Democrats gear up to try to win control of House of Representatives

America Letter: Rumblings of discontent over Pelosi serving second term as speaker

The corridors of Congress have been eerily quiet as the midterm elections approach.

The usual churn of legislative activity on Capitol Hill is on hold as members of the House and Senate return to their constituencies to campaign, or in many cases help out fellow incumbents in tight election races around the country.

On Tuesday, Americans will go to the polls and decide the make-up of the 116th United States Congress.

Signs are that the Democrats are on track to wrest control of the 435-member House of Representatives from Republicans. Their path to the Senate is not so sure, with Republicans confident that they will retain control, or even increase their majority of one, with the help of victories in states where Democrat incumbents are running in Republican-leaning areas.


Congress will reconvene in full session on November 13th, the Tuesday after the election. Members will then sit until the end of the year – a period known as the lame-duck session – when Republicans are likely to try to push through a raft of legislation, particularly if they lose their majority.

The new members of Congress will take their seats in the first week of January.

Already the prospect of a changing of the guard on Capitol Hill has prompted speculation about who will become the new kingmakers.

The Democratic ranking members on some of the most important House committees look to be in line for the top jobs.

Richard Neal, the Massachusetts congressman who has been a leading advocate of Irish issues on the Hill for decades, for example, is expected to become the chair of the Ways and Means committee – a key committee in Congress.

But the real interest will be in the new House speaker.

Presumed coronation

Nancy Pelosi is widely expected to assume the role for the second time. She became the first female speaker of the house in 2007, before Democrats lost their majority in the 2010 midterms. But her presumed coronation is not without controversy.

Many wonder if Pelosi, at 78, is the face of change that Democrats need as they try to define themselves after their shock defeat in the 2016 presidential election.

Publicly, Democrats are keeping mum about whether they’ll support Pelosi, but there are rumblings of discontent. An NBC survey of Democratic candidates and current lawmakers in August found that 51 Democrats running for the House said they would not support her. This may not mean she is doomed, however – more than 63 Democrats opposed Pelosi in a closed-door meeting two years ago but the vast majority went on to vote for her as minority leader on the House floor.

Even Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, the 28 year old who is expected to win New York’s 14th congressional district next week and who previously spoke of the need for a new direction in the upper echelons of the party, has dampened her criticism of the leadership in recent weeks.

It is unclear if Pelosi will have a challenger when the Democratic caucus reconvenes in Washington later this month after the elections. Ohio congressman Tim Ryan, who challenged Pelosi for leadership two years ago, has not yet indicated if he will launch another bid.

Trump districts

Pelosi has become the target of sustained attacks from Republicans in the run-up to the elections, as they try to align various Democratic candidates to the party’s senior House member, whom they perceive to be widely unpopular. Perhaps as a result, Pelosi has kept a relatively low profile, campaigning only in select areas and not visiting those where Democrats are contesting seats in Trump-supporting districts. Nonetheless, behind the scenes she has helped raise tens of millions of dollars for her party.

In a move that many viewed as at worst reckless, at best tempting fate, Pelosi appeared on The Late Show with Stephen Colbert this week and predicted that Democrats would "win the House". A bemused Colbert shot back "Do you want to say that on Hillary's fireworks barge that she cancelled?", a reference to the aborted firework display that the Clinton campaign had planned for election night 2016.

With the painful memories of 2016 still fresh in their minds, Democrats are not taking chances. Still, as a politician well-known for her caution, many aides remarked that Pelosi would not speak out of turn unless she had the polling to back up her predictions.

With Democrats hoping to capitalise on the depth of anti-Trump feeling around the country, the House of Representatives appears to be their best shot at taking back power in Washington and beginning what they hope will be a march back to power in 2020.