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House Democrats Consider New Leadership If They Win Midterms


It is a tense time for House Democrats. They have less than a hundred days to convince voters across the country that Democrats should lead the House of Representatives next year. But back in Washington, they're locked in this internal debate over who the top leaders should be if they win in November and whether House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi should be one of them. NPR's Kelsey Snell sat down with three Democrats who are basically like the messaging gurus for Democratic candidates. She's here with us now. Hi, Kelsey.


KING: So why are Democrats arguing about their leadership so close to an election?

SNELL: Honestly, they've been having this fight for years. This is not a new fight for them, and it isn't really a great moment for House Democrats because they're fighting and trying to keep it away from the elections. They're trying to keep it in Washington. But this internal struggle's been going on for a long time. Like I said, you've got younger people who want a more diverse leadership. More specifically, they want House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi to step down, in part because she's the subject of attacks from Republicans, and some people think that she makes them just more vulnerable. Others defend Pelosi and say that, you know, she and her top deputies are effective leaders who have kept the party together through some really tough times.

But the attacks were kind of renewed last month when Joe Crowley - he was the No. 4 Democrat in the House - lost to Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, who was a young woman and who was much more progressive than he was. And they say that this is evidence that the leadership just is out of touch. And that's given Republicans another chance to remind voters that Nancy Pelosi is the leader of this party. And it's turned into a total attack.

KING: And a little bit of a (laughter) quagmire in terms of messaging.

SNELL: Yeah.

KING: You actually spoke to some Democrats whose job it is to work on the message that the party should be putting out. Who are they, and what did they tell you?

SNELL: Yeah. I sat down with the group. It's Cheri Bustos of Illinois, David Cicilline of Rhode Island and Hakeem Jeffries of New York. And they were all elected by other House Democrats to be in charge of this message for the election and beyond so that they would have something to run on and something to govern on if they happen to win in November. And all three of them downplay the impact the fight is having on the election. Bustos said what I've heard from a lot of candidates and members. They just say that voters don't care about Pelosi.

CHERI BUSTOS: I don't ever get those questions about our leadership when I'm at home. Maybe at a party function I do. But again, when I'm, you know, standing shoulder-to-shoulder with a welder or a car repairman or a farmer, I'm just not getting those questions.

KING: It sounds like a fair point. Do voters actually care?

SNELL: Well, she is right. In some cases, that might be entirely true. People don't care. But Republicans are doing their best to make sure the people do care. Take the election next week in Ohio. Republicans are in this big battle to keep control of the seat that once belonged to the governor and former presidential candidate John Kasich. Recent polls show a whisper-thin margin. You've got a Republican nominee, Troy Balderson, and Democrat Danny O'Connor. And, this is how Republicans are messaging in their most recent ad.


UNIDENTIFIED NARRATOR: Dishonest Danny has lied about Pelosi. Now he's lying about Social Security and Medicare. O'Connor supports a Pelosi-backed plan that cuts Medicare spending by 800 billion.

SNELL: So that's one district. But that's what we're hearing in a lot of districts.

KING: Did any of the Democrats that you spoke to say they would vote for Pelosi for leader?

SNELL: (Laughter) They all basically said that they support the current leadership, but they have concerns. They'd like to see fresh faces. They'd like something new in the mix. And Jeffries is from New York. Jeffries says getting tangled up in a leadership fight in Washington distracts from the bigger challenges ahead. And basically, there's going to be a leadership fight. They just want to have it later.

KING: NPR's congressional reporter Kelsey Snell. Thanks, Kelsey.

SNELL: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Kelsey Snell is a Congressional correspondent for NPR. She has covered Congress since 2010 for outlets including The Washington Post, Politico and National Journal. She has covered elections and Congress with a reporting specialty in budget, tax and economic policy. She has a graduate degree in journalism from the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University in Evanston, Ill. and an undergraduate degree in political science from DePaul University in Chicago.