Nancy Pelosi braces for secret leadership ballot as Democrats begin election post-mortem

Tim Ryan challenges the septuagenarian leadership of the demoralised Democrats

Click to follow

Democrats on Capitol Hill are bracing for turbulence on Wednesday when they must decide in a secret ballot whether to dump Nancy Pelosi of California as their leader and seek fresh blood. 

It will be a fateful moment for a party that has barely begun its post mortem on a deeply disastrous showing in the 8 November elections. Hillary Clinton failed in her bid for the presidency and predictions of big gains in both chambers of Congress were dashed also.

A challenge to Ms Pelosi, who has led the Democrats in the House of Representatives for almost 14 years, part of the time serving as speaker, has come in the somewhat unlikely form of Tim Ryan. A 43-year-old former high school football star with a low profile in Washington until now, he has represented his district around Youngstown in eastern Ohio since 2003.  

But Mr Ryan has engaged in an increasingly vicious contests with Ms Pelosi making the argument that under her leadership the party has forgotten how to pitch an economic message to voters like those in his rust-belt district - that means mostly white, working-class Americans - while becoming too beholden to special interests and focused on America’s culture wars. 

He has also vowed to reverse the perception that the Democrats have become a party of coastal elites with almost no relevance to the American heartland, including to blue-collar workers who helped deliver the presidential contest to Mr Trump often in Midwestern states that had been expected to vote Democrat like Michigan and Wisconsin.

Offering a reset for the party, he has argued the time has arrived to, “get rid of the perception that we’re tied to Wall Street, that we’re coastal elites and that we’re more concerned with the donor class than the working class".

Represenative Tim Ryan, Ohio, addresses the Democratic National Convention in July (AP)

It would also be a generation re-boot. Mr Ryan’s bid to topple Ms Pelosi remains a very long shot but he is also hoping that his colleagues share his view that the party needs an injection of youth at the top. 

It does not seem an unreasonable position. Ms Pelosi will be 77 next year. And nor are her main lieutenants at the top of the party’s power structure exactly fresh out of the nursery. Steny Hoyer, her deputy, will be 78 and Jim Clyburn, the No. 3 Democrat in the House, will be 77.

Conscious of complaints that she and her inner circle have commanded too much power and influence - and are indeed septuagenarians - Ms Pelosi has vowed to reserve some positions near the top of the hierarchy for representatives who have only been in Congress for less than five, two-year terms.  That, however, has met resistance from black members who say it would unfairly bar some of their caucus from taking those positions.

She furiously rejected claims from Mr Ryan that even these proposed changes were in fact desigend to consolidate her power at the top of the party. “It’s so completely not true that it’s almost pathetic,” she told the Huffington Post on Monday.  “You know, it’s just not― it’s not what it is.”  She also ridiculed him for failing to carry his own district for Hillary Clinton on 8 November. 

She has resisted calls from Mr Ryan to change the rules so that head of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee - the body that essentially sets strategy for each election cycle to try to regain ground on the Republicans - should be elected to the position and not appointed by the party leadership as is the case now. 

“We must continue our efforts to decentralize the power in caucus so every member is a part of the team and plays a role in shaping our future,” Mr Ryan said in a statement Monday afternoon, in reference to that resistance. He has won some public support from a small smattering of colleagues but for now is hoping that many more will vote for him with the protection of the secret ballot. 

Part of his pitch is that coastal Democrats like Ms Pelosi, whose district is in California, cannot connect with the voters lost to the party in the heartland.

“We have got to have the right messenger,” he said recently. “We have got to have someone who cannot just go on MSNBC, but go on Fox and Fox Business and CNBC and go into union halls and fish fries and churches all over the country and start a brush fire about what a new Democratic Party looks like.”

If the party eventually spurns him, as is likely, it will in part be because of sheer loyalty to Ms Pelosi, who has been a dominating figure for well over a decade. She is also a formidable fund-raiser and money, in the end, matters to anyone who must face re-election every two years.

Among those publicly to have endorsed Ms Pelosi over Mr Ryan has been President Barack Obama who last week lauded her as “a remarkable leader” of “extraordinary political skill”.

To Mr Ryan’s advantage is the reality of the failure of Ms Pelosi to steer the party to success in November. While she had predicted that Democrats would achieve a net gain of about 25 seats on election day, the number is likely to settle at just six (a small number of districts where the results were very close are still counting and verifying votes).

“We need people who are willing to come out and say, ‘You know what, we need to try something different,’” Kathleen Rice, one of the few Democrats in teh House openly supporting Mr Ryan’s bid, told CNN on Monday.

At the weekend, Mr Ryan cautioned against those assuming that Ms Pelosi will easily seem him off. “There is a lot of consternation in our caucus right now and we’re making a hell of a run at this thing and I think we have a shot to win,” he said. “People are saying, look, this has been a changed election. We want change. And there are a lot of members of Congress who now are understanding that we need to make a change.”