At first glance, Rep. Heath Shuler's (D-N.C.) announcement late Monday night that he would challenge House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) in her bid to be minority leader when the House Democratic Caucus meets Wednesday is a bit odd. Shuler is young and had no political experience before winning his seat in 2006 (he was best known for playing quarterback successfully at the University of Tennessee and unsuccessfully in the NFL).
And he won't beat Pelosi. Aside from his lack of experience, Shuler's record is too conservative for many in the party: he voted against health-care reform and the Recovery Act.
So why is Shuler running? Just to aggravate the powerful Pelosi?
Well, sort of, actually, yes. Republicans have spent the last four years demonizing the "San Francisco liberal" Pelosi. Her persona—a stylish, environmentalist, wealthy Californian whose father was mayor of Baltimore—seems almost perfectly designed to alienate the rural white voters Democrats lost so badly this year. Shuler, who represents a district in the Smoky Mountains of North Carolina, has been making noises about distancing the party from Pelosi for a while. Challenging Pelosi is one way to do that, and burnish his independent credentials back home.
While many House members might fear saying so on the record, since they oppose the future minority leader at their own peril, there is a fair amount of agreement with Shuler that Pelosi is, in the words of defeated Rep. Allen Boyd (D-Fla.), "the face of our defeat." A handful of Democratic congressman have publicly talked about dumping Pelosi. Congressional observers predict Shuler may get more votes than one might expect, since the ballot is secret and many Democrats might want to express frustration with Pelosi and the party more generally. Democratic voters are evenly split on Pelosi. Congressional Democrats are talking about postponing Wednesday's vote to regroup.
The split is regional as well as ideological; the conservative Blue Dog caucus, which Shuler belongs to, is the locus of anti-Pelosi sentiment, but there is also a divide between rural and Midwestern representatives against coastal cultural liberals. Midterm losses in the Rust Belt were a warning sign for Democrats, who cannot build a national majority without the Upper Midwest. "There has been a lack of sensitivity to the kinds of issues that are necessary to win to marginal districts, which tend to be rural, Midwestern, and populist," says Scott Lilly, a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress and former high-ranking Democratic congressional staffer. Pelosi insisted on voting for a cap-and-trade regime plan to limit greenhouse-gas emissions even though the votes in the Senate to make it law never materialized. "It was good politics in urban and suburban coastal areas but terrible politics in a big part of the country," says Lilly. "There's a lot of resentment in the Midwest toward people on the coasts and the political philosophies on the coasts."
Pelosi's problems with rural and conservative Democrats is only one of the Democrats' problems holding their caucus together. Last week Democrats hashed out a deal to make Rep. Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) minority whip and Rep. Jim Clyburn (D-S.C.) "assistant whip," a heretofore nonexistent position. Hoyer, the outgoing majority leader, is a moderate and a Pelosi rival, while Clyburn, the outgoing minority whip, is African-American and a Pelosi ally. With Pelosi having lost the speaker's gavel ,there wasn't a top leadership post available for both Clyburn and Hoyer, but Democrats did not think they could hold together their caucus without a friend to the moderates and a member of the Congressional Black Caucus (CBC) both at the leadership table.
The CBC is not fully mollified; it is withholding its endorsement of Pelosi's leadership bid, until Pelosi furnishes a satisfactory plan showing that Clyburn will have major responsibilities and not just be a figurehead. The Blue Dogs, meanwhile, are demanding that Pelosi replace some of her top lieutenants as their pound of flesh.
Perhaps the better question than why Shuler is running for minority leader is why anyone would want the job.