In the wake of her party's devastating midterm losses on Tuesday, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi announced Friday afternoon that she will run to stay on as leader of her party in the 112th Congress.
Although Pelosi was widely expected to step down from her leadership position immediately after the elections, she spent Wednesday and Thursday reaching out to colleagues to assess her strength within the Democratic caucus. Pelosi allies in the House also began placing phone calls to gauge her chances in a leadership race, Politics Daily learned.
Believing that she has enough backing, Pelosi sent a letter to her House colleagues on Friday announcing that she will run for minority leader when members choose their leaders later this month.
"Our work is far from finished. As a result of Tuesday's election, the role of Democrats in the 112th Congress will change, but our commitment to serving the American people will not," Pelosi wrote. "Based on (my) discussions, and driven by the urgency of protecting health care reform, Wall Street reform, and Social Security and Medicare, I have decided to run."
As news of Pelosi's surprise decision rocketed around Capitol Hill, Republicans delighted in the possibility that she might stay on as the leader of the House Democrats. As Pelosi's approval rating dropped to a historic low before the midterms, she became a potent target for GOP attack ads and a lucrative foil for Republican fundraising efforts.
"The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting a different result," said Ken Spain, the communications director for House Republicans' campaign committee. "Of course, if House Democrats are willing to sacrifice more of their members in 2012 for the glory of Nancy Pelosi, we are happy to oblige them."
Pelosi's power has always come from the liberal members of the House Democratic caucus, most of whom retained their seats after Tuesday's elections.
In addition to loyalty from the left, Pelosi supporters point to several reasons she is the leader the party cannot afford to lose, including her vast fundraising network, her history building the House majority in 2006, her goodwill among liberal interest groups, and her mastery of the redistricting process, which Democrats will face next cycle. Since 2002, Pelosi has raised $231 million for her fellow Democrats.
"Was Tuesday bad? Yes," said a senior Democratic aide, who spoke on the condition of anonymity. "Was it bad enough to wash away everything she's done for the party? I'm not so sure."
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Pelosi won't run unopposed. Rep. Health Shuler (D-N.C.) has announced that he'll challenge her, arguing that Pelosi is not the right leader for a Democratic bid to retake the majority. "If there's not a viable alternative -- like I said all along -- I can go recruit moderate members to run in swing districts," Shuler told Roll Call Thursday
. "In that situation, I could do it better than she could, and that's what it's going to take. It's going to take moderate candidates to win back those seats."
Shuler was one of several moderate Blue Dog Democrats who distanced himself from Pelosi during his campaign for re-election as her approval ratings plummeted, even vowing not to support her for speaker again should the party retain the House. But more than half of the Blue Dog coalition went down in defeat Tuesday, and along with them, any serious movement to replace Pelosi with a more centrist Democratic leader such as Rep. Steny Hoyer.
Hoyer, now the second-ranking Democrat in the House, has long had the backing of moderate and conservative members. But Hoyer has said he would not challenge Pelosi and instead is considering a run to keep the Democrats' No. 2 job in the next Congress.
In another surprise announcement, Rep. Jim Clyburn of South Carolina announced Friday he will for the same spot Hoyer is contemplating, a move that could set up a leadership battle royal between the two senior Democrats.
With her decision Friday, Pelosi is taking the opposite path of former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, who told his colleagues in Nov. 1998 that he would not only resign as speaker, but would leave the House entirely after he presided over a loss of five GOP seats in the 1998 midterm elections and faced a brewing challenge to his leadership from fellow Republicans.
"I'm willing to lead, but I'm not willing to preside over people who are cannibals," Gingrich famously told a group of close colleagues. "My only fear would be that if I tried to stay, it would just overshadow whoever my successor is."
Gingrich's successor, Dennis Hastert, chose a different path after his party lost the House in 2006, announcing immediately after the elections that he would remain in Congress to represent his Illinois district, but would not try to keep his post as the Republican leader.
Although Gingrich and Hastert took themselves out of the leadership equation after electoral losses, history is full of speakers who remained as head of their caucuses through good times and bad.
The most familiar example for political buffs may be Texas Democrat Sam Rayburn, the longest-serving House speaker. He held the post three separate times and remained as Democratic minority leader between his speakerships when his party lost its House majority in 1947 and 1953.
Follow Patricia Murphy on Twitter @1PatriciaMurphy.