Rep. Tim Ryan announced Thursday that he will challenge Rep. Nancy Pelosi for leadership of the House Democratic Caucus, giving the party’s moderates a rallying point as they try to drag the party back toward the center after last week’s elections.
Mr. Ryan, an Ohio Democrat, will struggle to topple Mrs. Pelosi, who said she had commitments from two-thirds of House Democrats. Mr. Ryan doesn’t have much time to peel away her support — the vote is scheduled for Nov. 30, and lawmakers will be in recess next week for the Thanksgiving holiday.
But his announcement underscores growing unrest with Mrs. Pelosi, who has helmed House Democrats for 14 years and rarely faced dissent.
“Under our current leadership, Democrats have been reduced to our smallest congressional minority since 1929,” Mr. Ryan said in announcing his bid. “This should indicate to all of us that keeping our leadership team completely unchanged will simply lead to more disappointment in future elections.”
He said Democrats have lost touch with Americans in the middle of the country — particularly in the Midwest and Rust Belt, which used to be the party’s blue-collar strength. Wisconsin, Michigan and Pennsylvania voted for Republican Donald Trump for president, and Wisconsin and Pennsylvania re-elected Republican senators.
Overall, Democrats had a bad night, losing the White House, failing to retake either the Senate or House, and sustaining further losses in state legislatures.
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Mrs. Pelosi shrugged off accusations that she was responsible for the poor showing.
The California Democrat said she proved she could lead her party to a majority when it took control in 2007. She said its failure to retake the chamber last week was the fault of others, including FBI Director James B. Comey, who made a late campaign season decision to renew his agency’s investigation into Hillary Clinton’s emails.
Mrs. Pelosi said her party had the right positions for voters but failed to convey the message. “The problem is more with the communication than it was with our policy,” she said.
She said the Democratic majority from 2007 through 2011 was never as strong as it seemed because it was infiltrated by a “big boll weevil faction” of conservative Democrats.
She remains a clear favorite to win the Nov. 30 vote.
“Without even asking anybody for a vote, I have over two-thirds of the caucus supporting me,” she told reporters at a press briefing Thursday on Capitol Hill. “It’s a funny thing in a caucus or any place when somebody challenges you. Your supporters turn out both internally in the caucus and in the country, whether it’s supporters at the grass-roots level, financial supporters, intellectual resources to us.”
Undeterred, Mr. Ryan entered the race hours later, lamenting that Democrats have less power now than at any other time in decades.
“We have lost over 60 seats since 2010. We have the fewest Democrats in state and federal offices since Reconstruction,” he said. “At this time of fear and disillusionment, we owe it to our constituencies to listen and bring a new voice into leadership.”
The liberal group MoveOn.Org quickly endorsed Mrs. Pelosi and rejected the notion that the party needed to move to the center.
“Progressives are also counting on congressional Democrats to express a populist and inclusive vision for the future that speaks to Americans across lines of race, class and geography,” said Ilya Sheyman, executive director of MoveOn.org Political Action. “We believe that Nancy Pelosi is best positioned to lead House Democrats in this direction, and support her candidacy for Democratic leader.”
Christy Setzer, a Democratic strategist, said the showdown in the House Democratic caucus is part of a broader battle over how best to respond to the electoral setback.
“Democrats are conducting their autopsy of 2016, and many like Rep. Ryan are taking to heart the lesson that we can’t be a party of coastal so-called ‘elites’ — and must do more to reach the working-class voters who once made up our base,” Mrs. Setzer said. “But it’s a tricky line to walk: The party also can’t ignore the diverse rising majority who are being alienated by the right. It’s not a zero-sum game — we can and must entice both groups.”
The National Republican Campaign Committee, meanwhile, rushed to the defense of Mrs. Pelosi, saying, in jest, “No single person deserves more credit for House Republicans’ historic majority than Nancy Pelosi.”
“Under Nancy Pelosi’s leadership, House Democrats have become completely irrelevant, and there is no better way to ensure that remains the case than by keeping her as minority leader,” NRCC Communications Director Katie Martin said. “The NRCC offers its full support to Nancy Pelosi as she attempts to fend off this challenge to her failed leadership from within the ranks of her own party.”
• Seth McLaughlin can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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