After a resounding defeat in the 2016 election, Democrats are clamoring for a fresh set of leaders to advance a new way forward for the party.
But for at least one key position — House Democratic leader — continuity seems just fine. On Wednesday, House Democrats voted to retain Nancy Pelosi, their leader since 2003, over an upstart challenger, Rep. Tim Ryan of Ohio.
It’s an irony that Democrats are grappling with: As they demand new ideas and leaders across the board, they just voted yet again to retain a longtime leader with a mixed electoral track record.
But a growing number of members, though they like and admire Pelosi, believe it’s time for her to step aside.
That’s precisely why Ryan ran, and though two-thirds of the caucus voted to keep Pelosi in charge, the Ohioan attracted more support than any challenger since Pelosi was first elected to leadership.
Four of five Minnesota Democrats supported Pelosi; First District Rep. Tim Walz was Ryan’s sole backer in the group. Yet all affirmed that changes need to be made to the way Democrats do business.
As the party clamors for change, why are Minnesota Democrats sticking by their leader — or not?
A Midwesterner challenges Pelosi
If there were an alternative to Pelosi that Minnesotans might find more appealing, Ryan was not a bad option.
The 43-year-old represents a northeast Ohio district, and argued that the party needs to refocus on the Rust Belt and working-class voters who delivered Trump the White House.
Ryan said he could communicate better than Pelosi — who hails from a prominent Baltimore political family but represents San Francisco — in the union halls and churches in the Midwest and South that the party has lost.
A 14-year incumbent, Ryan has championed a platform of economic progressivism and opposition to trade deals that has more than a few friendly ears among the Minnesota delegation. He only recently came out in favor of abortion rights, and the social message the party has advanced is not something he talks much about.
Above all, though, Ryan’s appeal simply rested on him not being Pelosi. That proved a compelling argument to some Democrats, following four election cycles that have seen the party lose the House, then fail to make any significant headway in getting it back.
2016 stung especially: Democrats believed that Trump would be such an albatross for congressional candidates that they could net a double-digit pickup of seats. Some entertained the prospect of retaking the House, which would have required a 30-seat gain.
In the end, they picked up just six seats, failing to win key contests like the one in Minnesota’s 2nd District. And three Minnesota Democrats even came close to losing: While Rep. Rick Nolan fended off an expected tough challenge, Reps. Walz and Collin Peterson were endangered by out-of-nowhere opponents.
Though Pelosi does not run Democrats’ campaign strategy, her PAC doled out $37 million to assist Democratic candidates in 2016, and many Democrats were irked by the limited return on investment.
Walz votes for new direction
Walz believes that changing leaders won’t solve all the problems that Democrats are reckoning with after the election — but he argues it’s a necessary start.
Perhaps no one in the Minnesota delegation would find Ryan’s message of winning back rural America more appealing than Walz: The congressman outperformed Hillary Clinton by 12 points in his district. He barely won his own race against Jim Hagedorn, whom he dispatched easily in 2014.
In his district, Walz says, Democrats’ messaging is falling flat, and it’s time to change the message and the messenger.
“There are symbolic things that happen that show there’s new leadership,” Walz told MinnPost. “It’s not necessarily a criticism of anyone in particular. But if you’re in charge and you don’t win, cycle after cycle after cycle, there has to be a change.”
The Mankato Democrat was one of about a dozen lawmakers who announced support for Ryan before the vote on Wednesday. Though it was a secret ballot, Walz said he wanted to be up front about who he was supporting.
(Complicating matters for Walz: He’s making a run for the post of ranking member on the House Veterans’ Affairs Committee — a race that leadership can influence heavily.)
Walz added that the party’s definition of diversity needs to include rural America, so that the party is better equipped to listen to rural concerns and prevent a Trump wave from rising again.
To him, the current system is stifling members from the Midwest and South from playing influential roles.
“Our leadership structure incentivizes folks that come from safe urban districts that can raise money,” he said. “That cuts off ideas.”
Walz is hopeful that Pelosi will take the message from the 63 Democrats who voted for a new leader, but he can’t remember a time where his caucus was more disillusioned in his decade in Washington.
In her acceptance remarks, Pelosi made little mention of Ryan, or the serious fissures in her conference.
The protest message posed by Ryan’s challenge, like the message that came from voters on election night, can’t be ignored by Democratic leaders, Walz said.
A former high school teacher, Walz recalled something: “If I taught a lesson and the majority of kids did not do well when I was trying to get an assessment of how they did in a test, I didn’t assume the kids weren’t very smart.
“I assumed I didn’t teach it well. So, I think for Democrats, we may not want to assume the kids aren’t doing well. They’re doing just fine. We’re just not getting that message across.”
“How we have been defined is starting to stick,” he said. He says he admires what Pelosi has accomplished in Congress, but suggested it doesn’t matter if she can’t deliver victories in elections.
“You could have a very skilled legislative tactician that will be navigating in the minority for eternity.”
Pelosi loyalists want some changes
You won’t find many Democrats who believe everything is fine and nothing needs to change.
But the Pelosi-backing Minnesota Democrats said the party can make necessary reforms to the way it does business without dumping its longtime House leader.
Rep. Keith Ellison — himself running for chair of the Democratic National Committee and articulating a different way forward for the party — had good things to say about both Ryan and Pelosi.
“The process that Tim drove was healthy for us, honestly,” he said. “Tim Ryan is an incredibly talented guy and I think we should make the maximum use of all his gifts. He’s from the Midwest, he’s got a great economic message, he’s a fresh face. We’ve gotta put people like him up front to talk for our caucus.”
Ellison says he believes in Pelosi, calling her a tremendous leader. “But I think it’s going to call on everybody to get a fresh piece of paper and start building from the ground up,” he said.
Other Democrats interviewed by Minnesota Public Radio sounded similar notes. Rep. Betty McCollum said Ryan’s challenge was a “clear message” to Pelosi, who she believes will make some long-desired procedural changes.
House Democratic leadership is particularly powerful and centralized, and many rank-and-file members want to see increased authority devolved to committees to give junior members more opportunities to advance.
Peterson told MPR that redistricting and the politics pushed by the Democratic caucus are endangering blue-dog members like him, not Pelosi. “I don’t think changing leaders is going to solve the problems we have,” he said.
“It’s not a one-woman job,” Ellison told MinnPost. “Because if anyone has a sauce that could solve every problem, we wouldn’t be in this mess, because it is complicated.”
“I’ll tell you this: Tim got 60-some votes. You can’t ignore that.”