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Who Could Become Speaker Of The House If Pelosi Doesn’t?

The drama over who exactly will lead the newly elected Democratic House majority is continuing — and getting more complicated. There’s no guarantee House Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi will become speaker in January. Her critics are numerous and appear to be intensifying their efforts, with a bloc of them releasing a letter on Monday pledging to oppose her. And this process may go on for a while.

But Pelosi has a big advantage: There is no obvious alternative to her. It is, as the cliche goes, hard to beat something with nothing. Right now, despite all the buzz about Pelosi’s future, no Democrat is actually running against her for speaker. She is almost certain to win the internal House Democratic vote next week to be the party’s nominee for speaker, in part because she might be running unopposed. Her critics’ best bet to defeat her is probably to wait till the formal speaker vote in January, refuse to back Pelosi then, and force her to step aside — and then hope someone else emerges with enough support to get the job.

To explain Democrats’ lack of options, let’s look at some factions within the caucus, none of whom have coalesced around a candidate who could easily supplant Pelosi.

The current leadership

In some ways, all this uncertainty is because of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. Rep. Joe Crowley of New York, who is the House Democratic Caucus chair, the No. 4 post in the party hierarchy, was taking steps to make a run for speaker if it became clear that Pelosi didn’t have enough support. He has the right resume: He’s a longtime member, he’s already on the leadership team, he has a mainstream ideology (he votes with the president’s positions at a pretty average rate for House Democrats according to our Trump Score), and he’s significantly younger (56) than Pelosi (78), whose critics have highlighted her age.

But Ocasio-Cortez beat Crowley in a huge upset in a June primary. That left the No. 2 Democrat in the House, Steny Hoyer of Maryland, and the No. 3 Democrat, James Clyburn of South Carolina, as the main alternatives to Pelosi among top party leaders. Hoyer is 79. Clyburn is 78. Hoyer also has a reputation as a centrist (probably reinforced by the fact that he is an older white man) — and I think Ocasio-Cortez and others in the Congressional Progressive Caucus are unlikely to embrace him.

Here’s the thing: I wouldn’t rule out Clyburn or Hoyer (or Pelosi) becoming the speaker. It’s a complicated job and Democrats may eventually conclude that at least in 2019 and 2020, they can’t afford a speaker who’s learning it on the fly. This trio has been leading the Democrats since 2005 — so almost no other Democrats in the House have any real experience with doing what a speaker does, such as representing the party to the media, navigating the complicated House rules governing votes and floor debates, and creating a policy and political strategy for the entire bloc of House Democrats.

There are a few younger Democrats with posts further down in the leadership chain who have signaled they want to move up, including Illinois’s Cheri Bustos, New York’s Hakeem Jeffries and Ben Ray Luján of New Mexico, who as Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee chair was a key figure in winning the party the majority. But it would be a big leap for any of them to become speaker right now — they are fairly low-profile and aren’t known as legislative leaders. It would be more logical for one of them to become the No. 2 or No. 3 Democratic leader in January and start positioning themselves to become the speaker in 2021, if Democrats still have control then.

Possible speakers: Bustos, Clyburn, Hoyer, Jeffries, Lujan, Pelosi

The anti-Pelosi bloc

There is no official anti-Pelosi contingent, but we recently wrote about 21 members who over the last year have signaled that they might oppose Pelosi. (This group overlaps some with the 16 who signed Monday’s letter, but some members on our list didn’t sign, and some of the signers were not on our list.) Why are none of them viable speaker candidates? First, 10 of the 21 are newly elected to Congress — and freshmen are traditionally not chosen as speaker, in part because the job is so complex.

Among the 11 anti-Pelosi incumbents, only one, Linda Sanchez, is already on the Democratic Party’s leadership team as the caucus’s vice chair. She was planning to run for Crowley’s job, which tells me that she didn’t think she had enough support to aim for Pelosi’s. But earlier this month, her husband was indicted on charges of misusing federal funds by charging personal expenses to the power company he worked for. The congresswoman has not been charged with anything herself, but she said she would not pursue a new leadership post.

All but two of the 11 anti-Pelosi incumbents are men. This a major problem for this bloc, as Pelosi’s defenders are increasingly arguing that a gang of men is seeking to unseat Pelosi, the only woman who has ever served as speaker of the House. Aside from Sanchez, the other prominent female anti-Pelosi figure is New York’s Kathleen Rice. But Rice and three other Pelosi critics — Tennessee’s Jim Cooper, Pennsylvania’s Conor Lamb and Oregon’s Kurt Schrader — are among the most conservative Democrats in the House, according to our Trump Score. That won’t help any of them become speaker in a House Democratic Caucus that includes dozens of members who want to impeach the president.

There’s Tim Ryan of Ohio and Seth Moulton of Massachusetts — youngish, charismatic figures with fairly normal voting records for Democrats. But they have little experience in leadership on Capitol Hill, making them far from ideal candidates for speaker. The other anti-Pelosi incumbents — New York’s Brian Higgins, New Jersey’s Bill Pascrell, Colorado’s Ed Perlmutter and Texas’s Filemon Vela — are fairly low-profile figures.

Possible speakers: Moulton, Ryan

The committee leaders

When Republicans picked him to be speaker in 2015, Paul Ryan had not been in the party’s formal leadership. Instead, he was the top Republican on a key committee (Ways and Means). And there’s a good chance that a new speaker could emerge from the 22 Democrats who lead the party on various committees.

But why isn’t there any obvious candidate now? First, there’s age. Congress is generally run on seniority. So, all else being equal, committee leaders tend to be older. Just five of these 22 are under 65. So again, if the anti-Pelosi movement is really about a younger look for Democrats, most of these men and women aren’t ideal speaker candidates.

Also, none of these 22 has been in the top leadership either, so they haven’t done all the fundraising and political work that Clyburn, Hoyer and Pelosi have.1

Finally, becoming the top Democrat on a committee generally requires Pelosi’s support (or at least a lack of outright opposition). So these 22 leaders have some loyalty to Pelosi — and some incentive not to cross her, in case she remains in charge.

Pelosi’s relationships with this bloc of members are extremely important to consider — they aren’t likely to break with her unless it’s fairly clear she truly can’t become speaker. If Pelosi can’t win, Adam Schiff of California might be an ideal speaker alternative. He is the top Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee, which has made him the party’s spokesperson on high-profile issues surrounding Trump’s 2016 campaign and Russian interference. He is poised and articulate. He is 58 years old. (On the other hand, he literally represents Hollywood, which is perhaps not the message Democrats want to send as they try to win Midwestern swing states like Wisconsin in 2020.)

Possible Speakers: Schiff; Adam Smith of Washington, top Democrat on the House Armed Services Committee; John Yarmuth of Kentucky, top Democrat on the House Budget Committee

The Congressional Black Caucus

At least 50 black Democrats were elected this month — African-Americans will constitute more than a fifth of the caucus in the House. They are the chamber’s biggest minority group, and the one that is being most vocal about wanting more power. Clyburn and Marcia Fudge of Ohio are openly considering speaker bids if Pelosi falters (and Fudge is considering an outright challenge.) Cedric Richmond, the chairman of the Congressional Black Caucus, has been publicly advocating for either a black speaker (there has never been one before) or a black majority leader.

So why isn’t one of the CBC members the clear Pelosi alternative? First, Clyburn is in some ways blocking other black members from being real candidates for the job. If Democrats wanted him to replace Pelosi, there would have already been a push in that direction. He and Hoyer are not really what her critics are looking for, because they are also pretty old and have long been part of the Democratic establishment. That said, Clyburn has been a mentor to many of the younger black Democrats in the House. So I don’t think they will be aggressive in pushing to be speaker themselves until it’s clear that Clyburn is no longer a candidate.

Some younger black members will have another problem: impeachment. Of the 70 House Democrats who supported at least one of two previous efforts to impeach President Trump, more than a third are black. Having officially supported impeachment might be too liberal of a stance to take for anyone who wants to be the leader of a party that campaigned this year on not impeaching Trump. That vote could complicate a speaker bid by Fudge, Jeffries and Richmond, all of whom voted to start the impeachment process.

That said, Fudge is an intriguing prospect. She’s 66; she once ran the Black Caucus, which is a post that does involve some fundraising and management; she’s a woman, which is a relevant factor in any effort to replace Pelosi; and she has the gumption to announce she is open to the job.

Possible Speakers: Clyburn, Fudge, Jeffries, Richmond

Democrats essentially have four options:

  1. Stick with Pelosi.
  2. Choose someone else from leadership, such as Clyburn or Hoyer.
  3. Choose someone else who wants the job, such as Fudge, who is right now basically running for speaker.
  4. Or choose someone like Schiff, who will likely only become a speaker candidate once Pelosi is out of the running.

I think Pelosi becoming the speaker is the most likely outcome, but I wouldn’t rule out the other three possibilities. There is a big, complicated stew of ideology, loyalty, ambition, age, gender and race at play here. Take gender alone: The new House Democratic Caucus will include at least 88 women, which is almost 40 percent of the party’s House members. I didn’t include “women” as a faction above because … well, they’re nearly half the caucus. And it’s not clear that the women of the House are aligned in a formal bloc like the CBC. Nevertheless, Pelosi’s supporters have have criticized the idea of ousting the party’s female Democratic leader after the “pink wave” in 2018. And there appears to be some pressure to replace Pelosi with a woman if she’s going to be replaced. That could help Bustos, Fudge or another woman if they make a bid to become speaker, but I doubt that anyone will emerge as the candidate formally put forward by the female members of the House.

Part of the complexity of the question of who might replace Pelosi also lies in the critique of her — House Democrats opposed to Pelosi have complained that she is old and unpopular and has been at the job for a long time. But party leaders are usually old, unpopular and fairly entrenched. (See McConnell, Mitch, who is 76.) Picking someone new and fresh for a job that is fairly complicated and requires a lot of prior knowledge is somewhat contradictory.

So I really don’t know who Democrats will pick for speaker, or who they should pick. (OK, I think they should probably choose Pelosi for now, with Bustos, Jeffries, Lujan or Schiff as the No. 2 and heir apparent. And this seems fairly obvious to me, but I’m just a journalist.) The House Democrats themselves seem just as confused. So we may have to wait until the vote in January before we really know who will be the next speaker of the House.


  1. Ryan, we should note, had also been the GOP’s vice presidential nominee, so he had political experience beyond what the typical committee chair gets.

Perry Bacon Jr. was a senior writer for FiveThirtyEight.