Rep. Tim Ryan is considering taking on House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi again in November despite previously ruling the idea out — the latest turn in the caucus-wide chaos unleashed by Rep. Joe Crowley’s shocking primary loss last month.
Ryan, who won one-third of the caucus’ backing in a long-shot bid following the 2016 election, would be the first challenger to emerge against Pelosi in the post-Crowley world. Crowley, the No. 4 House Democrat defeated by progressive insurgent Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, was seen as Pelosi’s heir apparent to many in the caucus.
“The Crowley race changed a lot for a lot of us,” Ryan (D-Ohio) said in an interview Monday. “There was a lot of assumption that he was going to be moving forward in leadership and so losing that election put everybody in a state of mind to reevaluate what was happening.”
Ryan’s potential reemergence is just one of the many machinations happening in the Democratic Caucus right now, as Ocasio-Cortez’s victory underscores the growing unrest with Pelosi and the party’s leadership.
Democrats return Tuesday for what’s expected to be a chaotic three-week sprint as members consider how to move up or enter the leadership hierarchy following a flurry of phone calls gaming out strategies over the weeklong holiday recess.
Rep. Ben Ray Luján (D-N.M.), chairman of Democrats’ campaign arm, is telling colleagues he’d be interested in the whip position if the job is up for grabs in a House majority, according to multiple Democratic sources. Lujan’s office did not return requests for comment.
Others, like Reps. Linda Sanchez (D-Calif.), the No. 5 ranking Democrat, and Rep. Barbara Lee (D-Calif.) are eyeing Crowley’s job as caucus chairman, although neither have formally declared.
“It’s as if the snow globe was shaken a bit and I think members are having lots of individual conversations,” Rep. Mark Pocan (D-Wis.), co-chairman of the Congressional Progressive Caucus, said in an interview.
Two weeks later, Crowley’s defeat is still reverberating deep within the caucus, culminating in what Democrats describe as a perfect storm for members long frustrated by the static leadership hierarchy but who previously saw little opportunity for change.
Pelosi and her No. 2, House Minority Whip Steny Hoyer (D-Md.), have led the caucus for more than 15 years. Rep. Jim Clyburn (D-S.C.), the assistant minority leader, has held the No. 3 spot in the caucus for more than a decade.
Lawmakers and Democratic aides said they see July as a critical month for anyone wanting to mount a successful leadership race in November.
The House will be in for three weeks this month — providing valuable facetime for lawmakers looking to lock up support — before departing Washington for a five-week recess in August. The chamber will also be dark for chunks of September and October as members prioritize time back in their districts campaigning for the midterm elections.
Crowley’s defeat created a rare opening in leadership at exactly the moment that Democrats have their best shot in years at winning back the House and Pelosi is facing rising calls to hang it up.
The confluence of events has members salivating at the potential to rocket into a leadership structure that normally can take a decade or more to break into.
Ryan said he’s been approached by several colleagues asking him to reconsider another dark horse leadership bid in the weeks since Crowley’s primary. And while Ryan wouldn’t commit to challenging Pelosi, multiple sources within the caucus have told POLITICO over the last several days he seems to be strongly leaning that way.
“I wouldn’t get in unless I thought I could win,” Ryan said, highlighting his travel for Democratic candidates in GOP-leaning areas in South Carolina, West Virginia and Indiana. “I’m not going to do it just to do it.”
Asked for comment, Pelosi’s spokesman, Drew Hammill, pointed to an interview with Rolling Stone in May where she called Ryan “inconsequential.”
“Leader Pelosi’s sole focus is on winning the House,” Hammill added in a statement. “The leader has not asked for support from members, but she is delighted with the support she is receiving from the caucus.”
Other lawmakers are still strategizing on how they can capitalize on the opening created by Crowley’s unexpected departure.
Allies for Hoyer and Clyburn are floating both men as potential “bridge” candidates if Pelosi doesn’t have the votes to be elected speaker and a younger, less experienced leader doesn’t emerge.
Both Sanchez and Lee — who competed against each other in a close race for vice-chair in 2016 — spent the recess reaching out to colleagues about their potential bids for caucus chairman.
Sanchez hasn’t explicitly asked her colleagues for their support in her outreach, according to a source close to the California Democrat, but will make an announcement about her plans in the coming weeks.
As the No. 5 Democrat behind Crowley, Sanchez may be in the best position currently to jump to caucus chair this fall. Unlike other members, she is not starting from scratch. While serving in leadership, she has been traveling and fundraising for colleagues and has a whip operation in place.
But both Sanchez and Lee have disadvantages, too. Sanchez shocked the caucus in October when she said it was time for Pelosi, Hoyer and Clyburn to make way for a new generation of leaders. The comments will make Sanchez a top target for Pelosi allies if she becomes speaker again.
Lee is a prominent and well-respected member of the progressive caucus, a group that for months has been plotting ways to grow its influence in leadership after the election. But a few sources close to the CPC have grumbled that Lee, at age 71 and having spent two decades in Congress, is not the generational change agent they want to rally behind.
Pocan wouldn’t comment on Lee’s chances specifically but did say the CPC executive board plans to meet later this week to begin discussions about getting behind a consensus candidate.
“My biggest goal out of everything is to make sure that progressives have seats in leadership because if you don’t have a seat at the table, you’re likely on the menu,” Pocan said.
Other lawmakers, like Reps. Cheri Bustos (D-Ill.) and Hakeem Jeffries (D-N.Y.), co-chairs of House Democrats’ messaging arm, heard from colleagues over the holiday break urging them to consider running for something in leadership.
Other names that have been floated include Rep. Emanuel Cleaver, the first black mayor of Kansas City, Mo., and former chairman of the Congressional Black Caucus; Rep. Pete Aguilar (D-Calif.), who led the recent push to force bipartisan immigration votes on the House floor; and Rep. Cedric Richmond (D-La.), current chairman of the CBC.
Rep. Grace Meng (D-N.Y.), a close ally of Crowley, has been floated as a potential vice-chair candidate. Rep. Adam Schiff (D-Calif.), a Pelosi ally who serves as ranking Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee, and Rep. Katherine Clark (D-Mass.), who has helped lead Democrats’ recruitment efforts this cycle, have also been frequently mentioned in conversations with nearly a dozen lawmakers and aides.
Meanwhile, one prominent rising star in the House Democratic Caucus has already taken himself out of the running. Rep. Joe Kennedy (D-Mass.) has told fellow lawmakers he has no interest in running for leadership, according to multiple sources.
Several Democrats said they expect the list of who’s actually interested in running — and who’s not — to solidify over the next few weeks, even if those members don’t publicly declare their intentions.
Win or lose the House in the midterms, members said Crowley’s loss makes clear there will be some kind of reckoning come November.
“There is frustration in the caucus about allowing talent to rise to the top,” said Rep. Gerry Connolly (D-Va.). “There are a lot of members who are frustrated, who feel that they lack opportunities to shine or reach their full potential. And I think we have to address that as a caucus.”