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Nancy Pelosi's survival skills face daunting test

CAMPAIGN 2010 Speaker coy about plans if Dems lose

Carolyn Lochhead, Chronicle Washington Bureau

Nov. 1, 2010

The speaker's lobby and its hallways just off the U.S. House chamber are hung with portraits of all 51 former speakers: each male, each long gone, some famous, most forgotten: Henry Clay and Joseph Cannon, Thomas Foley and Jim Wright, Newt Gingrich and Dennis Hastert.

Hanging over Tuesday's election is a big question: Will the first woman, San Francisco's Nancy Pelosi, join that gallery?

Pelosi's own allies, perhaps offering a clue to her thinking, cite the example of legendary Texas Democrat Sam Rayburn, who twice lost the majority but who served as speaker a record three times between 1940 and his death in 1961.

If this is the path Pelosi, 70, wants to follow - seeking election as minority leader if Democrats lose control of the House - it would be a radical break with recent tradition, when Gingrich and Hastert resigned from Congress in the weeks following their party's loss of the House majority.

SAN FRANCISCO - OCTOBER 27: U.S. Speaker of the House Rep. Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) attends Game One of the 2010 MLB World Series at AT&T Park on October 27, 2010 in San Francisco, California. Christian Petersen/Getty Images

Many analysts think Pelosi's political career could end Tuesday. Her national popularity is in the basement. She has become a symbol of Democratic excesses, much like Gingrich once was for Republicans, a radioactive "San Francisco liberal" from whom moderate Democrats in marginal districts are fleeing.

"Chances are that she would not stay in the House, she would resign," said James Thurber, director of the Center for Congressional and Presidential Studies at American University. A special election would be called in San Francisco, and Democrats would clear the way for a "new generation that's stepping up and has the energy and focus to be in the minority," he said.

That is how Pelosi fought her own way into the leadership, becoming minority leader in 2002 and winning the speakership in 2006 after demolishing the GOP majority of 12 years.

Pelosi herself is sticking by her insistence that Democrats will keep their majority. She has made it clear that she intends to remain speaker. What Pelosi has not said is whether she would run for the leadership in the minority.

Conditions have changed

The Rayburn analogy is flawed, historians say. In 1946 and 1952, two brief interludes of GOP control were at the time viewed as aberrations resulting from President Harry Truman's unpopularity and Dwight Eisenhower's landslide. Today's conditions are quite different, said Claremont McKenna College political scientist Jack Pitney.

Embattled Democrats running away from her "are obviously getting polling data that indicates any association with her is politically dangerous," he said, "and when that happens, a leader's hold on power is in jeopardy."

The hard climb back to a majority would require recruiting, as Pelosi once did, of the very centrists and conservatives who now consider her an albatross.

Still, there is a path for Pelosi to hang on to the leadership of her party.

"She's going to have to fight for it, but it's not impossible," said UC Berkeley political scientist Bruce Cain.

Pelosi's advantages

Pelosi has at least two things running in her favor: an astonishing fundraising prowess and the loyalty of a shrunken but more liberal Democratic caucus that blames President Obama as much as her for the party's state. Liberals credit Pelosi with pressuring Obama when he was inclined to cave.

Add a third: Pelosi's legislative accomplishments are beyond dispute - a health care overhaul, financial market regulation, the fiscal stimulus and a host of other laws that, whether popular or not, have made her among the most effective speakers in modern history.

WASHINGTON - SEPTEMBER 23: Surrounded by small business owners, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi prepares to sign the Small Business Jobs Act at the U.S. Capitol on September 23, 2010 in Washington, DC. Today the House of Representatives passed the bill that will provide $12 billion in tax breaks and a $30 billion lending fund to small business enterprises. Mark Wilson/Getty Images

Cain said former state Assembly Speaker Willie Brown remained in power even in the minority. "There are a lot of examples where a very smart leader who is absolutely central to the party's operation" can stay in power, Cain said, especially if the leader can raise money.

Since entering the Democratic leadership in 2002, Pelosi has raised more than $222 million for Democrats - $57.2 million in this campaign cycle alone. No one in the House comes close, including rising Democratic star Rep. Chris Van Hollen, D-Md., who has raised $19.5 million.

Pelosi rules her caucus, and aside from a handful of terrified Democrats in squishy districts who now are promising never to vote for her again, there has been nary a whisper of revolt.

To see how odd this is, look at the Senate, where Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., and Richard Durbin, D-Ill., are openly jockeying to replace Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid if he loses his Nevada seat.

Pelosi began her career in California as a Democratic money machine, the paramount prerequisite for being a party leader. She has not slowed since.

"That is always a big, big thing. That is a huge plus in her column," said GOP consultant Ford O'Connell, who directed rural outreach for Republican Sen. John McCain's presidential bid in 2008.

Chances of survival

The endangered Democrats who have been most adamant in their vows to vote for a new leader are precisely those most likely to be voted out of office, rendering their threats useless.

Those who remain will be loyal liberals in safe districts, few safer than the Bay Area Democrats such as George Miller of Martinez and Anna Eshoo of Palo Alto at the core of Pelosi's support.

Even Pelosi detractors see a way for her to survive.

GOP strategist O'Connell warned that this election is not a "wave" for Republicans but a "tempest" that holds equal peril for the GOP.

"This is like a ship that's fallen off of its mooring and it's just spinning around," O'Connell said. "Once this Republican Congress takes over, they're not going to have more than 100 days before people start taking shots at them if they don't see an improvement in the economy.

"It's a tough choice, but I wouldn't retire if I were her," he added. "Two years is a political lifetime."

Carolyn Lochhead was the Washington correspondent for the San Francisco Chronicle, where she covered national politics and policy for 27 years. She grew up in Paso Robles (San Luis Obispo County) and graduated from UC Berkeley cum laude in rhetoric and economics. She has a masters of journalism degree from Columbia University. Twitter: @carolynlochhead

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