Win-or-go-home for Pelosi?

She’s as confident as ever, but this could be the last time Nancy Pelosi leads House Democrats into an election

Topics: War Room,

Win-or-go-home for Pelosi?Nancy Pelosi (Credit: Reuters/Jonathan Ernst)

Talk to Democrats on Capitol Hill and one impression jumps out: This might be it for Nancy Pelosi.

The current House minority leader and former Speaker made one of her periodic Sunday show appearances yesterday, issuing a confident assessment of her party’s November prospects on ABC’s “This Week.” Noting that Speaker John Boehner recently said there’s a one-in-three chance Republicans will lose their House majority, Pelosi said, “I think it’s bigger than that. But what he did say that’s correct was that there are about 50 Republican seats in play. I would say 75. I feel pretty good about where we are.”

Take this with a grain of salt. It’s basically the same thing Pelosi says every election year around this time. That’s just her job. But while her public posture remains as steady and focused as ever, there’s reason to suspect that this year’s midterms could be a win-or-go-home proposition for the 72-year-old California Democrat.

Obviously, if Democrats somehow pick up the 25 seats they need for a majority, Pelosi will stick around for two more years, at least, becoming the first Speaker since Sam Rayburn in the 1950s to lose the gavel in one election and win it back in the next. But the takeover odds she quoted on “This Week” are awfully optimistic.

Because of the size of the Republican wave in 2010, there are plenty of pick-up opportunities for Democrats on this year’s map, even the occasional gimme.  But redistricting has imperiled several Democratic incumbents, while a few others who represent heavily Republican districts have opted to retire.

The situation calls to mind 1996, the last time a Democratic president sought reelection. Then as now, the party was coming off a midterm debacle and sought to channel popular anger toward a poisonously unpopular Republican Congress into a majority-making wave. The magic number back then was 19, and Democrats ended up knocking off 18 Republican incumbents (13 of them freshmen); but when retirements and open seats (particularly in the South) eroded the net gain to nine seats, thereby denying Dick Gephardt a chance to be Speaker.



That ’96 result came even as Bill Clinton cruised to a second term, beating Bob Dole by eight points in a race that was never really in doubt. It’s still theoretically possible that a jolt of good economic news will lift Barack Obama to a similarly commanding victory this fall, but it’s far more likely that his race with Mitt Romney will be decided by a point or two either way – probably not big enough, in other words, to produce the kind of down-ballot tide Pelosi is counting on.

This is where the Pelosi retirement talk kicks in. The best tool that one party can have in trying to gain seats in the House is for the other party to control the White House. So if Democrats fall short in the House this fall but Obama is reelected (the scenario considered most likely for now), it will be hard for Pelosi – or anyone – to lead the party to a better result in 2014, when the playing field will probably be tilted in the opposition party’s favor. Only once since James Monroe’s presidency has the White House’s party gained congressional seats in a “six-year itch” election (the one exception: 1998, when the GOP’s unpopular drive to impeach Clinton produced a backlash). And 2016, which would then feature an open seat presidential race after eight years of Democratic rule, probably wouldn’t be conducive to significant Democratic gains either.

Under this scenario, Pelosi might well conclude that her window of opportunity to win back the top job in the House has closed and opt for retirement. If this were to happen, the change for House Democrats would be dramatic. Pelosi hasn’t just been their public face for more than a decade; she’s also been an unusually powerful and canny leader, filling key caucus posts with loyal allies who have subordinated their ambition to hers and identifying and isolating those she views as potential threats. This means that there’s no clear heir apparent if Pelosi goes, at least not yet.

The No. 2 post is currently occupied by Steny Hoyer, but age could be an issue with him (he’ll turn 73 in a few weeks). So could his status as Pelosi’s longtime rival and nemesis. Through nearly four years of fits and starts, she and Hoyer waged an epic battle that culminated in her 23-vote victory in a 2001 race for party whip. That set Pelosi up to succeed Gephardt as minority leader the next year and to become Speaker after the 2006 midterms. She’s never stopped looking over her shoulder, though, taking sometimes dramatic steps to hold Hoyer’s influence (and whatever ambition remains) in check. It’s hard to imagine her leaving without first ensuring that Hoyer doesn’t succeed her.

The next highest-ranking House Democrats, 71-year-old James Clyburn and 63-year-old John Larson, aren’t widely seen as party leader material either. Larson, in fact, owes his post entirely to Pelosi’s distrust of Hoyer; in a famous behind-the-scenes maneuver, she used him as a last-minute vehicle in 2006 to prevent a Hoyer ally, New York’s Joe Crowley, from winning the party’s No. 4 leadership post.

If she does hang it up, Pelosi will presumably seek to play a role in anointing her successor, but it’s not clear whom she’d have in mind. A wide-open leadership fight seems possible.

Not that it’s necessarily wise to begin thinking about life after Nancy. After all, in the run-up to the 2010 midterms, it was commonly assumed that she’d stand down as leader – and retire from Congress – if her party lost the House, like Republican Dennis Hastert did after the ’06 midterms. Pelosi had no interest in walking away, though, and maybe she still doesn’t. Or maybe Mitt Romney will end up winning this year, putting in place just the right formula for a House Democratic revival in 2014…

Steve Kornacki

Steve Kornacki writes about politics for Salon. Reach him by email at SKornacki@salon.com and follow him on Twitter @SteveKornacki

More Related Stories

Featured Slide Shows

  • Share on Twitter
  • Share on Facebook
  • 1 of 11
  • Close
  • Fullscreen
  • Thumbnails
    Burger King Japan

    2014's fast food atrocities

    Burger King's black cheeseburger: Made with squid ink and bamboo charcoal, arguably a symbol of meat's destructive effect on the planet. Only available in Japan.

    Elite Daily/Twitter

    2014's fast food atrocities

    McDonald's Black Burger: Because the laws of competition say that once Burger King introduces a black cheeseburger, it's only a matter of time before McDonald's follows suit. You still don't have to eat it.

    Domino's

    2014's fast food atrocities

    Domino's Specialty Chicken: It's like regular pizza, except instead of a crust, there's fried chicken. The company's marketing officer calls it "one of the most creative, innovative menu items we have ever had” -- brain power put to good use.

    Arby's/Facebook

    2014's fast food atrocities

    Arby's Meat Mountain: The viral off-menu product containing eight different types of meat that, on second read, was probably engineered by Arby's all along. Horrific, regardless.

    KFC

    2014's fast food atrocities

    KFC'S ZINGER DOUBLE DOWN KING: A sandwich made by adding a burger patty to the infamous chicken-instead-of-buns creation can only be described using all caps. NO BUN ALL MEAT. Only available in South Korea.

    Taco Bell

    2014's fast food atrocities

    Taco Bell's Waffle Taco: It took two years for Taco Bell to develop this waffle folded in the shape of a taco, the stand-out star of its new breakfast menu.

    Michele Parente/Twitter

    2014's fast food atrocities

    Krispy Kreme Triple Cheeseburger: Only attendees at the San Diego County Fair were given the opportunity to taste the official version of this donut-hamburger-heart attack combo. The rest of America has reasonable odds of not dropping dead tomorrow.

    Taco Bell

    2014's fast food atrocities

    Taco Bell's Quesarito: A burrito wrapped in a quesadilla inside an enigma. Quarantined to one store in Oklahoma City.

    Pizzagamechangers.com

    2014's fast food atrocities

    Boston Pizza's Pizza Cake: The people's choice winner of a Canadian pizza chain's contest whose real aim, we'd imagine, is to prove that there's no such thing as "too far." Currently in development.

    7-Eleven

    2014's fast food atrocities

    7-Eleven's Doritos Loaded: "For something decadent and artificial by design," wrote one impassioned reviewer, "it only tasted of the latter."

  • Recent Slide Shows

Comments

0 Comments

Comment Preview

Your name will appear as username ( settings | log out )

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href=""> <b> <em> <strong> <i> <blockquote>