While the world’s attention is fixed on the race for president and second-in-command, the fate of the third person in the line of White House succession also will be decided Tuesday, as House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi hopes her Democratic Party defies the odds to recapture the chamber.
Whether she would remain as party caucus leader otherwise is one of Capitol Hill’s biggest current mysteries.
Mrs. Pelosi was forced to surrender her role as House speaker to John A. Boehner after her party suffered crushing defeats in the 2010 congressional elections. At the time, many expected the California Democrat to step down from leadership. She didn’t, choosing instead to run — successfully — for House Democratic leader.
And if Democrats fail to win back the House on Tuesday, which is the expected scenario, speculation again will ramp up as to whether Mrs. Pelosi will remain as the chamber’s top Democrat.
But the savvy, tight-lipped lawmaker has given no hints she is considering stepping down. When asked in September on CNN whether she would run again for House Democratic leader if her party gained seats but failed to win the chamber, Mrs. Pelosi said it would be up to her caucus members to decide.
“I don’t ever predicate anything when losing,” she said. “I feel very confident about our ability to win. Who will lead the party after that is up to my members.”
She added that after her party’s historic defeats in the 2010 midterm elections, “I actually didn’t choose to run [for minority leader]. My members chose that I would run last time.”
And if the caucus should continue to languish in the minority another two years, there appears little or any enthusiasm among her lieutenants to challenge her, should she desire to remain in charge.
“She probably doesn’t know what she wants to do right now. Some of it depends on the outcome” on Tuesday, according to a Washington Democratic strategist with intimate knowledge of the House, speaking on condition of anonymity.
“But I don’t think she can be pushed out of her spot because a majority of the caucus right now is progressive, and progressive members really like Nancy Pelosi.”
Darrell M. West, a politics scholar with the liberal-leaning Brookings Institution, also said he doesn’t see a major threat to Mrs. Pelosi’s leadership status among her Democratic colleagues.
“They have stayed with her over the last two years, and I don’t see anything that’s going to change that right away,” he said.
Mrs. Pelosi’s predecessor as speaker, Republican J. Dennis Hastert of Illinois, took a different tactic and resigned from his party’s House leadership after it lost control of the chamber after the 2006 elections. But in Washington’s current highly partisan culture, minority parties are more willing to stick with their leaders through thick and thin, Mr. West said.
“In a polarized era, it’s easier for a minority party to stay united because the majority party is united,” he said.
If Mrs. Pelosi does step down, House Minority Whip Steny H. Hoyer is next in line to be the top Democrat in the House.
But at 73, the Maryland lawmaker may face challenges from some rising stars in the caucus such as Rep. Chris Van Hollen of Maryland, the ranking Democrat on the powerful House Budget Committee, and Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz of Florida, who is chairwoman of the Democratic National Committee.
Asked whether the two younger Democrats would consider challenging Mr. Hoyer, the Democratic strategist said, “I have no idea”
If President Obama is re-elected and Republicans retain control of the House, another scenario is for Mrs. Pelosi to remain in her minority leader role for a few months before stepping down, a move that would give her time to work with the president on major tax and spending legislation needed to avoid a looming “fiscal cliff.”
And if Republican presidential challenger Mitt Romney wins and his party keeps the House, Mrs. Pelosi may feel compelled to remain minority leader for another two years to fight GOP attempts to repeal Mr. Obama’s health care reforms — legislation close to her heart.
Yet if Democrats fail for the second congressional election to win the House, there likely will be at least some rumblings in her caucus for fresh blood at the top, as retaining the same leadership team would be a harder sell this time around.
“Inside the caucus, there are some real concerns about the direction the leadership has taken us,” the Democratic strategist said. “Not that they’re doing a bad job — I think people feel that everyone really came together this Congress. But they’re older, and there is a sense that the current leadership has been there for years.”
Still, if Mrs. Pelosi was retained as minority leader, it wouldn’t be without precedent. Former Reps. Joseph W. Martin, Jr., a Massachusetts Republican, and Sam Rayburn, Texas Democrat, each flipped between speaker and minority leader several times during the mid-20th century.
And James Beauchamp Clark, a Missouri Democrat, was speaker for several years before his party lost control of the House in 1919, when he was elected minority leader for one term.
More recently, Richard A. Gephardt, Missouri Democrat, remained House minority leader for four successive terms in the 1990s and early 2000s despite losing elections when his party was expected to seriously challenge for control of the chamber.
“It isn’t the sort of thing you see in some [foreign] parliamentary systems where you lose [an election] and you’re sort of morally obligated to step down,” said Barbara Sinclair, a political science professor at the University of California, Los Angeles.