WASHINGTON (AP) — When Nancy Pelosi travels from her home in San Francisco to her job in Washington as House Democratic leader, she flies over millions of voters whom Democrats relied on for decades but who rejected the party this year.
The Democrats' shellacking in the election — below-expectations gains in the House plus the White House loss and minimal wins in the Senate — produced party grumbling that the 76-year-old California liberal may not be the best messenger to lead those once-core Democratic voters back into the fold.
"Who is the leader that can go into those Southern states and Midwestern states and begin to pull those voters back into our corner?" asked Rep. Tim Ryan, D-Ohio, who is mulling a challenge to Pelosi. If Democrats "don't get working people back to work, we are never gonna get the majority back," Ryan added.
In the words of Rep. Seth Moulton, D-Mass.: "The American people sent us a message loud and clear. We need to listen to that message and we need to respond."
Despite the discontent, Pelosi is a survivor who enjoys enormous respect and goodwill among most Democrats, even as many of her closest allies have left Congress. She has managed to maintain unity within the diverse flock of House Democrats and is an unparalleled fundraiser for them, collecting more than $100 million in the past cycle alone.
She was crucial in ensuring President Barack Obama's health care overhaul became law in 2010. Even in the minority under Obama, Pelosi has been a savvy negotiator with GOP leaders when Democratic votes were needed to advance legislation.
In a letter Wednesday announcing her candidacy for leader, Pelosi acknowledged the party's challenge.
"To be a strong voice for hard-working families and to uphold the values we cherish as Americans, House Democrats must be unified, strategic and unwavering," she wrote. "These qualities took us to victory in 2006 and I believe they will do so again. We must start now!"
The Democrat, who is known for her vote-counting skills, also declared that she has the votes with the backing of two-thirds of her caucus.
Pelosi became the top House Democrat in 2002 and rode the unpopular war in Iraq and President George W. Bush's slipping approval to a House majority in 2006. With Obama in the White House, she ruled with an iron hand over the House to deliver for him. The 2010 midterm Republican landslide was a disaster for House Democrats and sent them into the minority. So were the 2014 elections, and last week Democrats picked up only a half-dozen seats, far less than they'd hoped.
Democrats had been slated to re-elect Pelosi on Thursday. But dissatisfaction and a desire to further chew over the party's problems prompted a delay until Nov. 30.
While the election of Donald Trump was traumatic for Democrats, Pelosi's allies say she's not to blame — and that her strength will be needed to help the party maneuver through troubled times.
"We have to focus on the immediate, and that is that come January we're going to have a Republican president and a Republican Congress. And so what are we going to do about it?" asked Rep. Jim McGovern, D-Mass. "And I think that's where our focus needs to be. People can vent ... but at the end of the day we need to develop a strategy for right now."
What is more, the departure of top lieutenants like Reps. Chris Van Hollen, D-Md., and Steve Israel, D-N.Y., has considerably thinned the bench of potential successors to Pelosi. Van Hollen in particular had been groomed to succeed Pelosi, but he will be sworn in as Maryland's new senator on Jan. 3. Israel is retiring at the end of the year.
Pelosi has a historic rivalry with Steny Hoyer of Maryland, the No. 2 House Democrat who at 77 is not a viable long-term replacement anyway.
"We need to give our younger members and our newer members opportunities to have some exposure because the face of our party right now is pretty old and it's pretty long term," said Rep. John Yarmuth, D-Ky.
A successful re-election as Democratic leader on Nov. 30 would cement Pelosi as the symbol of the party going forward. But the campaign in 2018 is going to be about Trump and Republicans controlling Congress.
"We must proceed with a clear vision, firm values and innovative strategy," Pelosi said in the letter.
Republicans made Pelosi a target in winning back the House and she remains a sign of the party's leftward leanings, including her failed effort in 2009 to combat global warming and her support for abortion rights and same-sex marriage.
"I truly believe as long as she's leader we keep the majority," the No. 2 House Republican, Kevin McCarthy of California, said on Monday.