson, D-Conn.
Instead, he said Democrats need to focus on developing a message that wins over voters in Republican-leaning districts.
“What was the Democratic message?” he asked. “It’s not enough to dislike Trump.”