Nancy Pelosi is a drug that Republicans just can’t quit, and the GOP hopes that the threat of her becoming speaker of the House again will awaken any potentially apathetic base voters. While that might work for Republicans for yet another cycle, it might be the last cycle with their favorite boogeywoman, considering there are at least three scenarios in which the California Democrat won’t regain the leadership mantle.
Scenario 1: Democrats Don’t Win a Majority
Given the presence of a polarizing President Donald Trump in the White House and historical midterm trends, falling short of a majority in November would be a catastrophe for Democrats.
They are already searching for a new leader and divided on the issues and strategy to get them out of the electoral wilderness. But with the marches, movements and money fueling a record number of candidates, failing to gain the 23 seats necessary to take back the House would put more pressure on the party to reinvent itself for 2020.
If Democrats stumble, there is virtually no way Pelosi can continue as the minority leader, let alone be elected speaker again. House Assistant Minority Leader James E. Clyburn of South Carolina admitted as much last month, when he said the entire leadership team (presumably, himself included) should change in that scenario.
Scenario 2: Leaving on Her Own Terms
If Democrats take back the majority for the first time in nearly a decade, Pelosi could use it as an opportunity to go out on top. She could talk about reaching the mountaintop with her party in 2006 (becoming the first female speaker), admit that Democrats went into the valley, triumphantly declare a successful comeback with a new majority, and then announce her prompt exit.
It might sound unlikely, but it’s probably her best option to go out on her own new terms. She’s already broken the glass ceiling of House leadership, and a resignation would defuse one of the Republicans’ most dangerous political weapons. And considering the number of Democratic candidates who have openly announced they would vote for new leadership if elected in November, trying to regain the gavel could be a messy and potentially embarrassing way to end her political career.
Scenario 3: Majority Isn’t Big Enough
If you take Pelosi at her word, she’s planning on Democrats winning the majority and running for speaker again. But quite simply, winning 218 seats in November won’t be enough for that to happen. She’s going to need her party to win potentially dozens more to bookend her career with the gavel.
After the 2016 elections, Ohio Rep. Tim Ryan garnered 63 votes in his challenge to Pelosi for minority leader. (She received 134 votes.) And earlier this month, The Washington Post identified 10 Democratic contenders who would oppose her and 10 more who “conspicuously declined to express support for her.” Part of Pelosi’s power is the role she played in members getting elected and re-elected, but there is a potentially new crop of freshmen who won’t have that loyalty and can’t break a campaign promise with the first vote they take in Congress. It would be electoral suicide in the types of districts they’d be representing.
If at least 35 Democrats who opposed her in the last leadership race vote to oppose her again, and there are at least 15 new members who can’t support her because of their campaign rhetoric and districts, Democrats would have to gain at least 60 seats because Pelosi would need 218 votes to become speaker, and not just a majority of her party.
That’s certainly not impossible, but Inside Elections currently projects Democrats gaining between 20 to 30 seats in the fall. That could be enough for them to win the majority, but likely far short of the gains necessary to make Pelosi speaker again.
Of course, it’s possible Democrats could win more than 80 seats to give her a great cushion. But even then, those gains would likely come from deeper into Republican territory where she is more politically toxic, and she’d be less likely to get support from those new members. Or she could convince the vast majority of colleagues who previously voted against her to support her this time around.
But it seems like the most likely scenarios to date indicate that Nancy Pelosi will not be speaker of the House next year.
Watch: Ryan Talks Details on Successor for Speaker