Here’s a huge reason Nancy Pelosi maintains her iron grip on House Democrats, even after another bruising – and in many party circles embarrassing – election loss: Her ability to raise lots and lots of money.
The House Democratic Leader has few current peers when it comes to pumping money into colleagues’ campaigns. No other potential up-and-coming Democratic challenger to her leadership comes close.
Since 1990, she’s raised more than $9.2 million for party candidates, including $739,000 in the 2016 election cycle, according to the Center for Responsive Politics, which tracks contributions from candidate committees and affiliated PACs.
Pelosi’s office claims even loftier triumphs, saying she’s raised more than $500 million for Democrats since entering the party leadership in the early 2000s, including $141.5 million in the 2015-2016 cycle.
They explain their totals includes money raised for the party not directly controlled by her committees. Big donors to the party’s congressional campaign committee were also available to Pelosi through her “Speaker’s Cabinet” program, which gave them special access to the Democratic leader.
So while Pelosi took heat from some party colleagues after Democrat Jon Ossoff lost his bid for a Georgia House seat, and found herself grilled hard by reporters at her weekly press conference Thursday, she will survive. Again.
“I'm a master legislator, I am a strategic, politically astute leader, my leadership is recognized by many around the country, and that is why I'm able to attract the support that I do, which is essential to our election, sad to say,” Pelosi said at the press conference.
She benefits from a dearth of younger colleagues tagged as heirs to her leadership, and no up-and-coming Democrat can match her fundraising skills, no matter which figures are used. Second-in-command Rep. Steny Hoyer, D-Md., is 78, and number three Jim Clyburn, D-S.C., is 76.
Pelosi’s most logical challenger would be Rep. Joseph Crowley, D-N.Y., 55, the House Democratic Caucus chairman. His 2015-16 giving was well behind Pelosi last year, at $592,500.
Drew Hammill, a Pelosi spokesman, said she’s done more than just raise money and that Pelosi is “without rival” as a legislative tactician.
“There are a lot of really important battles that we came out of on top of even as the minority,” he said. Pelosi has helped engineer budget deals, an overhaul of the nation’s health care law and an economic stimulus during her years as a leader.
But it’s her fundraising skills that are regarded as a key political asset. The daughter and sister of former Baltimore mayors, she rose quickly through Democratic ranks in the 1980s as California party chairman, then finance chair for the party’s Senate campaign committee.
She was elected to Congress in a special 1987 election. When Democrats took control of the House in 2007, Pelosi became the first — and so far only — woman Speaker of the House. She retains a devoted core of fiercely loyal supporters.
According to the CRP, Pelosi ranks third in generosity to other candidates over the past 27 years, behind Hoyer ($11.8 million) and former Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio ($11.1 million).
“I think that she’s a tremendous leader of our caucus, with the kind of strategic talent and experience that we really need to succeed in the minority and particularly when we don’t control the House or Senate,” said Rep. Adam Schiff, D-Calif. “I think she’s the most capable leader that we have and I can’t imagine anyone else who could do such an important job and do it so well.”
Some Democrats, though, have wanted her out, particularly after the party was unable to win back control in 2016, a year when the party was seen as having a decent chance of doing so.
The challenge of Rep. Tim Ryan, D-Ohio, 43, for the leadership post after the election fell far short. The money numbers suggest why: In the 2016 election, Ryan’s Penguin PAC donated just $13,000 to other Democrats. Pelosi’s PAC gave $496,000.
The renegade Democrats resurfaced again this week, after Tuesday’s loss by Ossoff in a Georgia special election that received intense national coverage.
"Nancy Pelosi was a great speaker," Rep. Kathleen Rice, D-N.Y., said on MSNBC. "She is a great leader. But her time has come and gone."
Rep. Seth Moulton, D-Mass, echoed that sentiment on CNN.
“This is certainly something that we have to discuss because it's clear that, I think, across the board in the Democratic Party we need new leadership. It's time for a new generation of leadership in the party,” he said.
In the Georgia election, Republicans used a tactic they’ve been using for years, setting up the liberal Pelosi as a villain who needs to be stopped.
The National Republican Congressional Committee ran ads charging Ossoff would “represent Nancy Pelosi.”
“With Hollywood elites and Nancy Pelosi bankrolling his campaign, it’s no secret that Ossoff would rubber stamp Pelosi’s failed agenda of bigger government and more spending,” Corey Bliss, executive director of the GOP-friendly Congressional Leadership Fund, said just before the Georgia election. “Their radical views have no place in Georgia’s sixth district”
But at her weekly press conference, Pelosi shrugged of concerns that she was dragging down the party.
“It's a tactic. And it's self-evident,” Pelosi said. “But I think I'm worth the trouble, quite frankly.”
Contact: Anshu Siripurapu @anshusiripurap; 202-383-6009