The top Democrat in the U.S. House of Representatives had just spent an hour at a South Dade health clinic gushing about Debbie Mucarsel-Powell's "courage," highlighting her congressional campaign to knock off one of the most vulnerable Republicans in America and bashing Rep. Carlos Curbelo over his voting record on healthcare.
But when it came time to reciprocate, Mucarsel-Powell wasn't quite ready to fully endorse the return of Speaker Nancy Pelosi should Democrats take back the House of Representatives this November.
"If you look at Washington D.C., who's leading this country, I think we need more bold women leading the way," Mucarsel-Powell told reporters Thursday morning even as Pelosi urged her not to answer a reporter's question about an endorsement. "I'm doing this event with leader Pelosi because she shares this community's values and I'm voting for speaker for whomever shares the values of this community."
Mucarsel-Powell's not-so-full-throated response — spoken with Pelosi standing next to her — highlights the conundrum Democrats face as the nation's minority party pushes to take back Congress during the mid-term elections. Just as Curbelo has to worry about his association with an unpopular and unpredictable president, Democrats know that conservatives will use their connection to the polarizing House minority leader to try to drag them down.
But Mucarsel-Powell still needs Pelosi's help to get elected against a better-funded and better-known incumbent, even as Democrats grow ever-more confident following a string of special-election victories in which Donald Trump has appeared to weigh down Republican candidates. And Pelosi needs to support South Florida Democrats — some of whom are less than eager to see her return as Speaker — if she wants to reclaim her position atop the power structure of America's left.
"The whole state of Florida is important in terms of holding the Democrats we have here and in increasing our numbers," Pelosi said, specifically referencing Mucarsel-Powell's race and the campaign to take the Miami seat being vacated by Ileana Ros-Lehtinen as crucial contests for the party.
Still, Republicans have turned Pelosi into a whipping post, featuring her heavily in attack ads as a way to warn conservative-leaning voters, who've come to view her as a political bogeyman,, of the consequences should Democrats take back Congress. For Democrats, Pelosi is something of a Trump-lite, serving as a flash point for Republicans to galvanize their voters, albeit without the overwhelming effect the president has seemed to have even on down-ballot races since his election.
"Voters aren't going to the ballot box with Nancy Pelosi on their mind," said one Democratic strategist in Florida, who nevertheless acknowledged the problem Pelosi poses to Democratic candidates.
Some Democrats, most notably Conor Lamb in Pennsylvania, have been able to win competitive races while distancing themselves from Pelosi. And even more so than Mucarsel-Powell, Democrats in the race to claim Ros-Lehtinen's District 27 seat are mixed on how they feel about Pelosi's bid to once again become the house speaker.
In the Ros-Lehtinen race, only state Rep. David Richardson would say Thursday that he'll vote for Pelosi as speaker, while adding he'd "like to see her sponsor the Medicare for all bill." Frontrunner Donna Shalala's campaign called it "presumptuous to comment on who she might vote for to lead the Democratic caucus" when Shalala hasn't yet been elected, while Kristen Rosen Gonzalez suggested she's open to a new Democratic leader without specifically saying she's against Pelosi's return.
Meanwhile, Matt Haggman, whom minority whip Steny Hoyer unsuccessfully tried to convince to move into a Hialeah district last month to run against Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart, said the party needs to find a new leader in the House.
"It's time for a new day," Haggman said.
Former judge Mary Barzee Flores, who is moving out of the Ros-Lehtinen race to challenge Diaz-Balart, said in a statement that she "hasn't put a whole lot of thought into who would take the Speaker's gavel. But I would say that in the time I've been running there is a clear, visceral hunger among Democrats for new faces and new leadership."
Pelosi, who announced Wednesday as she toured parts of Florida that she'll try to reclaim her post as speaker if Democrats reclaim the majority in the House, side-stepped questions about it Thursday..
"This is not about that today," Pelosi said, pivoting to Curbelo's votes against Obamacare and last year's tax bill. "We're talking about the consequences of a destructive bill."
She also tried to dissuade Mucarsel-Powell from entertaining questions, but the candidate softly stood her ground.
"I can answer, speaker," she said. "I can answer that question."
But she didn't. Not entirely