Nancy Pelosi and Steny Hoyer: How their past rivalry helped shape the future of leadership races

 Image source:  Politico

Image source: Politico

By Marian Currinder

Earlier this week, Nancy Pelosi said she has "no intention of walking away" if Democrats win majority control in November, stating that it’s “important that it not be five white guys at the table” in negotiations between Congress and the White House. While some Democrats are demanding that she step aside, calls for an outright ouster seem mostly muted for now. 

Pelosi was elected to lead the party in 2002 and withstood challenges to her leadership after the 2004, 2010 and 2016 elections. While she will almost certainly face a challenge this year should her party take control, one contender has already stepped out of the ring. Ending speculation that he would revive their longtime leadership rivalry, Minority Whip Steny Hoyer has said he will not challenge Pelosi for the speakership if Democrats win. The Pelosi-Hoyer relationship, long and fraught with tension, is worth revisiting as House leadership races heat up on both sides aisle.

In May 2001, Minority Whip David Bonior announced he was retiring from Congress to run for governor of Michigan. The race to replace him, however, had begun three years earlier. In the months leading up to the 1998 elections, Nancy Pelosi, Steny Hoyer and John Lewis privately began to solicit the backing of their House colleagues. If the Democrats had won back majority control in 1998, Minority Leader Richard Gephardt would presumably have been elevated to House Speaker, David Bonior would have become Majority Leader and the Whip position would have opened.

Pelosi was the first to signal her intentions; in August 1998, she sent a letter to her Democratic colleagues asking for their support in the Whip’s race. Lewis, a Chief Deputy Whip, and Hoyer followed suit and began soliciting colleague support. By the fall of 1998, the prospects of a Democratic takeover looked dim. However, speculation that Gephardt might launch a bid for the White House in 2000 (and that Bonior would take over as Minority Leader), kept the Whip race alive.

Democrats’ failure to regain control of the House in 1998 and Gephardt’s decision not to seek the presidency put the Whip’s race into remission – but only temporarily. By July 1999, Pelosi was back in campaign mode, lobbying her colleagues and raising $120,000 for their campaigns. Neither Hoyer nor Lewis had actively fundraised for their colleagues before and both expressed dismay over the race’s early start; but despite their reservations, both jumped back into the race. One month later, both Pelosi and Hoyer had established Whip teams and were arranging dinners and other events for groups of potential supporters.

Some members expressed discomfort with the amount of pressure they were getting from the Whip candidates for pledges of support. Fearing that aligning themselves with one candidate would isolate them from the others, a number of Democrats sought to avoid making early commitments. Gephardt said there was little he could – or would – do to discourage the competition, and that if the early race meant more campaign money for other members, then so much the better.

By early 2000, Pelosi and Hoyer had moved to front-runner status. While both were actively “spreading the wealth,” Pelosi was besting Hoyer by a ratio of about 5 to 1. While Pelosi relied heavily on her national appeal as a woman and one of the party’s most prolific fundraisers, Hoyer stressed his institutional footing and reputation as a consensus builder. By July, Lewis had dropped out of the race and thrown his support behind Hoyer. Lewis’s endorsement was somewhat of a surprise, as he and Pelosi shared solid liberal credentials.

Approximately one week after Lewis’s endorsement of Hoyer, Pelosi announced she had enough votes to claim victory—a claim Hoyer chalked up to strategy and strongly disputed. As the 2000 elections neared, Pelosi had raised more than $1 million and contributed almost $700,000 to her colleagues. Hoyer had raised just under $600,000 and given out approximately $458,000. Pelosi insisted her fundraising efforts were not about breaking records (which they did) but about winning back the House. Hoyer claimed he would rely on his network of relationships and not his campaign contributions to win support for his Whip bid.

More than two-and-a-half years after it had begun, the Whip race again came to a halt when Democrats failed to win back the House in the 2000 elections. Pelosi and Hoyer stepped back from the campaign, but kept their organizations in place. Then, when Bonior announced in May 2001 that he was stepping down to run for governor of Michigan, both hit the ground running.

While raising money and spreading the wealth is par for the course in today’s leadership races, the strategy was much less pronounced 20 years ago. Back then, a Hoyer spokesperson said, “I don’t think ever in the history of the Democratic Caucus has it reached where it is now, as far as the level of contributions.” The main reason fundraising became so central to the race was that “it plays to Pelosi’s strengths … she’s made the race about that. She’s been double-maxing to members who don’t need the money, just because she can. But we’ve been just as competitive with Pelosi when it comes to the members who the contributions matter to most.”

When the Democratic Caucus convened in the fall of 2001 to choose their next Whip, Pelosi won 118 votes to Hoyer’s 95. She has remained the House Democratic leader ever since.

Pelosi was a protégé of Representative Phil Burton (D-CA), who had introduced the concept of member-to-member giving in leadership races when he competed for the Majority Whip post in 1976. Like Burton, Pelosi had built up a strong network of wealthy California Democrats; her framework for competing centered on fundraising. Hoyer also understood the value of fundraising but found it difficult to match Pelosi’s prowess. In the end, the protracted race between the two benefited House Democrats, who received multiple contributions from both candidates.

The race also made members from both sides of the aisle consider the longer-term value of having a proven fundraiser in the leadership. This week, Pelosi announced that she had raised $16.1 million in the first three months of 2018 — well ahead of her pace in the 2016 elections. So far this cycle, she has raised $66.7 million. Paul Ryan's joint fundraising committee raised $11 million during the first three months of the year, bringing his 2017-2018 haul to just over $54 million. Seven months out from Election Day, both leaders are certainly proving their worth ... at least when it comes to fundraising.

Marian Currinder is a senior fellow with the R Street Institute’s Governance Project and editor of the LegBranch.com blog.