Who will lead the House Democratic Party?
Updated: Nov 17
By Matthew Green and Douglas Harris
All eyes have been on the November elections and Donald Trump’s persistent (and so far unfounded) claims of electoral fraud. But House Democrats will soon be holding their own set of elections to various party leadership posts, including Assistant Speaker, Chair of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee (DCCC), and Vice Chair of the Democratic Caucus. All are worth watching because the winners may help steer the party’s political strategy in the upcoming Congress and could constitute the next generation of top Democratic leaders.
Who might win these races? Before turning to that question, one should ask why the highest ranked leadership post in the House – the Speakership – will not be subject to a competitive election within the Democratic Party. As we note in our book Choosing the Leader, which explains the politics behind leadership elections in the U.S. House, incumbent leaders are more likely to face challenges (“revolts”) when their party does poorly at the ballot box. House Democrats unexpectedly lost seats, so if the past were a guide, we should expect that the party’s top leader, Speaker Nancy Pelosi, would be held responsible for those losses – and subject to a serious intraparty challenge.
Yet there are several reasons why Pelosi has avoided that. She has done an impressive job of cultivating support within her party, doing favors both large and small for her colleagues over the past two decades in leadership. Pelosi also created an aura of political invincibility after successfully weathering a pair of revolts in 2010 and 2018. The latter revolt led her to entertain the notion of not serving as Speaker past 2022, making it somewhat pointless to try to remove Pelosi now while simultaneously increasing the stakes of the outcomes for the lower level leadership races.
Furthermore, potential challengers may fear feeding a narrative, already popular in the media, that Democrats are at war with one another, which could dampen enthusiasm for a new Biden presidency. (In fact, all of the House leadership revolts since 1964 that have taken place after a presidential election were within the party that lost the presidency.) More generally, revolts are risky endeavors, since the loser may easily face retaliation by the winner and her allies, and Pelosi has long been known for rewarding allies and punishing rivals.
Pelosi may easily glide into another term as Speaker, but the same is not true for the Democrats competing for the aforementioned leadership posts in the Caucus. Our research on the topic indicates that several variables are likely to be critical in determining the winner of the elections to those offices.
Ideology. Most people assume that ideology drives leadership elections in Congress, and we have found that ideology is often – though not always – an important predictor of vote choice in these elections. Indeed, ideology is more often predictive in Democratic leadership races than in the GOP.
In the case of the left-leaning Democratic Caucus of the contemporary era, candidates who are more ideologically moderate than their opponents may have a harder time winning election. That could include Rep. Pete Aguilar, one of three Democrats running to be the next Caucus Vice Chair. Often described as a centrist, he may struggle to win votes from the party’s more liberal members, especially given that his two rivals, Reps. Deb Haaland (NM)* and Robin Kelly (IL), are more ideologically left-leaning.
Money. Conventional wisdom notwithstanding, ideology is not the only factor that shapes the outcome of leadership elections. Another is campaign assistance to colleagues, who not only need money to fund their election to Congress but see it as evidence of would-be leaders’ fundraising prowess. While there are many ways that lawmakers can distribute funds to help their colleagues get elected, the most common instrument are leadership political action committees (LPAC). In past races, lawmakers who received contributions from a candidate’s LPAC were more likely to vote for that candidate in a contested leadership race.
Campaign contributions may help counter Aguilar’s potential ideological disadvantage vis-à-vis his two opponents in the Caucus Vice Chair race. His leadership PAC gave over $200,000 to more than 70 congressional candidates, and many of them won their seats. By contrast, the leadership PACs of the other two candidates contributed far less: Haaland’s* donated $15,000 to 15 candidates, while Kelly’s gave $9,500 to 12 candidates.
State delegations. Candidates tend to command the support of most, if not all, of the members from their own state delegations. That gives an edge to candidates from states with more Democrats, including Aguilar (from California) and Kelly (from Illinois). Sean Patrick Maloney, who is running for DCCC chair, comes from Democrat-heavy New York, but his rival Rep. Tony Cárdenas hails from the even larger California delegation, which could give him an edge. To be sure, leadership candidates must build broad coalitions, but a substantial home-state delegation is an important base from which to launch a successful leadership bid.
Personal characteristics. An array of demographic and other personal characteristics can help candidates win votes. Lawmakers may be inclined to vote for candidates of similar ethnicity, for instance, or may prefer to elect individuals that will ensure diversity within the party’s leadership ranks.
Next week’s leadership races feature an impressive degree of candidate diversity. Kelly, Haaland*, and Katherine Clark (MA), a candidate for the Assistant Speakership, are all women. Several candidates are non-white, including all three Vice Chair candidates (Kelly is Black, Haaland* is Native American, and Aguilar is Latino) along with Tony Cárdenas, who is running to be the next chair of the DCCC. And non-straight candidates include David Cicilline (RI), who is competing with Clark to be Assistant Speaker, and Rep. Maloney, Cárdenas’ opponent, who pointedly noted this in his campaign announcement.
The desire for diversity means that the result of one election could give a lift to particular candidates in another. For instance, The Washington Post’s Paul Kane has suggested that if Cárdenas is not elected DCCC chair, more Democrats might be inclined to vote for Aguilar as Caucus Vice Chair to be sure that Latinos have a seat at the leadership table. By the same token, the prospect of Pelosi stepping down in the near future increases the chances of (and need for) women candidates for leadership posts.
Ideology, money, state delegation, and personal characteristics are among the most important variables that determine who wins party leadership races, but they are not the only ones that matter. Candidates’ personal relationships with others, the preferences of other leaders (particularly Pelosi), and the promises that candidates make in their campaigns can all play a role. Regardless, the winners of these elections will almost certainly contribute to the long-term direction of Congress and the Democratic Party.
* Update 11/16/20: Haaland dropped out of the race for vice chair, leaving Aguilar and Kelly as candidates.
Douglas Harris is professor of political science at Loyola University Maryland. He is the coauthor (with Matthew Green) of the book Choosing the Leader: Leadership Elections in the U.S. House of Representatives (2019, Yale University Press).