Freshmen Democrats feel the squeeze as Pelosi fight intensifies

As Gil Cisneros completed ...

Posted: Nov 21, 2018 2:01 AM
Updated: Nov 21, 2018 2:01 AM

As Gil Cisneros completed a Democratic sweep of Orange County, the incoming House freshman fielded a phone call from a person heavily invested in his victory.

It was Nancy Pelosi.

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The House Democratic leader congratulated her fellow California Democrat in a warm phone call for a hard-fought victory in what used to be reliably Republican terrain.

"I told her, 'Thank you very much for calling' and that was pretty much it," Cisneros told CNN. "And we'll probably talk later."

Indeed, they probably will.

Cisneros is one of 12 incoming freshmen Democrats who vowed on the campaign trail to back new leadership in the new Congress, distancing themselves from Pelosi whom the GOP vilified in nearly $100 million worth of ads throughout the country. Now, in their first vote, freshmen like Cisneros will be forced to choose whether to back Pelosi for speaker to be their caucus' nominee -- or stand by what they said on the campaign trail. Pelosi is virtually assured to win that vote, which will be conducted next week by secret ballot, because she only has to win the support from more than half of her caucus.

But the far more significant vote is the public one in January: On the House floor, on the first day of the new Congress when the full chamber votes to elect a speaker. If Democrats win the remaining three undecided races, they will hold 235 seats, meaning Pelosi cannot afford to lose more than 17 on the House floor, assuming all 535 members attend the vote and support a specific candidate. And on Monday, 16 Democrats signed a letter saying they were "committed" to voting for new leadership on the floor, including four freshmen who have won their races and one Democrat, Ben McAdams, whose Utah race has yet to be called.

That means freshmen Democrats who called for new leadership but who didn't sign the letter are now in a bind.

"Right now, I'm just focusing on talking to my constituents -- focusing on spending time with my family with Thanksgiving coming up," Cisneros said when asked if he'd support Pelosi on the floor. "And then after that, I'll start talking to people about what's going to happen and how we're going to vote."

While Cisneros says, "I still believe it's time for new leadership -- it's a time to hear new voices," he also says he hasn't made a decision on how he'll vote on the floor.

Pelosi and others make more calls

One by one, Pelosi is trying to woo freshmen Democrats and current members who may feel disenchanted by the current leadership. Roughly 45 members are making calls on Pelosi's behalf, including to incoming freshmen, according to a Democratic aide, and she is also holding face-to-face meetings and calls with key members. It appears to be having some effect.

Last Friday, when Rep.-elect Haley Stevens met with Pelosi in her office suite near the House floor, the two talked at length about her priorities for the coming Congress.

"We had a very nice conversation about the needs of Michigan's 11th district -- particularly what I campaigned on," Stevens told CNN.

Asked if she was opposed to Pelosi as speaker, Stevens said: "I haven't said no."

That's a shift from the campaign trail, when Stevens said in April: "At this time, she doesn't have my support as speaker."

She was even bold enough to suggest whom she would vote for instead. "Tim Ryan of Youngstown, Ohio, is an inspiring leader," she said. "I think that he would do a great job as the next speaker of the House."

Among the calculations facing incoming Democrats: The power Pelosi has to influence which committees they may sit on.

Rep.-elect Jeff Van Drew of New Jersey is one of the five fresh Democratic faces to sign the letter vowing to support new leadership on the floor.

Asked if he were concerned that his position could hurt his chances to win spots on key committees, Van Drew said: "I guess to be totally objective, I'd have to say yes."

But he added that any concerns about backlash from Pelosi or her allies wouldn't impact his ultimate vote.

"It's not a personal thing, I just think sometimes you have to do what is right," Van Drew told CNN. "I think you also must do what you commit to do during a campaign. Far too often, people say one thing on a campaign and then instantly, when they're elected, they do something different. If I say something on a campaign, that's what I'm going to do when I'm elected."

Pelosi has not shied away from meeting with her freshmen Democratic critics.

One of them, incoming Democrat Max Rose of New York, said Pelosi only offered him a Coke when they meet last week.

"Just an honest opportunity for me to introduce myself and talk more," said Rose, who signed the anti-Pelosi letter. "No pitch. No transactional politics."

Other than McAdams, Van Drew and Rose, the other incoming freshmen who signed the letter include Anthony Brindisi of New York and Joe Cunningham of South Carolina.

Jared Golden, who won a tough race in Maine, did not sign the anti-Pelosi letter endorsed by 16 of his colleagues. And Pelosi called him immediately after he won to congratulate him.

But he is still opposed to Pelosi the floor, his spokesman told CNN.

"He won't be supporting Nancy Pelosi for speaker," said Jon Breed, a spokesman for Golden. "Nothing has changed since the general election."

Another freshman, Jason Crow of Colorado, also promises to vote against Pelosi, despite not signing the letter.

"I won't be supporting Nancy Pelosi for Speaker," he said in a statement to CNN. "We need new leadership to step up and move this country forward."

Abigail Spanberger, the Virginia freshman who did not sign the letter, said after meeting with Pelosi last week that she is still a "no" and wouldn't be signing any letters.

"I've been very clear about my position and that remains the same," she said. "I will be voting but I will not be voting for her."

Mikie Sherrill, who said bluntly on the campaign trail, "I don't support Nancy Pelosi," also did not sign the letter.

But after the incoming freshman from New Jersey met with Pelosi last week, Sherrill repeatedly refused to say if she had the same position.

"I'm sorry I got to go," she said repeatedly, as she raced away from reporters.

Sherrill directed further inquiries to a nearby aide, who declined to comment for the record. Sherrill's office has not responded to a question seeking comment on the incoming freshman's position.

Other freshmen Pelosi critics also have not responded to CNN questions after their names did not appear on the letter, including Jahana Hayes of Connecticut and Elissa Slotkin of Michigan.

Many freshmen evolve toward Pelosi

But a number of freshmen who distanced themselves from Pelosi are now on her side. Congresswomen-elect Katie Hill, Jennifer Wexton, Lori Trahan and Deb Haaland ran different races from different states, but their paths toward supporting Pelosi follow a similar pattern.

Back in March, Hill was vague on where she stood when she told The Los Angeles Times, "it's going to depend."

In August, Wexton punted the question to the audience asking, "for how many of you is this one of your top concerns?" In October, Wexton acknowledged a need for "fresh eyes and leadership" in Washington, but would not go as far as to suggest that meant she did not support Pelosi.

"I don't even know who's running," Wexton said.

In October, Trahan told CNN, "I am grateful for Leader Pelosi's help as she crisscrosses the country to help get Democrats elected to Congress on November 6. I'm not making any commitments to any vote on leadership until after the election. My focus is on winning this important election."

In September, Haaland stated, "I have a tremendous amount of respect" for Pelosi but, "I'm focused on winning my election, of course. I won't be doing anything unless I win."

After winning their respective races, all four women have been unable to dodge the question and have since revealed their firm support for Pelosi.

Others acknowledge they may have no other choice.

In October, a spokesperson for Minnesota Democrat Angie Craig told the Minnesota Post that Craig was "open to new leadership in the House and will make a decision after all candidates have announced, in order to best reflect the needs and interests of the Minnesotans she will represent."

"So far there's one person running and I'm certainly voting for a Democrat, so there you go," Craig said last week.

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