After House losses, divided Democrats chart a path forward with President-elect Biden at the helm

Democrats are set to vote on extending Nancy Pelosi's speakership on Wednesday.

November 18, 2020, 5:00 AM

House Democrats will elect their leaders for the next session of Congress this week, with Speaker Nancy Pelosi and her top lieutenants running for reelection unopposed as the caucus continues to grapple with the results of the election.

Pelosi, 80, House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer, D-Md., 81, and House Majority Whip Jim Clyburn, D-S.C., 80, have led House Democrats since 2003, and are certain to continue doing so for at least the next two years, while a younger generation of House Democrats compete for lower-level leadership positions.

The elections arrive at a particularly turbulent time for House Democrats, who are still reconciling unexpectedly steep losses amongst their ranks with President-elect Joe Biden's resounding drubbing of President Donald Trump at the top of the ticket -- leading to a caucus-wide existential introspection.

"It was a wipeout. In my area, West Virginia, Ohio, a lot of these states down-ballot, we got wiped out," Congressman Tim Ryan, D-Ohio, told ABC News in an interview. "Joe Biden has a much better brand than the Democratic Party brand. And the upside of that is he's now the president and his brand is the party. I think he's got a great agenda for us to integrate our brand into his. And hopefully that can be helpful to stop some of the bleeding."

PHOTO: The incoming House Democratic leadership team poses for a group photo in the Rayburn Room at the Capitol, Nov. 30, 2018.
The incoming House Democratic leadership team poses for a group photo in the Rayburn Room at the Capitol, Nov. 30, 2018. FRONT L-R: Katherine Clark, D-Mass., Ben Ray Lujan, D-N.M., Steny Hoyer, D-Md., Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., Jim Clyburn, D-S.C., Hakeem Jeffries, D-N.Y., Cheri Bustos, D-Ill., BACK L-R: Joe Neguse, D-Colo., Jamie Raskin, D-Md., Eric Swalwell, D-Calif., Ted Lieu, D-Calif., Debbie Dingell, D-Mich., David Cicilline, D-R.I., Matt Cartwright, D-Pa., Rosa DeLauro, D-Conn., Barbara Lee, D-Calif., Katie Hill, D-Calif.
Bill Clark/CQ-Roll Call via Getty Images

Heading into election night, House Democrats were optimistic about the prospect of expanding their 40-seat majority, as they aggressively targeted pick up opportunities in red territory and privately boasted about possibly gaining as many as a dozen seats.

Not only did they fail to knock off a single sitting Republican so far, but the GOP is also on track to narrow Democrats' majority in the House by at least nine seats -- one of the slimmest in two decades.

For Pelosi, keeping the speaker's gavel in her grip was paramount. She defiantly rejects the notion that the election outcome is a defeat, instead telling reporters late last week, "I take credit for winning a majority and holding the House."

But Democrats both inside and outside of the Capitol are acknowledging a major miscalculation: the unforeseen strength of the president for Republicans further down the ticket.

"(Trump) was able to really speak to voters who felt that Democrats and Republicans weren't doing enough for them and he was sort of the person who was going to shake it up," said Rep. Pramila Jayapal, D-Wash., a co-chair of the Congressional Progressive Caucus.

"We have defeated Trump in 2020 -- and I think decisively as more and more votes come in -- but it's equally clear to me that we have not yet defeated Trumpism," said Tom Perez, the chair of the Democratic National Committee.

After two years of keeping internal tensions under the surface, with the caucus unified in a desire to oust Trump, the election's outcome has reignited the ideological rift between progressives and moderates out in the public's view.

With the president no longer the most prominent threat, frustrated moderate Democrats are eager to lay blame at progressives' feet for what they view as costing the party unwarranted losses in competitive districts where they were favored.

"We are a part of a very vibrant, big tent party," said Rep. Stephanie Murphy, D-Fla., chair of the moderate Blue Dog Caucus. "I think the lesson learned for our caucus is that we need to have a unifying message that works for all elements and corners of our Democratic caucus. It was clear that some of the messages around socialism and defunding the police ... were damaging to members in majority-maker seats."

"We have to do a better job of communicating what the Democratic Party stands for before the next election cycle," she said.

PHOTO: Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D-N.Y., walks on the House steps of the Capitol in Washington, March 27, 2020.
Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D-N.Y., walks on the House steps of the Capitol in Washington, March 27, 2020.
Tom Williams/AP, FILE

Others were more blunt. On a private call with Democrats after the election, Rep. Abigail Spanberger, D-Va., a moderate from a Trump-leaning district, warned colleagues that their majority would "get f------ torn apart in 2022" without changes to their messaging.

"Those kinds of issues are toxic in the vast majority of the congressional districts," Ryan, who represents a district in northeast Ohio that stretches from Youngstown to east of Akron, said. "I think there's an opportunity for us if we play it smart. If we let the president lead. Then we can pull a lot of these voters who thought we forgot him back into the fold and start rebuilding and broadening the Democratic coalition, step by step."

In the immediate aftermath of the election, Rep. Alexandra Ocasio-Cortez, D-N.Y., a progressive leader, defended her wing of the party from an onslaught of friendly fire. She argued that it was shoddily run campaigns, with lackluster outreach and insufficient digital investments that sunk moderate Democrats in an interview with the New York Times.

"The leadership and elements of the party -- frankly, people in some of the most important decision-making positions in the party -- are becoming so blinded to this anti-activist sentiment that they are blinding themselves to the very assets that they offer," she told the Times. "I've been begging the party to let me help them for two years."

After House Democrats secured their majority in 2018, Pelosi was up against a hardened group of more than a dozen critics who pushed for new leadership in the last elections. But the longtime Democratic leader, who easily defeated a long-shot challenge from Ryan to lead House Democrats in 2016, stood firm against calls to step aside, and won over many of her onetime critics to reclaim the speaker's gavel.

Democrats will vote internally on extending Pelosi's speakership on Wednesday. The California Democrat, who is running unopposed within the party, will then face a full House vote for speaker in January, where she can only afford to lose a handful of Democrats' votes to win reelection.

Pelosi's first challenge will be overcoming the internal "family fights," which may not be new, particularly after bad defeats such as in 2004, 2010 and 2016, but some in the party are more surprised by the bickering after Democrats successfully unseated an incumbent president and control at least one chamber of Congress.

"They normally don't occur after winning the White House by such a wide popular vote margin and with a nice cushion in the Electoral College," said Doug Thornell, a veteran Democratic strategist and a former Democratic leadership aide on Capitol Hill. "The House Democratic caucus is very diverse, not just from a gender, racial, ethnic standpoint but also ideology. ... They're trying to sort out what happened, and the reality is, no one knows. ... But Nancy Pelosi has demonstrated an ability to keep the caucus together."

PHOTO: Rep. Tim Ryan (D-OH) speaks at a hearing with the Subcommittee on Military Construction, Veterans Affairs, and Related Agencies on Capitol Hill, May 28th, 2020.
Rep. Tim Ryan (D-OH) speaks at a hearing with the Subcommittee on Military Construction, Veterans Affairs, and Related Agencies on Capitol Hill, May 28th, 2020.
Anna Moneymaker/POOL/AFP via Getty Images

"It is worth it for the party to examine how they are branded in the eyes of most voters, because clearly Biden was able to do something that other down-ballot Democrats weren't able to do and that was brand himself in a way that allowed him to win convincingly against never-ending attacks by Trump and his allies," he added.

While there is agreement within the caucus over the need to revamp their messaging to reach voters that have strayed from the party in recent years, Democrats are split over how to do that without alienating progressives and voters of color who helped defeat Trump.

"We have to be focused on these populist politics that really address working folks who are the most vulnerable, many of whom turned out this time in a way they hadn't before," Jayapal contended. "We have to make sure we don't lose voters again, but also embrace this new group of voters, voters of color, young people who the progressive movement convinced to turn out and give democracy a chance."

"I think the focus should be on life and livelihood," Murphy said. "So, the life part is health care ... and then the second piece is likelihood, and that means that it's just as important for us to focus on the economy and jobs -- well paying jobs with benefits are critically important to the American people."

Ryan, who conceded that Ocasio-Cortez "makes some really good points" about needing to invest in digital and local party infrastructure, said that Democrats need to prioritize incremental progress over wholesale policy changes.

"We don't want to torch the joint, and say 'well, we're not going to agree,'" he said. "This is difficult stuff to do. So we take as much progress as we can possibly get, push as hard as we possibly can. And then make a deal."

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