WASHINGTON — Ohio Democrat Tim Ryan tried to unseat Nancy Pelosi as House minority leader last November, after Donald Trump’s presidential victory left Democrats reeling.
But even Ryan acknowledges Pelosi has a critical role to play in House Democrats’ bid to regain the majority in the 2018 midterm elections, which requires them posting a net gain of 24 House seats.
“She’s delivering with what I think her greatest strength is,” Ryan said on McClatchy’s Beyond the Bubble podcast in October, “and that’s the ability to mobilize our national donor base to help us take the House back.”
Indeed, in the first nine months of this year, Pelosi has already held 165 fundraising events in 35 cities, raising nearly $40 million for House Democrats, according to her campaign.
Pelosi’s prolific fundraising is just one reason why many Democrats argue the party can’t afford to cast her out. One year from the 2018 election, no one in the Democratic caucus is pushing to shake up the leadership midstream. “We are where we are,” Ryan said. “At this point, we tap into the strengths of everybody in the caucus.”
The midterm campaigns will be a proving ground, however, and not only for Pelosi, who helped Democrats re-take the House in 2006, only to see the party lose a net 39 House seats since. It will also be a test for the San Francisco Democrat’s potential replacements, who are already jockeying to prove they can fill the vacuum Pelosi would leave, both in terms of fundraising and strategy.
Money is necessary but not always decisive in winning elections. Just look at the Georgia special election this past spring, where Democratic candidate Jon Ossoff spent an eye-popping $30.5 million, a record for a House race. Republicans credit their victory, in part, to relentlessly tying Ossoff to the Democratic leader, warning the first-time candidate would be “a rubber stamp for Nancy Pelosi’s liberal agenda.”
They’re now trying to do the same to a whole host of Democratic candidates running in similar swing districts in 2018. Privately, they say Pelosi’s link to San Francisco, a famously far-left city, makes her easy to caricature. Political handicapper Nathan Gonzales agrees.
“Being a Democratic leader from San Francisco is a combination that Republicans love to hate,” says Gonzales. “The more Republican the district, the more likely they are to react to the prospect of Nancy Pelosi being in charge of Congress again.”
The potency of those attacks has continued the rumblings about the 77-year-old Pelosi’s future in the party. Pelosi’s critics contend that despite her unrivaled fundraising, the party can’t afford not to replace her if they hope to compete across the country over the long term. Even in her home state, a plurality of registered Democrats told a Berkeley Institute of Government Studies poll in September that the party should choose another House leader — even if Democrats retake the House. If the Democrats don’t win back the chamber, 50 percent of California Democrats said the party ought to tap a new House leader.
California Democratic Rep. Jim Costa says being tied to Pelosi is a genuine political threat to for “Blue Dog” moderates like him, something he’s told the leader, herself.
The Merced Democrat has counseled a number of “Blue Dog” Democratic challengers running in 2018, who may be harmed by association with Pelosi, that they need to “indicate their own independence.” That includes from Pelosi’s money. While Costa acknowledges the importance of the Democratic leader’s donations to the party, he notes, “There are a lot of different ways money is raised. It comes from Blue Dogs, it comes from various groups that support Blue Dogs. Seldom do these checks [to moderate Democrats] ever come directly from Nancy Pelosi’s leadership PAC.”
According to fellow California Rep. Ro Khanna, however, Pelosi’s role as Republicans’ favorite boogeyman is inevitable. “Any Democratic leader who is effective will be demonized by the Republicans, and that’s just politics,” says Khanna. And it doesn’t outweigh her other assets to the party. “She is tactically brilliant,” the Silicon Valley Democrat adds.
That leadership, more than her fundraising, is why Pelosi has maintained broad support in the caucus, Khanna and other defenders argue. No one, however, disputes that her fundraising has helped build loyalty among House Democrats, dozens of whom have benefited directly or indirectly from her largess over the past several decades.
Known for her tireless work ethic, Pelosi spends more time on the road than virtually any other Democrat in Congress, attending fundraisers and events for the party and its candidates. “She works harder than 90 percent of the politicians that are out there,” acknowledges Ryan. “I think that really helps fuel the fundraising, too, because so much of it is travel and meeting people and pushing the message out.”
Former New York Rep. Steve Israel, who accompanied Pelosi on the fundraising circuit when he was chairman of Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, attests to her grueling schedule, as well as her “vast network of supporters.” It’s a network built up since her days as California Democratic Party chair in the early 1980s and includes party donors as well as key interest groups like labor, women’s organizations and abortion rights advocates. Many of them, says Israel, “contribute not only because they believe in the Democratic Party but because they are loyal to Nancy Pelosi.”
Loyalty to party leaders, however, is not what it once was, at least if you count it by the number of Democrats — 63 — who voted for Ryan in the leadership race in November. House Republicans have had even deeper divisions, effectively ousting their previous speaker, John Boehner, in 2015. “One of the reasons why the political establishments in both parties were able to keep the ideological wings of their parties on the fringes was because the establishment controlled the money,” notes Gonzales. “But now I think there is increasingly more money in these outsider wings of the party.”
While Pelosi and the rest of House Democrats’ leaders have spent years cultivating their fundraising networks and countless hours attending party dinners and glad-handing high-dollar donors, the rise of an energized, online Democratic donor base has helped anti-establishment Democrats challenge their fundraising dominance.
U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., is the poster child for this trend. Sanders raised an astounding $225 million during last year’s Democratic presidential primary, powered by relatively tiny contributions from his supporters (The senator would famously repeat at most campaign stops that his average contribution was just $27). Donald Trump’s election as president has continued to motivate small-dollar donors, who helped Ossoff, a first-time candidate, raise a record-setting $25 million for his special election in Georgia.
Big-dollar donors and leadership PACs will always be a fixture within the Democratic Party, fundraisers say. But done right, they think channeling an army of online contributors can be far more potent for both personal fundraising as well as currying favor with other candidates.
“Encouraging supporters to directly contribute to candidates and organizations allows members of Congress to have a scale that would otherwise be impossible in the old system of personal PACs,” says Michael Whitney, digital fundraising manager on Sanders’ 2016 presidential campaign. “Senators and representatives can build their own supporter bases to contribute not just to themselves, but to support other worthy causes and candidates.”
While money is not the end-all, be-all in politics, it can be a useful indicator. For politicians who don’t have a tough election on the horizon, a flush bank account signals someone looking to move up.
The list of top fundraisers in the House offers a pretty good picture of which of the chamber’s Democrats might one day seek to usurp Pelosi. It includes longtime Pelosi deputies like Maryland Rep. Steny Hoyer and New York Rep. Joe Crowley. Like Pelosi, Hoyer, the Democratic whip, and Crowley, chairman of the Democratic Caucus, consistently haul in millions of dollars a year for their campaign committees and PACs — and distribute most of that back out to the party and fellow Democrats facing competitive House races.
Another top Democratic fundraiser, however, is a party insurgent: Massachusetts Rep. Seth Moulton. The second-term congressman emerged as a vocal Pelosi critic after the 2016 election, and his national profile has been on the rise, since. As of Sept. 30, Moulton had more than $1.5 million in his campaign account, though he faces no serious competition for re-election.
Moulton offers a stark contrast to Pelosi. The young Democrat does not have her institutional ties. And he’s not using his money to donate hundreds of thousands of dollars to the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, the official party committee helping Democratic House candidates, nor is he handing out most of his cash to his colleagues in the House to try to curry favor with the Democratic caucus. But Moulton has built his own electoral infrastructure, via his Serve America PAC, to help a crop of House candidates — all military veterans like him.
Moulton tells McClatchy he’s been traveling around the country encouraging people to give directly to the politicians he’s supporting, including retired Navy Seal Josh Butner, who is challenging San Diego-area Republican Rep. Duncan Hunter. Moulton’s PAC “had a fundraiser up in Boston recently that raised over half a million dollars in one night” for the 12 candidates he’s endorsed thus far, the 39-year-old congressman says.
Gonzales, the political handicapper, says Moulton’s efforts have made him a favorite among Democrats who are challenging Republican incumbents. Gonzales has conducted a series of interviews with 2018 congressional challengers, and the candidates Moulton is supporting all “talk about how [he] has endorsed them, has helped them, has had conversations with them.”
Pelosi’s name also featured in Gonzales’ interviews, though the Democratic challengers he spoke with tried their best to avoid it. “Whenever we brought up the former speaker and whether she should continue to be the leader of the House Democrats, candidates were often flummoxed,” Gonzales wrote in a recent column.
With control of the House in question, Republicans will keep pressing Democrats to answer that question. They are determined to defend their majority by making the 2018 election a referendum on Pelosi’s possible return as House speaker, even as Democrats try to make it about President Trump and the GOP’s legislative failures.
If Democrats can’t win back the House, even with a historically unpopular president and dysfunctional Republican-controlled Congress, the pressure for a top-to-bottom makeover of the party will be intense.
Some Democrats are already arguing, in public and behind the closed doors, that the next leader will need to chart a different path from Pelosi — one more focused on developing a new brand for the party.
“You have to raise money,” says Moulton. “But it’s not what leadership should be about.”