Josh Kurtz: The Squeeze on Steny Hoyer

Hoyer and Pelosi
House Minority Whip Steny H. Hoyer, Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi and Democratic congressional leaders in 2015. Facebook photo

In his 50-year political career, Congressman Steny H. Hoyer (D) has rarely had to sweat an election. Since entering Congress in 1981, his one tough battle for reelection was in 1992, against some fellow named Lawrence J. Hogan Jr. (R).

This year, Hoyer may be sweating what happens after Election Day.

It’s looking increasingly likely that Democrats are going to win back control of the House of Representatives on Tuesday, which they lost so resoundingly in 2010. That’s the good news for Hoyer, the No. 2 House Democrat, who did his part as usual, stumping vigorously for Democrats in almost 100 districts – mostly in territory where liberal party leaders like Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) would be less of an asset.

Ordinarily, Hoyer might expect to slide back into the House majority leader position, which he held from 2007 to 2011. But with so many Democratic candidates for Congress this year – and some incumbents as well – suggesting it’s time for new leadership in the Democratic caucus, Hoyer’s standing is more tenuous than he would like.

Add to the uncertainty the declaration last week by U.S. Rep. Cedric Richmond (D-La.), chairman of the Congressional Black Caucus, that an African-American member ought to be serving in one of the top two positions in the caucus, and Hoyer’s own uneasy relationship with Pelosi, and the venerable Marylander has every reason to be nervous.

Remember, the last time the Democrats seized the House majority, in 2006, then-Rep. John P. Murtha (D-Pa.) challenged Hoyer to become majority leader with Pelosi’s tacit blessing, even though Hoyer had been the second-ranking House Democrat for four years at that point. He failed.

JDK
Josh Kurtz

If the current Democratic leadership structure remains in place, the top three positions would go to Pelosi, age 78, as speaker, Hoyer, age 79, as majority leader, and South Carolina Rep. James Clyburn, age 78, as majority whip. These are talented politicians with long, admirable records of public service. But even forgetting for a moment the caucus’ restiveness, having such senior lawmakers in the three top jobs is just bad optics. They’d be reprising their roles from the last time the Democrats held the majority – and that feels like a century ago.

Part of the problem for Democrats is that the next generation of would-be successors to Pelosi have fallen by the wayside, one by one. Rahm Emanuel became President Obama’s chief of staff (and then mayor of Chicago). Debbie Wasserman-Schultz, though still in the House, was tainted by her less than stellar tenure as chairwoman of the Democratic National Committee. Chris Van Hollen was elected Maryland’s junior senator. Steve Israel left Congress to become a fiction writer. Xavier Becerra leapt at the chance to be appointed California’s attorney general. And most recently, Rep. Joseph Crowley of New York lost his reelection bid in this year’s Democratic primary to the progressive icon, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez.

Pelosi is nothing if not a survivor – steely, strategic and a champion fundraiser, even as she remains Republicans’ Public Enemy No. 1. Despite all the bold talk from Democratic upstarts, it’s hard to imagine that Pelosi won’t become speaker again if Democrats take the majority, especially if she can plausibly convince her colleagues that she has a plan to groom successors – and fast.

Will Pelosi, Hoyer and Clyburn rise or fall together when the Democratic caucus meets in December to sort out its leadership? Or will the situation quickly become every man and woman for him and herself? Will each get a challenger? What kind of deals will be cut? Will Pelosi try to freeze out Hoyer again?

Hoyer has always dreamed of becoming House speaker. But at this stage, he’s likely too white, too male, too old and too moderate to win the job. Yet in the back of his mind, he probably fantasizes about emerging as a compromise choice after a chaotic internecine battle – promising, no doubt, to be an interim figure who will quickly welcome the next generation of leaders. Stranger things have happened in politics. Then again, Hoyer could find himself out of leadership altogether.

When my colleague Bruce DePuyt recently contacted Hoyer’s office to discuss this very topic, he never got his call returned. Hoyer declined to be interviewed for a Politico article three weeks ago about the Democratic House leadership shakeout.

It’s safe to say there are a lot of moving pieces right now – and this discussion might be completely moot if Democrats slam into a wall on Tuesday and fall short of the majority in the House. A dazed and dispirited caucus would probably then demand a complete house-cleaning.

Even if Hoyer attains his wildest dreams, the next round of redistricting may not be kind to him. Already there is grousing about the fact that a district that is majority-minority still has a white representative. Some African-American and Latino politicians are getting antsy and are anxious to run for his seat.

The 5th District, whose boundaries aren’t as tortured as some of the state’s other congressional districts, still meanders, from the depths of Southern Maryland to outside-the-Beltway Prince George’s County to Anne Arundel’s South County. It could see substantial new territory if Hogan has the upper hand drawing the new district lines before the 2022 election. Hogan probably wouldn’t mind making Hoyer sweat in territory that’s considerably less favorable than its current D+16.

So what a paradox for Steny Hoyer. Here he is, like his fellow Democrats, on the cusp of a great victory. But the celebration may not last very long.

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