WASHINGTON — The shadow campaign to lead House Democrats next year has been underway for months — and in many ways years — as a new generation of leaders quietly makes a play for the top positions. But an eleventh-hour push by Representative Adam Schiff, Democrat of California, in recent weeks, has taken Democrats by surprise and raised questions about how the caucus wants to mirror the diversity that makes up its party’s base.
Schiff, who gained notoriety investigating Russia’s involvement in the 2016 election before leading the first impeachment of former President Donald Trump, is exploring a bid to lead the House Democratic caucus if Speaker Nancy Pelosi, Democrat of California, retires after the midterm elections, according to more than a dozen House members and top aides who have spoken directly with the congressman.
This account of Schiff’s recent efforts is based on interviews with eight lawmakers and 18 staff members and lobbyists familiar with leadership dynamics, all of whom spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss private conversations.
If he can amass enough interest in his candidacy, Schiff would upend a race that was considered largely set, challenging a variety of Democrats gunning for the top spot, including possibly Majority Leader Steny Hoyer, Democrat of Maryland, and Representative James Clyburn, Democrat of South Carolina, and Representative Hakeem Jeffries, Democrat of New York, who has positioned himself among members as Pelosi’s heir apparent and represents a new generation of Democrats.
Schiff’s overtures, which began in earnest earlier this year, have focused on consolidating support among his home base, the expansive California delegation, according to members of that group. And though he has not made an explicit ask for endorsements, he is gauging members’ interest and planting the seed that leading the caucus is his goal.
Schiff has also reached out to members in a variety of key blocs in the vast Democratic caucus, including the minority tri-caucuses made up of the powerful Congressional Black Caucus, the Congressional Hispanic Caucus, and the Congressional Asian Pacific American Caucus. He has also reached out to the ideological factions within the Democratic caucus: both the large Progressive Caucus and the centrist New Democrat Coalition, of which he is a member, according to several people with knowledge of the outreach.
The jockeying for leadership roles comes as House Democrats are eager to take the party into the next generation, satisfying an increasingly restless progressive base while pushing back against a more conservative, but divided, opposition intent on payback for the treatment of former President Donald Trump.
The debate inside the caucus mirrors the sentiment of many Democratic voters who are demanding a younger and more diverse leadership structure in the party — a tension that flared during the 2020 Democratic primaries and is resurfacing as President Biden’s poll numbers slide. Schiff, 62, represents the kind of leader many Democrats have urged the party to move beyond: older, white, and in politics for nearly three decades. Both Jeffries and Clyburn are Black and members of the Congressional Black Caucus, though Clyburn is older than Schiff.
Schiff’s trial balloon has been met with surprise and skepticism that he could earn enough support to win, according to several lawmakers. Jeffries, for example, has spent years assembling broad support among the House Democratic caucus.
“I told (Schiff) I thought it would be a difficult thing because of the lead that Hakeem has,” said one member of the California delegation, who had spoken with Schiff.
And while the California delegation is a powerful bloc, often sticking together in party leadership votes, its response to his outreach has been tepid, according to several members. Several are unsure Schiff can make the necessary inroads.
“I am with Jeffries and have been for quite some time,” said a second member of the California delegation, who noted they admire Schiff and think he has been a fantastic member. “This puts me in an awkward place.”
No one interviewed expressed outright support for Schiff. However, every member thought while leadership might not be the right place, Schiff deserved a prominent position within the party.
Lawmakers and staff members who had communicated with Schiff or his office also noted they were not explicitly asked for support in their conversations.
When asked about Schiff’s desire to seek the top spot in leadership, spokeswoman Cate Hurley said his “time and energy are focused” on reelecting Democrats.
“Chairman Schiff is doing everything possible to support vulnerable Democratic colleagues and promising challengers so that we can retain the House Democratic majority in November,” she added. Schiff declined to be interviewed for this story.
House Democrats continue to say privately that they believe a new generation of leadership should come to the forefront. Jeffries, 51; Assistant Speaker Katherine Clark, Democrat of Massachusetts, 59; and Democratic caucus vice chair Pete Aguilar, Democrat of California, 43, are considered the leadership trio in waiting, given they are all young, have served in Congress for less than a decade, and all belong to minority caucuses. (Jeffries is Black, Clark is a woman, and Aguilar is Hispanic and previously represented a battleground district).