Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi is not welcome in Trump country, which was probably one reason another top Democrat — her long-term rival Steny H. Hoyer — was zipping through Republican-friendly corners of western Wisconsin this last week.
Hoyer, the Maryland centrist and perpetual leader-in-waiting in the House of Representatives, was on a mission to woo blue-collar voters and help his party win back control of the House.
He was also looking for what could be his last shot.
“Would I like to be speaker? Of course. Would I be disappointed if it doesn’t happen? No,” the No. 2 House Democrat said by phone, reflecting on his long career as he cut through snow-covered rolling hills, a world away from his Chesapeake Bay home turf.
Hoyer has been eyeing the top spot for more than a decade, living in the shadow of a San Francisco Democrat who has a white-knuckle grip on power. Now, as the party wrestles with its ideological impulses and younger lawmakers push for a generational shift — both he and Pelosi are 78 years old — Hoyer may be looking for one more play.
Replacing one longtime leader with another is not what many Democrats have in mind. Still, Hoyer is actively, if quietly, seeking lawmakers’ support. His allies put him forward as a possible “bridge” leader, who might ease a transition to a next generation — if Pelosi ever steps aside. Others find farfetched the notion that a white, male centrist from blue Maryland would be the new face of the Democratic Party.
Those questions, Hoyer insisted, are for another day. On Thursday, he was dashing to keep a lunch date at the Eau Claire Area Chamber of Commerce in Wisconsin to listen to a crowd of Midwestern voters, including some who voted for Donald Trump.
“I’m going in to talk to Americans,” he said. “It’s not Trump country or Hoyer country. These are Americans.”
As Democrats battle to win back some two dozen House seats, the fight for majority control is also a struggle between the liberal and centrist wings over how best to frame the party’s image and priorities in the age of Trump.
Several House candidates face bruising primary contests this spring that will showcase the divide. But perhaps nowhere is it more apparent than in the simmering saga of House Democratic leadership.
Younger lawmakers talk about sweeping all the top leaders from office as they hunger for fresh faces. New York Rep. Joseph Crowley is among those often mentioned among up-and-comers, but others are in the wings, and a person close to him said he is focused right now on helping Democrats win the House.
Pelosi, meanwhile, shows no signs of retiring, especially as she has the chance to wield the speaker’s gavel if Democrats regain the House. Nearly a year younger than Hoyer — they were on staff together in the Capitol decades ago — Pelosi is undeterred by the constant chatter or year-round GOP attack ads pillorying her leadership.
Asked recently how she felt about potential votes against her from Democrats like Conor Lamb, who won a special election in a Trump district in Pennsylvania but said he wouldn’t back Pelosi for speaker, she quipped that it’s just not as important as winning the seat and the House majority.
That leaves Hoyer’s allies floating the unusual idea of him becoming a short-term leader — someone who could temporarily take the helm, if and when Pelosi steps down, to ease the transition.
It’s a hard sell.
While few lawmakers or aides will talk openly about what’s to come, some dismissed the idea as setting up a lame-duck leader who would have little control over the caucus and only prolong the day when younger members could rise.
Republicans scoff at Hoyer’s attempt influence the fall midterm by swooping in to Trump districts to drum up support for Democrats.
“It’s not like... ‘Ladies and gentlemen, the minority whip!’ and he comes out to strobe lights,” said Matt Gorman, a spokesman for the GOP’s campaign committee in the House. “People don’t know who Steny Hoyer is.”
Then again, Hoyer’s ability to show up with his “Make it in America” listening tour can’t hurt. He has stopped in Pittsburgh; Toledo, Ohio; Kansas City, Mo., and other places this election cycle; and while he may not move masses, lawmakers welcome his ability to make inroads in places where Democrats don’t always tread.
“Steny Hoyer went to Peoria, Ill. It’s sort of the epicenter of America,” said Rep. Cheri Bustos, who represents a Trump-won district in northwestern Illinois and is also often mentioned for a future party leadership role.
“We have to pick up 23 seats to win back the majority, and most of those are right here in the heartland of America. This is where we need to pay attention.”
As Hoyer made his way to Eau Claire in the last week, he spotted an outbuilding on the landscape that reminded him of the tobacco barn on his own property back home in Mechanicsville, Md., in the southern part of the state where he is seeking reelection to a 20th term in office.
“I’m glad that people welcome me to our districts,” he said. “We are the party of the people, we are the party of workers ... men and women in this country who are the reason this country is great — historically, and now.”
Hosting his arrival was Rep. Ron Kind, one of four Democrats who voted against Pelosi during the last leadership race, at the Chamber of Commerce luncheon.
“Steny’s been at the forefront of this. The message works incredibly well around here,” Kind said in an interview. “Showing up, being respectful and listening.”