Nancy Pelosi Likely to Go Unchallenged for House Speaker Despite Election Disappointment

Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi will likely be re-elected when the new Congress meets on January 3, 2021. No clear challenger has emerged to the California Democrat.

The 117th Congress will see fewer Democrats after Pelosi's party sustained unexpected losses in the House of Representatives. Polls had widely predicted the Democrats would expand their majority.

A number of races remain undecided, but Republicans have so far made 5 gains, while Democrats have lost 4 seats. The Democratic majority was 220 to the GOP's 192 before the election. It's now clear that gap will narrow.

Despite a relatively disappointing election, Pelosi struck an upbeat tone following about former Vice President Joe Biden's victory, calling him president-elect even before the major networks had called the race.

"Today marks the dawning of a new day of hope for America," Pelosi said during a Facebook Live broadcast on November 6.

"A record-shattering 75 million Americans cast their ballots to elect Joe Biden President of the United States—a historic victory that has handed Democrats a mandate for action.

"President-Elect Biden and Vice President-Elect [Kamala] Harris won with a strong margin, and they will have a strong Democratic House Majority by their side," she said.

One of Pelosi's major challenges in the next Congress will be the divisions between progressives and moderates in her own party, which have recently been brought into sharp focus following comments by Senator Joe Manchin (D-WV) on potential court-packing.

It's also likely Republicans will maintain control of the Senate, though run-off elections in Georgia will ultimately decide the balance of power there. A GOP-controlled Senate would see Pelosi dealing once again with Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY).

"Speaker Pelosi has been able to hold the party together, which is not an easy thing to do often," Kristen Hawn, Democratic strategist and former chief political adviser to the Blue Dog Coalition of moderate House Democrats, told Newsweek.

"There are a number of different voices in the party," she said. "While the Democratic Party did lose some seats in the House, the balance really didn't change all that much with regard to what the caucus looks like."

Hawn pointed to a "very robust group" of around 100 Democratic representatives who are moderate and "really want to work across the aisle." She doubted anyone could mount a successful campaign against Pelosi.

Hawn added that building bipartisan coalitions would be "critical" if Republicans keep the Senate majority and that a Biden presidency might make that task less difficult.

"When you take the current president out of the equation it makes it easier for the adults at the table to come together, figure out what's in the realm of the possible, with Biden and Harris themselves having been legislators and knowing how that process works," she said.

Dr. Thomas Gift is a political scientist and director of the Centre on US Politics at UCL, a university in London, England. He believes Democrats' performance in House elections "were a disappointment."

"To suffer a net loss in seats in a year when many experts predicted a 'blue wave' has to leave some House Democrats wondering about the future of Pelosi's leadership role," Gift told Newsweek.

"That doesn't mean a challenger is inevitable, or that she'd be likely to lose in a potential matchup, but it's hard to imagine those discussions not happening behind closed doors."

Though there may not be a viable alternative to Pelosi in 2021, Gift and Hawn can see a potential successor to Pelosi further down the line.

"I think that he has to build a coalition, but you're probably looking at Hakeem Jeffries," Hawn said. "He is certainly somebody that I think a lot of people could support."

Gift agreed that Jeffries was "perhaps the best-positioned Democrat to challenge Pelosi."

"While Jeffries might be more of an establishment choice, he has a sufficiently progressive streak that could be acceptable to Democrats with more left-leaning impulses," he said.

"With that said, Pelosi still commands considerable clout in her party, and any effort to unseat her would face an uphill battle.

"Furthermore, many Democrats may simply decide the fight would be too divisive. An intra-party tussle for the speakership could further undermine Democratic unity precisely at a time when many in the party might feel the party can't afford it," Gift said.

Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi
Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) talks to reporters during her weekly news conference in the House Visitors Center at the U.S. Capitol on November 6, 2020 in Washington, DC. Pelosi is likely to be re-elected Speaker. Al Drago/Getty Images