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Pelosi Wants to Lead. House Democratic Candidates Aren’t So Sure.

WASHINGTON — A few hours after Conor Lamb, the Pennsylvania Democrat, claimed victory in a House race with a vow to oppose his party’s leader, Nancy Pelosi, the once-and-perhaps-future speaker was explaining to a group of female congressional candidates why she did not retire after 2016.

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Pelosi Wants to Lead. House Democratic Candidates Aren’t So Sure.

WASHINGTON — A few hours after Conor Lamb, the Pennsylvania Democrat, claimed victory in a House race with a vow to oppose his party’s leader, Nancy Pelosi, the once-and-perhaps-future speaker was explaining to a group of female congressional candidates why she did not retire after 2016.

She intended to do so after Hillary Clinton won, Pelosi recalled Wednesday at a Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee reception here. But she stayed to ensure Washington had at least one woman in power.

To some lawmakers in the room who described her remarks, the message was clear: Pelosi is not going anywhere — a point she underscored in an interview.

Yet her resolve is at odds with growing numbers of Democratic candidates who view her as politically toxic and are pledging to vote against her as their leader, as Lamb did without suffering consequences with voters and donors. These candidates and some current House Democrats — tired of years of attack ads invoking Pelosi as a “San Francisco liberal,” and impatient to see a younger set of leaders take power — are now openly distancing themselves from Pelosi or declaring outright that it is time for her to go.

Lamb, by coming out early against Pelosi and scoring an upset win in a district President Donald Trump carried by nearly 20 percentage points, has clearly emboldened some other Democrats to follow suit and disavow her. Republicans intend to make Pelosi’s unpopularity a centerpiece of their 2018 strategy, hoping that her polarizing status will mitigate their predicted losses.

Anticipating this strategy from the right, Democratic candidates are increasingly opposing her as speaker or refusing to take a stand as an act of political inoculation — a trend that even her allies acknowledge could ultimately imperil her grip on the Democratic caucus.

At least two other senior Democrats, Reps. Steny H. Hoyer of Maryland and Joseph Crowley of New York, are already actively laying the groundwork to seek the leader’s job if Pelosi’s position becomes untenable.

As Democratic House candidates descended on Washington last week for a round of training and fundraising, the topic of how to confront the Pelosi question came up repeatedly, according to multiple officials.

“I was just in D.C. and that’s the advice everybody gives: Don’t say you’re for Pelosi,” recalled former Rep. Brad Ashford, D-Neb., who is trying to reclaim his seat. (He would not rule out backing Pelosi.)

Most ominous for Pelosi, it is not just centrist candidates running in red-tinged districts who are reluctant to embrace her, but also political insurgents on the left who see her as an embodiment of the Washington establishment.

“I would have to see who’s running,” said Marie Newman, a progressive Democratic House candidate in Illinois, when asked if she would support Pelosi for speaker. Newman is vying to unseat Rep. Daniel Lipinski, a conservative Chicago Democrat, in a primary there Tuesday.

And on Capitol Hill, Pelosi, 77, must contend with colleagues from her own generation who want their turn in charge, as well as younger Democrats who’d prefer to clear out the party’s entire septuagenarian leadership team: beyond Pelosi, the other two ranking House Democrats, Hoyer and James E. Clyburn, are 78 and 77.

Yet at a time when women are at the forefront of the opposition to Trump’s presidency — volunteering, donating and running for office in record numbers — the specter of Democrats taking back the House only to unceremoniously dump the most powerful woman in U.S. politics strikes many in the party as outrageous.

And Pelosi herself is plainly in this camp.

“I’m a woman at the table,” she said in the interview Friday before getting on a plane for Houston, where she was going to raise money for House Democrats at the annual rodeo there.

Demonstrating the swagger that delights her admirers and prompts eye-rolling from detractors, Pelosi said Democrats needed her in charge.

“I am a master legislator, I am a shrewd politician and I have a following in the country that, apart from a presidential candidate, nobody else can claim,” she said.

While she would not firmly commit to seeking the speakership again, it is clearly her plan, and she even gave voice to a concern on the minds of many Democrats: the chaotic scramble that would ensue if she steps down.

“If I was to walk away now, this caucus would be in such a musical chairs scenario,” she said.

Even as energy on the left has soared across the country thanks to Trump, tensions among House Democrats are brewing inside the Capitol. Should Democrats fail to reclaim the House in a year with so many factors in their favor, Pelosi and her long-serving lieutenants will almost certainly be pushed to step down. Yet some in the caucus want to see new leadership no matter what. Rep. Bill Pascrell Jr., D-N.J., hosted Crowley at a St. Patrick’s Day-themed event last week and unexpectedly announced that he would back Crowley for leader. Pascrell, 81, said the culture of the House was changing.

“A lot of new people will be coming in and I think we should start fresh,” Pascrell said, adding almost apologetically of Pelosi: “She’s taken a lot of crap from Republicans and Democrats and she’s really been above it all.”

Rep. Filemon Vela, D-Texas, said he had also encouraged Crowley to run for speaker.

“Having Joe be the leader of this party next session would be a welcome change,” said Vela, 55, adding that Pelosi “hurts our candidates” in competitive districts.

For his part, Crowley has been inviting groups of younger lawmakers to meet for coffee and pastries in his office, reaching out to high-profile newer members like Joaquin Castro of Texas and Joseph P. Kennedy III of Massachusetts.

In an interview, Crowley declined to rule out taking on Pelosi. Asked if he was seeking commitments for a future race, Crowley said only that “I have been talking to my colleagues about what they and we can do to help put us in the majority.”

Pelosi dismissed the idea of a challenge from Crowley, who briefly considered challenging her after the 2016 election, and her aides pointedly noted that at an event in New York last week, he introduced her as “soon to be speaker again.”

Hoyer, in turn, has pitched himself to colleagues as a transitional House speaker, according to multiple lawmakers who have spoken with him — a steady hand through the 2020 elections, and perhaps no further. Katie Grant, his spokeswoman, said he was “focused on taking back the House.” Part of Pelosi’s challenge owes to the changing nature of fundraising: Lamb raised over $4 million from mostly online contributors, the same way other Democrats are attracting donations. That has raised questions about just how much Pelosi’s vaunted fundraising prowess still matters.

“It weakens the leverage of party leaders,” Rep. Tim Ryan, D-Ohio, who challenged Pelosi after the 2016 elections, said of the new fundraising tools.

Yet some Democrats predicted that if the party rides an electoral wave back to power, Pelosi would reap much of the credit.

“If we take the majority, I completely assume that Leader Pelosi will be Speaker Pelosi,” said Rep. Karen Bass, D-Calif.

The most plausible scenario for Pelosi to exit, Democrats believe, is one in which the party just barely wins control of the House. A number of new lawmakers would have pledged not to vote for her, and several Democrats oppose her as a matter of routine, potentially denying her the 218 votes needed to secure the speakership.

“I think it will be left up to the new membership,” said Rep. John Lewis of Georgia, noting that freshman lawmakers and the rest of the caucus should “work their will.” That could doom Pelosi, especially if more Democrats follow Lamb’s approach.

At least three of the Democrats’ “red to blue” candidates — recruits designated as top priorities by the DCCC — have signaled they would prefer a leader other than Pelosi. In Minnesota, Dean Phillips, a wealthy businessman challenging Rep. Erik Paulsen, a Republican, has called for a “new generation of leadership.” In Washington state, Lisa Brown, a former state senator who is challenging Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers, a member of the Republican leadership, said “there’s room for new blood in all the caucuses in Congress.”

And Paul Davis, who is running for an open seat in Kansas, is flatly opposed to Pelosi. He said a change was “badly needed” and lamented leaders who are “toxic in this part of the country.” But there is unease with Pelosi in solid-blue districts, too. In two Boston-area districts, neither the Democratic incumbents nor their more progressive rivals have committed to backing Pelosi. Brianna Wu, a liberal activist opposing Rep. Stephen F. Lynch in a Democratic primary, said she was worried Democrats would suffer from Pelosi’s “inability to express a vision for the party.”

Rep. Kurt Schrader of Oregon, a moderate Democrat, said he had encouraged other congressional hopefuls to oppose Pelosi if necessary.

“I have liberals back home, the one thing they really like about me is the fact that I voted against Nancy,” he said. “No matter what candidate you are, it’s not necessarily a bad message.”

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