Rep. Tim Ryan had just been sworn in to Congress when he first voted for Nancy Pelosi to be speaker of the House in 2003.
The Ohio Democrat voted for her again in the next seven elections, helping elevate her to the role and making her the first-ever woman to reach the House’s highest post in 2007, and sticking with her even after Democrats lost the chamber in 2011.
In his 16 years in Congress, Mr. Ryan has never known a Democratic leader other than Mrs. Pelosi. He says it’s long enough.
Despite overseeing Democrats’ surge back to the majority, Mrs. Pelosi is facing a serious challenge from within her own ranks from a rump group of lawmakers who say the party needs new blood at the top. Mr. Ryan, who’s one of Mrs. Pelosi’s chief antagonists, says the party needs to look elsewhere to reflect Rust Belt states critical to Democrats’ fortunes, and the black women who are the “backbone” of the Democratic vote.
He also wants to protect a crop of incoming freshmen who vowed to move on from Mrs. Pelosi, whose favorability rating fell to a nine-year low among Democrats earlier this year, according to Gallup.
“They were agents of change, not just to Donald Trump but also reforming the Democratic Party,” Mr. Ryan said of rookies who plan to buck Mrs. Pelosi.
Mrs. Pelosi and her chief lieutenant, Rep. Steny Hoyer of Maryland, have led House Democrats since 2003 — a reign that spans from the start of the Iraq War to President Trump’s slash-and-burn mission to dismantle the agenda they built with President Obama. Their tenure included the Wall Street collapse and the Dodd-Frank legislation meant to repair the breach, as well as the 2010 Affordable Care Act that has been at the center of politics ever since.
Like Mr. Ryan, more than 75 percent of House Democrats have never known another leader than Mrs. Pelosi, nor, for that matter, another No. 2 Democrat than Mr. Hoyer.
Even the party’s No. 3 man, Rep. James Clyburn of South Carolina, has been in place for 12 years — a period of stasis that far outlasts any of the other party caucuses on Capitol Hill.
Mrs. Pelosi and her allies say she’s earned her place at the top, and they’re fighting back against efforts to oust her, complaining of sexism in the “five white guys” they saw are leading the push to dethrone her.
Much of the debate involves Mrs. Pelosi’s effect on the ballot box.
“Two years from now, people are not going to decide whether they re-elect these people based on Nancy Pelosi. And even now, I think it had very little to do with affecting the election. Hello? We won with Nancy Pelosi,” said Rep. Jan Schakowsky, Illinois Democrat who’s served since 1999 and can still detail the “100-hour plan” Mrs. Pelosi rolled out as speaker over a decade ago.
The insurgency, though, says Mrs. Pelosi’s unpopularity has been a drag on the party nationwide and there are inherent benefits to turnover.
“I think there’s something to be said of new ideas and showing it’s a change and having a different face. That’s why we elect new presidents,” said Rep.-elect Jeff Van Drew, a New Jersey Democrat who signed a letter opposing Mrs. Pelosi. “It can be another woman of age. I don’t care — that’s definitely not the issue.”
Kathleen Rice, a New York Democrat entering her third term, said her opposition is about rejuvenating the party, and not personal.
“They’ve been great, but they’ve been there for 16 years and it’s time for a new generation of leaders to take over,” she said.
Mrs. Pelosi is battling hard.
She has promised to expand the leadership team to give more voices to the party’s liberal wing and to the various identity-based caucuses that dominate the party. The California Democrat has also cast her bid as “transitional,” suggesting a turnover soon enough.
It’s unclear if a viable alternative to Mrs. Pelosi even exists, though Rep. Marcia Fudge, Ohio Democrat, said last week she’s “ruminating” on a run.
“Clearly the vote is not until January, so I’m not in a rush,” Ms. Fudge, a 66-year-old black woman whose district includes Cleveland and Akron, told reporters Friday.
Yet with a Democratic caucus vote looming on Nov. 28, some are pushing her speed up that timeline, saying they need to check Mrs. Pelosi before the fight spills onto the floor.
Ms. Rice, a member of Congress since 2015, said it’s no surprise that a clear opponent hasn’t emerged, noting power is “concentrated at the top by design.”
“So when you say ‘you can’t beat somebody with nobody.’ Well, you haven’t allowed anyone to step up and get experience,” she said.
Even without an alternative, 17 Democrats have signed a letter led by Ms. Rice, Rep. Seth Moulton of Massachusetts, Kurt Schrader of Oregon and several others opposing Mrs. Pelosi, according to media reports.
While not enough to deny Mrs. Pelosi the Democrats’ nomination to be speaker, they could be enough to prevent her from winning the post. Unlike the party caucus leadership roles, which are based on majority vote, the speakership is a vote of the whole House, including Republicans.
The winner must achieve an absolute majority, meaning 17 Democrats unwilling to vote for her could, depending on the final makeup of the House, be enough to deny her.
Rebels say there are more opponents who’ve yet to sign on.
Ms. Schakowsky says it would be a mistake to ditch someone with 16 years at the helm.
“At this dangerous moment in history — and I believe that it is — we need someone who is battle-tested, someone who has been in the room where it happens, with the president and the top leadership, ” Ms. Schakowsky said. “And frankly, without her, there would be no woman at that small table.”