By Josh Kurtz
Nancy Pelosi is one of the most reviled figures in American politics.
Small wonder. According to the Campaign Media Analysis Group, Americans in 2010 saw 161,203 negative campaign ads directed at Pelosi. Republican candidates and committees and conservative groups spent more than $65 million to soil her name.
This year, again, Republicans are cranking up their attack machine. Now that the GOP controls the House, Pelosi isn’t going to be featured as prominently in the ads, but she’s making appearances already.
Yet despite the fact that she’s a lightning rod and a punching bag, Democrats cannot imagine life without her.
Pelosi is a stellar fundraiser. She may not be the person you want stumping for Democrats in swing districts, but she remains the No. 2 fundraising attraction for big party donors and activists, behind President Obama. And she continues to run the House Democratic caucus with steely discipline — featuring a prominent favor bank — that she learned in Baltimore at the feet of her father, former Mayor Tommy D’Alessandro.
Pelosi surprised a lot of her colleagues — and disappointed at least a few of them — when she decided to stay in Congress, and keep her leadership post, following the Democrats’ wipe-out at the polls in November 2010. The last House speaker who saw his majority evaporate, Republican Dennis Hastert, beat it out of Congress as quickly as he could following the Democrats’ takeover in 2006.
But the time may soon be approaching when Pelosi actually leaves Congress. And despite all the negative attention that she brings them, Democrats are terrified at the prospect.
Democrats need to flip 25 Republican-held House seats this fall to regain control, and should they succeed, Pelosi will undoubtedly stick around and retake the speaker’s gavel. But most prognosticators think that even if they have a good night on Nov. 6, Democrats will at best get halfway to their goal. Then, the emerging thinking on Capitol Hill goes, Pelosi, who is 72, will decide to leave — either retire outright, or take a plum ambassadorship if Obama is re-elected.
After that, House Democrats scramble to replace her — and all hell breaks loose.
Two Marylanders, of course, will figure prominently in any succession discussion: Steny Hoyer, the House minority leader, and Chris Van Hollen, the ranking member of the House Budget Committee.
Hoyer has wanted to be the top House Democrat almost since he arrived in Congress in 1981. But his path to the top has always been blocked by Pelosi — someone, ironically, who he has known for 50 years.
Even if Pelosi remains on the scene, Hoyer’s standing in House leadership is somewhat precarious. Although they’ve found a way to work well together, they don’t trust each other. Pelosi gave tacit approval to the late Rep. John Murtha (D-Pa.) when he challenged Hoyer for the House majority leader post following the 2006 election. And Pelosi did nothing to stop Rep. James Clyburn (D-S.C.), another member of Pelosi’s leadership team, when he talked openly of taking on Hoyer after the 2010 elections.
Clyburn eventually bowed out of that race, and took a new leadership post that Pelosi created just for him called assistant to the minority leader. But now Clyburn is talking again about wanting to become the No. 2 House Democrat, assuming Pelosi sticks around, after this year’s elections. That’s a battle most Democratic House members would just as soon avoid.
Clyburn is a revered figure in the Democratic caucus, a man of wisdom and civility, and a hero from the civil rights era. Hoyer, too, is well liked and much admired as a tactician, though as his ongoing battle with Pelosi has raged, he is identified more with moderates and conservatives in the caucus, even though he can walk the liberals’ walk and talk their talk when he needs to.
So if Pelosi stays as the top House Democrat, a Hoyer-Clyburn race could get ugly and put many members in a terribly awkward situation. Take Maryland Congressman Elijah Cummings, just as an example. Would he side with his fellow Free Stater, or with a fellow senior member of the Congressional Black Caucus?
But suppose Pelosi walks away from Congress. Who tries to become the top House Democrat then?
For all their friends and skills, neither Hoyer nor Clyburn is ideally suited — or ideally situated — to take over. Clyburn is 71 and Hoyer turns 73 in June. Surely Democratic members will be demanding generational change when it comes to replacing Pelosi. They’re crazy if they don’t.
That would appear to also disqualify Connecticut Rep. John Larson, who is termed out in his position as House Democratic Caucus chairman and is eager to move up in leadership. He’s 63. Some Pelosi allies have floated California Rep. Anna Eshoo, who represents parts of Silicon Valley, as a logical successor to Pelosi as House Democratic leader. But she’s 69 and with scant leadership experience.
This is where Van Hollen, who is 53, comes in. He’s one of several younger, ambitious, skillful Democrats who are seen as the next generation of members likely to ascend to the higher echelons of leadership. That list also includes Rep. Xavier Beccera of California, who is 54, Rep. Joe Crowley of New York, who is 50, and Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz of Florida, who is 45 — and currently doubles as chairwoman of the Democratic National Committee.
Van Hollen is a rare combination of member who has both policy chops and excellent political antennae. From his colleagues’ standpoint, he has battled the forces of evil from his perch on the Budget Committee, and he collected plenty of chits during his two terms as chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee — both in the up cycle of 2008 and the thoroughly disastrous 2010.
But like some if not all of his potential rivals, Van Hollen has a limited world view — at least when it comes to the arcane and somewhat unknowable internal politics of the House Democratic Caucus are concerned. The rap on Van Hollen, no matter how smart and well-respected he is, is that he hasn’t assembled a big enough rainbow coalition of allies. (He’s also forced to introduce himself this year to a wide swath of new voters in conservative Western Maryland territory, and that‘s a time-consuming proposition.)
The same criticism, about having a limited horizon, has also been leveled at Beccera, whose burning ambition until recently has been to become mayor of Los Angeles. Beccera, who currently is the Democratic caucus vice chairman, is a Pelosi favorite — and in any battle for a leadership post starts with a very formidable bloc of potential supporters from his home state: there are currently 34 House Democrats from California, and that number is expected to grow after this election.
Wasserman Schultz, by virtue of her current position, is already a well known figure nationally and a regular on cable TV, an articulate and effective partisan. But after once being a mentor to the Floridian, Pelosi has cooled on her. And in her role at the DNC, Wasserman Schultz is primarily concerned with re-electing Obama; her House colleagues will ask the DNC for money later this year to protect their vulnerable incumbents and boost promising challengers, and she’ll find herself in the awkward position of having to refuse. That won’t endear her to her colleagues.
Crowley, who is head of the New Democratic Caucus, has something of an “always a bridesmaid, never a bride” history when it comes to his attempts to break into top leadership positions. But Crowley also serves as chairman of the Queens Democratic Party in New York City, and has had to navigate the treacherous waters of New York ethnic politics in that role.
Just recently, the Queens Democratic organization endorsed a Chinese-American state legislator for an open congressional seat — even though Crowley’s cousin, a New York City councilwoman, is also seeking the job. That may make for awkward family dinners, but it’s smart politics — and could serve Crowley well as he tries to climb the leadership ladder in the House by stitching together a delicate mosaic of supporters.
Handicapping legislative leadership elections is very tough — especially before they actually take place. Pelosi hasn’t groomed any successors, and the one person many insiders thought would be a shoo-in to replace her is now the mayor of Chicago.
So it’s fair to say that life in the House without Pelosi, for all her flaws and battle scars, is a very difficult — and scary — thing for Democrats to imagine.
Josh Kurtz is editor of Environment & Energy Daily, a Capitol Hill publication. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Recent Center Maryland columns by Josh Kurtz: