Nancy Pelosi might actually be in trouble.
In a survey of 20 Democratic House candidates, only one – a former Senate staffer from Orange County, California – would state support for the congresswoman staying on as leader of the House Democratic Caucus. Of the rest, 18 declined to say if Pelosi should keep her job, while one, a political newcomer from a culturally conservative Ohio district, said he would vote for someone other than Pelosi.
Their refusal is a remarkable development for an already embattled minority leader, even if other congressional leaders, like Republicans House Speaker Paul Ryan or Senate Leader Mitch McConnell, are similarly unpopular in polls. More significant, however, are the implications that the candidates’ refusal carries for next year’s midterm elections.
Democrats are eager to win a majority buoyed by voters’ disapproval of President Donald Trump. But Pelosi’s own deep unpopularity has proven a major hindrance to Democrats in recent campaigns. After Democrats lost a special election in June, some party insiders blamed Pelosi directly.
“We are overdue for a new generation of leadership,” said Kenneth Harbaugh, a candidate in Ohio’s 7th Congressional District, and the only candidate surveyed who was a hard no on voting for Pelosi as leader. “We have a remarkable opportunity in front of us, and it’s going to take new thinking and new leadership to capitalize on it.”
Harbaugh, a former Navy pilot and graduate of Yale Law School, compared Pelosi’s leadership post to his service in the military.
“You are the captain of that ship and commander of that aircraft, and if it runs aground, it doesn’t matter where the mistake was made … the captain is held accountable,” he said.
A Pelosi aide dismissed the survey’s findings, arguing that Pelosi remains firmly established as the Democratic leader while candidates focus on more important issues.
“Candidates across the country are focused on issues that matter to their constituents, such as better jobs and better wages, not the latest Beltway gossip,” said Jorge Aguilar, a spokesman for Pelosi’s campaign. “Leader Pelosi has the overwhelming backing of the House Democratic Caucus because she continues to unify Democrats in our battle to defeat Trumpcare.”
Although Democrats other than Harbaugh were not so unequivocal in their opposition to Pelosi, many offered caustic assessments of her leadership, and the political liability she poses.
“President Putin probably has a better approval rating in Georgia than Nancy Pelosi,” said David Kim, a candidate in Georgia’s 7th Congressional District.
Kim’s district neighbors Georgia’s 6th District, where Democratic candidate Jon Ossoff delighted liberals earlier this year with his unexpectedly strong bid to win a traditional Republican stronghold in the Atlanta suburbs.
But Ossoff lost his race in June, and immediately some Democrats blamed Pelosi. Republicans had almost obsessively focused on her during the campaign, winning over independents and Trump-skeptical GOP voters with a message that tied Democratic candidate to his would-be caucus leader at every turn.
"We need leadership change," New York Democratic Rep. Kathleen Rice, who has been critical of Pelosi in the past, told CNN in the aftermath of that loss. "It's time for Nancy Pelosi to go, and the entire leadership team."
Ossoff’s loss and Pelosi’s role in it weigh heavily on Democrats – so much so that her role as a rainmaker for candidates nationwide is no longer enough to motivate would-be lawmakers to talk about supporting the House leader.
A spokesman for Chrissy Houlahan, running in Pennsylvania’s 6th District, said “she needs to get elected first and is focused on her own race.” Andrea Ramsey, running in Kansas 3rd Congressional District, said “Kansas voters aren’t concerned about hypothetical DC insider politics.”
Democratic candidate Jason Crow said his “only focus is the people of Colorado’s 6th District and what they need from their representative.” And Debbie Mucarsel-Powell, seeking the Democratic nomination in Florida’s 26th Congressional District, said she “hadn’t met” Pelosi.
Each of their districts is among House Democrats’ top targets of 2018, the kind of competitive races where Pelosi could be a severe liability. Polls show the Democratic leader is deeply unpopular: 53 percent of voters have a negative view of her, according to a June poll from Quinnipiac University. Just 27 percent of them have a favorable opinion.
Republicans intend to exploit that, promising to make Pelosi an issue even for Democrats who will not declare their support for her leadership.
“Democratic candidates and their ties to Nancy Pelosi will be an issue in every single competitive race next fall,” said Matt Gorman, spokesman for the National Republican Congressional Committee. “Whether or not they claim to vote for her as speaker, they’ll be another vote for her and her big-spending policies in congress.”
Only one Democratic candidate contacted said he would support Pelosi — Kia Hamadanchy, running in California’s 45th Congressional District.
But it’s not easy for Democratic candidates to oppose her. Pushing away Pelosi means pushing away the donors who are close to her — a potentially fatal development, especially in a year where nearly every Democratic House candidate faces a competitive primary before even reaching a general election.
“If you say ‘yes’ now, you’re screwed,” said one Democratic strategist, who requested anonymity to speak candidly about a sensitive intra-party issue. “You say ‘no” now, you’re screwed, just in a different way.”
Some Democratic candidates were candid about their Pelosi reticence.
“That’s an issue I’m not going to touch right now,” said Levi Tilemann, who, like Crow, is running in Colorado’s 6th Congressional District. “I don’t think it does anyone any good for me to start talking about Nancy Pelosi at this point in the campaign. We’ll see what happens as the cycle progresses.”
Tilemann, who is running as an anti-establishment challenger to the better-funded Jason Crow, said he didn’t want to give an answer because Pelosi retains strong support among some loyalists.
“A lot of people feel Nancy Pelosi is unfairly targeted,” he said. “And I think that’s actually not a totally inaccurate assessment of the situation.”
Still, he suggested he was leaning against voting for her.
“Let’s just say what we’ve been doing hasn’t been working,” Tilemann said. “And that means America and the world is in a lot of trouble, and what I would suggest for Democrats is to scrub what we’ve been doing with elections from bottom to top.”
Congressional leadership has given candidates of both parties headaches in recent years. Before his retirement, former House Speaker John Boehner was anathema to House GOP contenders, with many conservative candidates explicitly promising to remove him as leader. On the Senate side, McConnell has played a similar role.
And current House Speaker Ryan is as unpopular as Pelosi, polls show. A May survey from Quinnipiac found 54 percent of voters had an unfavorable view of him, compared to just 27 percent who had a positive opinion.
“Speaker Ryan self-imposed a 200-day benchmark to measure his success with unified Republican control of Washington, and after Republican’s failure to repeal the Affordable Care Act, overhaul the tax code, fund an infrastructure package or even pass a budget, it’s clear that House Republicans are stuck without a leader that can deliver, and it’s an embarrassment,” said Meredith Kelly, spokeswoman for the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee. “The upcoming midterms will be a referendum on these failures.”
Pelosi survived a challenge to her leadership late last year, when Democratic Rep. Tim Ryan campaigned against her as a fresh-face alternative for a caucus that hadn’t held the majority since 2011.
Tim Ryan managed to win 63 votes (to Pelosi’s 134 votes), a sign of the discontent with her leadership. At the time, his supporters hailed the vote as proof that the caucus was open to major changes.
The ideological makeup of the caucus could change significantly by 2018, when a wave of progressive candidates could — in theory — join Congress. Spurred by a deep antipathy to President Donald Trump, many progressive activists are running for the House seats, intent on turning a wave of progressive energy into electoral victories.
An influx of liberals into Congress, however, is no guarantee Pelosi keeps her job.
Jenny Marshall, who is running in North Carolina’s 5th Congressional District, last week participated in a conference of roughly 300 liberal candidates, organized by the Progressive Change Campaign Committee. Even if she wasn’t a firm “no” on Pelosi, she said she would want to see other potential leaders step forward.
“I lean more toward somebody who really would go out and knock doors themselves, would really value small donor donations, would value getting money out of politics, would value not taking corporate PAC money,” Marshall said. “Those are things a leader in a progressive House should value.”
These Democratic candidates could change their position between now and the primary, or even during the general election. The fact that so many of them declined to say one way or the other if they’d support Pelosi also suggests that, if and when they do reach Congress, they could still vote for her to stay on as leader.
Most Democrats acknowledge that Pelosi is an electoral liability but dispute that her unpopularity is a major factor in next year’s elections. Instead, they point to other metrics — like Trump’s pervasive unpopularity or an already sizable lead for Democrats over Republicans in the congressional generic ballot — as evidence the party is poised to make major gains during the midterms.
Democratic candidates could also change their position between now and the primary, or even during the general election. Indeed, if they do reach Congress, they could still vote for her to stay on as leader.
And despite the negative outlook on her as leader, some offered praise.
“I do admire her for her courage,” said Kristen Rosen Gonzalez, a candidate in Florida’s 27th Congressional District and commissioner in Miami Beach. “It’s not easy to be a female leader anywhere, not just in the United States, but anywhere in the world.”
In an interview, Rosen Gonzalez said she would support Pelosi but later backtracked.
She called such a decision “premature.”
KATIE GLUECK, BRIAN MURPHY, AND AMY SHERMAN CONTRIBUTED TO THIS STORY
The Democratic House candidates contacted for this story, listed along with their congressional district:
Kenneth Harbaugh, OH-7
Kia Hamadanchy, CA-45
Dave Min, CA-45
Hans Keirstead, CA-48
Chrissy Houlahan, PA-6
Andrea Ramsey, KS-3
Jason Crow, CO-6
Levi Tilemann, CO-6
Elissa Slotkin, MI-8
Andy Kim, NJ-3
Sam Searcy, NC-2
Jenny Marshall, NC-5
Dan McCready, NC-9
Abigail Spanberger, VA-7
Dan Helmer, VA-10
Lizzie Pannill Fletcher, TX-23
Carole Cheney, IL-6
Debbie Mucarsel-Powell, FL-26
Kristen Rosen Gonzalez, FL-27
David Kim, GA-6