Political News

Could Nancy Pelosi actually lose?

Posted November 19, 2018 4:37 p.m. EST
Updated November 19, 2018 5:58 p.m. EST

— On Monday, the "Never Nancy" crowd went public.

Sixteen House Democrats released a letter pledging not to vote for Nancy Pelosi as speaker on the House floor, writing: "We promised to change the status quo and we intend to deliver on that promise."

That 16 is not an insignificant number. Democrats have won 232 seats heading into the 116th Congress; of the three uncalled races, they lead in one of them. Assume, then, that Democrats enter next January with 233 seats. Pelosi would need 218 -- a simple majority of the House -- to be elected speaker. If those 16 vote against her -- and no Republican votes for her, Pelosi has 217 votes -- one short of what she needs. One important caveat: Ben McAdams of Utah signed the letter but is currently trailing in his bid to come to Congress. So at the moment, that's 15 "not Nancy" votes, which is one fewer than the anti-Pelosi forces need to keep her from a majority. (CNN has a great tracker on who is against Pelosi and who is thinking about being against her.)

What's fascinating about all of this is how truly unconcerned -- at least outwardly -- the would-be speaker seems. In a massive profile of Pelosi by Robert Draper that published on The New York Times website on Monday, Pelosi said this about those who have questioned her plan on how to lead the Democratic caucus next year:

"In terms of subpoena power, you have to handle it with care. Yes, on the left there is a Pound of Flesh Club, and they just want to do to them what they did to us." She shook her head emphatically. "That's not who we are. Go get somebody else if that's who you want."

That last sentence is particularly striking: "Go get somebody else if that's what you want."

It's also a nod to the fact that the anti-Pelosi crowd doesn't have a candidate to be, well, for. The only person considering the race is Ohio Rep. Marcia Fudge, although she has given no indication of where she is leaning. If Fudge says no, it's very hard to imagine any other Democrat challenging Pelosi.

But, her detractors would argue, that is beside the point. Because, unlike past failed insurrections against Pelosi, they aren't trying to beat her in the Democratic caucus vote -- where Pelosi will need only a simple majority of the 232 or 233 Democrats elected to the House. They are trying to beat her in the floor vote for speaker. And they're right that there is a difference there.

In 2010, following Democrats' loss of the House, North Carolina Rep. Heath Shuler challenged Pelosi in the caucus vote. He got 43 votes; she got the other 150. In 2016, after Democrats failed to re-take the House majority, Ohio Rep. Tim Ryan took on Pelosi. She won 134-63, a sign that there was a growing group willing to oppose Pelosi, but that that bloc wasn't nearly big enough to beat her.

This time around, the anti-Pelosi crowd is ceding the fact that they can't beat her in a caucus vote -- especially with no candidate. Instead, what they are trying to do is rob Pelosi of the simple majority she needs on the House floor, forcing her to either win over doubters on a second (or more) ballot or bow out. (A third option -- winning the speakership with the help of Republican votes, as President Donald Trump has suggested -- is a non-starter for Pelosi, who has said she will win with Democratic votes alone.)

We've seen something like this before -- except on the Republican side. After the 2014 election, conservatives opposed to John Boehner's speakership vowed they could keep him from a simple majority. All told, 25 Republicans voted against Boehner on the floor. That was less than the 29 defections he could afford. What's interesting about that vote is that six of the 25 Republicans voted "present" rather than vote for someone other than Boehner. Doing so lowered by six the number Boehner needed for a simple majority.

Which brings me back to Pelosi. It's not yet clear how many -- if any -- of her 16 detractors might consider voting "present" rather than voting for someone other than Pelosi. But if any did, it would reduce the number of votes Pelosi would need to win. Let's say, for example, six Democrats voted "present." That would lower her "win" number to 215. Get it? Good!

The Point: We've known for a while now that Pelosi's election as speaker isn't a cakewalk. The letter on Monday solidifies that sense -- and makes clear what a tight window Pelosi has to win. Still, if you look at her career, her history of winning close votes and the fact that no one is running against her at the moment, she still has to be considered the frontrunner.