OAKLAND, Calif. — California Democratic House members hoping for a plum appointment from Gov. Gavin Newsom are facing a major roadblock: Speaker Nancy Pelosi.
The impending departure of state Attorney General Xavier Becerra for the Biden administration has touched off a rush of interest among congressmembers with law degrees, while others are jockeying for the U.S. Senate seat held by Vice President-elect Kamala Harris. At least half a dozen representatives are in the mix.
But Democrats lost at least 12 House seats last month, a disappointing outcome for a party that had hoped to take over the Senate and build a large enough House margin that members would have more job search latitude. Democrats lost four seats from Pelosi’s own California delegation.
Pelosi’s thin advantage means she can ill afford to lose members. Not just in swing districts, where they could be gone for good, but in secure Democratic areas where a vacancy could make her job that much tougher until a special election is held months later.
“Obviously there’s a wealth of Democratic talent in the house, but if I were Nancy Pelosi, given the extraordinarily slim majority she is dealing with, I wouldn’t want to lose a single one,” said California Democratic consultant Brian Goldsmith. “And given Pelosi’s heft and gravitas in the party, I think she’s gonna have a lot of influence here.”
As it stands, Democrats currently have 222 seats, only four above the 218 needed for a majority. Pelosi has already lost two of those members to the Biden administration — Rep. Marcia Fudge (D-Ohio) who has been tapped as Housing and Urban Development secretary, and Rep. Cedric Richmond (D-La.), who will be a point man on the White House staff overseeing public outreach. That leaves 220 Democratic members at the moment.
“The question is, how many vacancies can you afford, and for how long,” said a source close to Pelosi. “You need every vote. You could probably lose three members, and that’s probably it.”
Pelosi’s office for weeks has insisted to reporters that it was “false” to suggest she was discouraging members from leaving for the Biden administration. But House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-Md.), her top lieutenant, acknowledged his anxiety Wednesday over departures.
“I’m certainly concerned by the slimming of the majority,” he told reporters Wednesday, according to The Hill. “I have indicated to the administration very early on that I wanted them to be very careful in terms of the members that they appointed from the Congress given the closeness of our majority.”
That’s bad news for Rep. Karen Bass, a onetime contender for vice president who is vying for Harris’ Senate seat. It also bodes poorly for Reps. Eric Swalwell, Jared Huffman, Jackie Speier and Ted Lieu, who are considered potential appointees to follow the same House-to-California AG path that Becerra took four years ago.
Rep. Katie Porter’s rising popularity among Democrats makes her an oft-mentioned name in political appointment parlor games. But she represents a competitive Orange County district that her party can ill afford to lose in 2022.
The odds-on favorite for the U.S. Senate seat remains California Secretary of State Alex Padilla, a longtime Newsom ally. He would become California’s first Latino senator in a state where Latinos are a plurality with 40 percent of the population.
Still, Rep. Ro Khanna (D-Fremont) downplayed Pelosi’s political challenges should California House members leave for other positions. Khanna is the former national co-chair of Bernie Sanders’ presidential campaign and a progressive favorite, and his supporters have pushed for him to get the U.S. Senate nod.
“I’m so glad that Marcia Fudge is getting appointed to HUD,” he said in an interview Wednesday. “I think it’s fine … those things go into special elections within a few months. So I don’t see it as a major consideration.”
But Biden has to be aware of the impact on House votes, given that he needs a Democratic majority to help carry out his agenda. Likewise, Newsom is counting on the House and president to pass a major stimulus package that could benefit governments and schools in California.
Biden said this week he intends to reopen most schools in the U.S. within his first 100 days — provided Congress passes a bill funding additional protections for teachers, staff and students.
David McCuan, a political science professor at Sonoma State, said Biden is facing an obstacle course while trying to get his footing ahead of Inauguration Day. Pelosi, a master at counting votes, is keenly aware that “the President-elect has no honeymoon,” McCuan said. “That means he has fewer than 100 days, and probably the first 30 to 60 days” to make a play for key legislation.
Should Pelosi lose anywhere from three to six Democrats in the House, House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy’s caucus will come into play, McCuan said. He added that a Republican-led Senate could also benefit from any House majority disarray.
The dynamic comes as McCarthy — another Californian — flexes his muscle for a run for speaker in 2022, putting even more pressure on Pelosi to hold the line where swing seats are involved.
If it comes down to a safe Democratic seat in deep-blue California, getting House replacements may not be a major concern.
“If it’s a safe seat and it’s not left open, as long as the vote is there for Pelosi, there’s no problem,’’ says Phil Trounstine, a former communications director for Gov. Gray Davis and coauthor of the CalBuzz blog.
“They’re not going to tap Katie Porter, as good as she is, because it’s a swing district,” he said. “But someone like Barbara Lee, it’s no problem. Even Abe Lincoln couldn’t get elected in Oakland if he had an R behind his name.”