For the last 14 years, the one constant at the highest level of Democratic politics has been Nancy Pelosi.
When she became the party’s leader in the U.S. House in 2002, Barack Obama was still a state senator in Illinois. She has commanded the Democratic caucus through both of Hillary Clinton’s presidential defeats, and she has served as leader two years longer than her Senate counterpart, Harry Reid, who is retiring in January.
Pelosi brought Democrats back from the political wilderness once, in 2006, and now a decade later, the 76-year-old California powerbroker is bidding to do it again. Clinton’s loss means that the former speaker retains a distinction she desperately wanted to relinquish—the woman who has risen higher in elected office than any other in American history.
But in the wake of Donald Trump’s stunning election as president, Pelosi is facing her most serious challenge in years, as younger members of the Democratic caucus chafe under the decade-long grip of three aging leaders and worry that a San Francisco liberal is no longer the best spokeswoman for a party that has lost faith among white working class voters in the Rust Belt.
“We’ve turned into a coastal party,” said Representative Tim Ryan, the 43-year-old Ohioan who is trying to supplant Pelosi as the Democratic leader in the House. “You just have to look at the map, and that means you’re a minority party.” Democrats, he frequently points out, have lost 60 House seats since 2010 and now have fewer seats than at any time since 1929.