Rebel Democrats say they will oppose Nancy Pelosi

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“COME on in, the water’s warm,” said Nancy Pelosi, the Democratic leader of the House of Representatives, when asked recently about a rumoured leadership challenge. No one has yet taken her up on the invitation. On November 19th, 16 House Democrats published a letter saying the time had come for the party to elect a new, younger leader. But the only person who has openly mulled a run against Mrs Pelosi, Marcia Fudge, a congresswoman from Ohio, did not sign her name to it.

 “We are thankful to Leader Pelosi for her years of service to our Country and to our Caucus,” the 16 Democrats wrote of the 78-year-old, who has led House Democrats for 16 years and was Speaker for four years until 2011. But, “we also recognise that in this recent election, Democrats ran on and won on a message of change.”

The letter is intended to suggest Mrs Pelosi would not get the votes she will need to become House Speaker for a second time. The signatories may hope this will force her to stand down or else encourage a challenger to come forward. But it is not yet clear she will be short of the votes.

With support from most Democrats, Mrs Pelosi will probably sail through a preliminary Democratic vote on November 28th. Things may get trickier for her on January 3rd, when she must also gain the support of a majority in the House. Democrats currently have 232 seats but, with vote-counting ongoing in four more, they look likely to end up with at least one more seat. If they ended up with 233 House seats, they will have a 16-seat majority, which would mean Mrs Pelosi could afford to lose up to 15 Democratic votes. Given that one of the hostile letter-writers is trailing in vote-counting for his congressional election, she might yet be able to shrug off this challenge.

There are, however, a handful of other House Democrats who did not sign the letter but have said they would not back Mrs Pelosi as Speaker. They include Abigail Spanberger in Virginia and Jason Crow in Colorado—newcomers to the House who ran in conservative-leaning districts.

That they felt it necessary to take that stand points to one of the reasons some Democrats want Mrs Pelosi out: her unpopularity among conservative and independent voters. According to a national mid-terms exit poll, 56% of voters had a negative view of her; only 31% of voters had a favourable one. This reflects her longevity; few prominent politicians remain popular for long. It is also the reward for a years-long Republican campaign to vilify her as an entitled and out of touch liberal.

There are better reasons to want a change in the Democratic House leadership. The party is increasingly dependent on younger voters. Yet the top three House Democrats— Mrs Pelosi, Steny Hoyer, and James Clyburn—are in their late 70s and have held their positions for more than a decade. That argues for change. But even if Mrs Pelosi may be a drag electorally, she remains an imposing congressional boss and vote-counter. Democrats had better be sure they have a good alternative to her before launching themselves into a divisive civil war.

Mrs Pelosi also deserves some credit for the Democrats’ success in the mid-terms. She urged Democratic candidates to talk about health care and avoid divisive talk of impeaching President Donald Trump. That winning strategy contributed to the Democrats’ biggest haul of seats since 1974, including many victories in conservative suburban areas.

Mrs Pelosi is now campaigning aggressively for a second turn as Speaker. She is holding meetings with leaders of the Democratic caucuses and outside groups—her office has published a list of 30 advocacy groups and unions that are behind her and she has won endorsements from hard-left progressives such as Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, who noted that “all of the rebellion for the speakership are challenges to her right.”

Even more jarringly, Mr Trump has also declared his support for Mrs Pelosi’s speakership. Over the weekend he reiterated a pledge to round up Republican votes for her. She seems to have at least one in the bag; Tom Reed, a Republican congressman from New York, has said he will consider voting for her. The president, who is perhaps making mischief for Mrs Pelosi, though he does seem to like her, tweeted that, “she deserves this victory, she has earned it—but there are those in her party who are trying to take it away. She will win”. He is probably right.

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