Nancy Pelosi is making gender a central part of her bid to reclaim the speaker’s gavel — leaning hard into the pitch that Democrats cannot oust the only woman at their leadership table following a historic election for women.
In addition to arguing she’s the best qualified for the job, the California Democrat and her allies are also framing a Pelosi victory as a matter of protecting political progress for women at a critical moment. Push her out, and men may take over the party at a time when more than 100 women are heading to Capitol Hill and after women voters have been thoroughly alienated by President Donald Trump. Embrace her, and she’ll prioritize legislation empowering women from equal pay to anti-harassment legislation.
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“I think it would look ridiculous if we win back the House… we have a pink wave with women who have brought back the House, then you’re going to not elect the leader who led the way? No,” said Rep. Lois Frankel (D-Fla.) who leads the Democratic Women’s Working Group. “That would be wrong.”
Incoming freshman Veronica Escobar (D-Texas) was blunter: “We have a president who is a misogynist, a president who has been antagonistic to women’s issues… There is no better person at the very top than” Pelosi.
Pelosi has some powerful allies pulling for her.
Emily’s List President Stephanie Schriock and founder Ellen Malcolm have been making calls on Pelosi’s behalf to newly-elected lawmakers, according to sources familiar with the whipping campaign. The group was instrumental in endorsing or financially supporting more than 63 House female candidates, including many who won Tuesday but have expressed reservations about Pelosi.
The gender-inflected pitch comes as other women in the caucus are at risk of getting big-footed by their male counterparts: Rep. Cheri Bustos, a rising star from a red district in Illinois, had been carefully laying the groundwork to run for assistant Democratic leader. But after the party’s triumph at the polls last Tuesday, Pelosi ally and DCCC Chairman Ben Ray Lujan decided to jump into the race, all but forcing her out.
Realizing she didn’t have a shot against the man who helped win back the majority for the party, Bustos bowed out of the race and is now running for DCCC chair against several other colleagues.
A similar situation is unfolding for California Rep. Barbara Lee, a veteran progressive leader gunning for the No. 5 position next year: Democratic Caucus chair. Lee had been wooing supporters for months. But after the election, Rep. Hakeem Jeffries, a charismatic New Yorker whom many believe could be speaker one day, declared for the position.
Should both women lose their races, and the current top three leadership structure remain, Pelosi would be the only woman alongside Minority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) and Minority Whip Jim Clyburn (D-S.C.).
Four men will continue to run the Senate: Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) and John Thune (R-D.C.) will soon replace outgoing GOP whip John Cornyn (R-Texas.) while Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) and Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) will continue to lead the minority party.
In a Sunday interview with CBS “Face the Nation,” Pelosi suggested that this current male-dominated congressional structure — and Hillary Clinton’s defeat in 2016 — was one of the primary reason she’s sought to extend her time in the House. When she came to Washington, Democrats had only 12 women in the chamber; now they have about 90.
“If Hillary had won, I could go home,” she told host Margaret Brennan, adding that if a woman was president she could have ensured “there’s a woman at the table.”
“You cannot have the four leaders of Congress [and] the president of the United States, these five people, and not have the voice of women,” Pelosi continued. “Especially since women were the majority of the voters, the workers in campaigns, and now part of this glorious victory.”
Others are making the same case for her. Incoming House Oversight Committee Chairman Elijah Cummings said Pelosi has “got my vote” on ABC’s “This Week” and that it would be a “damn shame” if the caucus “replaced this fearless leader with a man.”
Outside women’s advocacy groups are also getting involved.
“She is a selfless feminist dedicated to equality and a brilliant strategist who works tirelessly to get the job done,” the Feminist Majority Foundation wrote in a statement endorsing Pelosi’s bid for speaker.
Some of these groups could have serious sway with female candidates. The EMILY’s List political arm, WOMEN VOTE!, was projected to spend at least $37 million on independent expenditures for its candidates and bundle another $10 million. Many of the women receiving such support will show up in Congress next year.
Still, several of their endorsed candidates have been lukewarm to Pelosi. Connecticut Democrat Johanna Hayes was unequivocal in her primary, saying “I would not vote for Nancy Pelosi” when her Democratic opponent expressed openness to supporting Pelosi.
Similarly, Mikie Sherrill (D-N.J.), Abigail Spanberger (D-Va.), Elissa Slotkin (D-Mich.) and a handful of others have all either said they won’t back Pelosi or called for new leadership.
Pelosi has a narrow margin for error, with at least 10 incumbents or incoming lawmakers committing to vote against her on the House floor.
Depending on how many seats Democrats net in the midterms when all the votes are counted, Pelosi won’t be able to afford to lose many more.