WASHINGTON — House Democrats staged a mini-revolt Tuesday, forcing a delay in leadership elections so the caucus can have time to digest Donald Trump’s shocking victory and formulate a plan to respond to the new Republican-controlled world that will dawn in January.
Seth Moulton, a Salem Democrat, helped organize the push to postpone the elections to Nov. 30, gathering more than 30 signatures for a letter to House minority leader Nancy Pelosi and convening a dinner at Acqua Al 2, an Italian restaurant on Capitol Hill, with 20 other mostly younger House Democrats to strategize about the caucus.
The uprising hints at the unrest and even anger boiling among rank-and-file Democrats in the wake of Trump’s upset, but it remains uncertain whether Pelosi’s tenure is actually threatened.
The day after last week’s election, House Democratic leaders said they were moving the leadership election up nearly two weeks. That accelerated schedule did not sit well with many of their members.
“The American people sent a very clear message that the status quo in the Democratic Party is unacceptable and rushing leadership elections this week only reinforces the status quo,” Moulton said in an interview with the Globe. “It doesn’t give us the opportunity to have the conversation we need to have about how to move our party forward after a horrific election.”
“As a caucus, we need to rethink our message and change some of our messengers,” said Richard Neal of Springfield, who backed the delay. He said in an interview, though, that it’s too soon to say if any credible challengers to Pelosi or others caucus leaders will emerge.
“For now there’s a chance to do a reset in terms of the conversation. Return our emphasis to economic growth, which should have been the conversation piece for the last 10 years,” said Neal.
There are rumblings among some caucus members that it’s time for the old guard — many of them in their 70s — to move aside for fresher faces. Still, no one has publicly thrown their hat in the ring to challenge Pelosi, a fund-raising powerhouse who enjoys strong support in the caucus. Rumors are mounting that Ohio Representative Tim Ryan might take a shot, but seasoned political analysts doubt he can muster enough support to topple Pelosi. Another possibility is Pelosi remains in the top spot but embraces new blood further down the leadership ranks.
If nothing else, some insiders say, Tuesday’s revolt will serve as a wake-up call for Pelosi and her team.
Moulton, a Marine captain who served four tours in Iraq, demurred when asked if current leadership needs to go. “We need a plan and we need the right leaders to execute that plan,” he said. “I’m going to vote for the person who can articulate the strongest plan.”
Congressman Jim McGovern, who represents Worcester and the Pioneer Valley, said he was squarely backing current Pelosi’s bid for reelection, regardless of the delay.
“I do not believe that [the vote delay] is meant as an attempt to undermine leader Pelosi,” McGovern said. “I think this is an attempt by a lot of people to say wait a minute, let’s take a breather, and let’s talk about strategy in the future.”
Joseph Kennedy III said the delay was a chance for lawmakers to “take stock’’ in the party.
“Leader Pelosi has done an extraordinary job leading our caucus every since I’ve been here and well before,” said Kennedy, of Newton. “I expect she will continue leading the caucus.”
The caucus meeting Tuesday morning was described as extremely tense by several people in the room. At the start, caucus leadership sought to allow lawmakers to speak for two minutes. Representative Michael Capuano of Somerville piped up that people needed more time to speak, prompting applause, according to two people in the room.
Moulton said he had come to the meeting with a motion prepared to formally ask for a vote on delaying the leadership election. After numerous colleagues spoke out in support of delay, he handed the text he had drafted to Emanuel Cleaver of Missouri, who then made the motion, Moulton said. Whether the motion would be ruled in order or not was hotly debated until Pelosi and her team relented and agreed to reschedule the election.
The unrest points to a deep frustration among members of the House Democratic caucus over how little they have to show for years of legislative knife-fights and endless fund-raising.
“When I came to Congress we were a national party,” said Neal, ticking through the devastating math of recent years. Although Democrats picked up a handful of seats last week, in the last four election cycles they have still down about 60 slots in the House, 14 seats in the Senate, and more than 830 legislative seats across the country, he noted. One-third of the House Democratic caucus is lawmakers from bright-blue Massachusetts, New York, and California.
Neal said that last week’s election results, in which Trump performed well with union households, underscored his belief that the Democratic Party needs to return to emphasizing ways to boost economic growth, rather than focusing so much on cultural differences with Republicans.
“When does the economic message begin to take center stage in the party that I signed up for?” he asked, describing his support for the delay.