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House Dems’ leadership landscape frozen by their pleasant midterm surprise

House Democrats will be waiting hours, if not days, to know the full results of Tuesday’s surprisingly close midterm election. They could have to wait even longer on the future of their leadership.

Republicans are still poised to take back the House, but the size of that victory will be smaller than both parties had thought — with a final call taking longer than expected, too. And that leaves Democrats’ closely watched leadership contests stuck in limbo, since none of their ambitious members eyeing top leadership spots are expected to make moves before the majority is officially decided.

The leadership dynamics among House Democrats are chiefly frozen by the lack of any hints from Speaker Nancy Pelosi on her own next steps. Pelosi informed her caucus on a Wednesday morning post-election phone briefing that she still plans to attend the global climate summit in Egypt, though her trip will be brief — arriving Thursday and returning to the U.S. on Friday night, according to multiple people who joined the call.

The California Democrat was in a cheerful mood on the call as she touted the midterm turf Democrats had protected so far. “It is a remarkable achievement what all of us did working together,” Pelosi said in her first post-election remarks. “Our candidates were courageous.”

Besides Pelosi, Democrats are still awaiting word from her two longtime deputies: House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) and Majority Whip Jim Clyburn (D-S.C.). The trio have served in leadership together for nearly two decades. And while Pelosi vowed to her caucus that this would be her last term as party leader, Hoyer and Clyburn have been clear they made no such promise.

Hoyer, in a statement, suggested that Democrats could still retain control of the majority — an outcome that would prove, in reality, borderline impossible.

“We do not yet know who will control Congress in January, but it is evident that voters continued to put their trust in Democrats to represent them in districts across America,” Hoyer said in a statement. He is unlikely to announce his future plans until the majority is called.

A handful of more junior caucus members have told colleagues they would run for those top three positions if and when they are vacated. House Democratic Caucus Chair Hakeem Jeffries (D-N.Y.) is regarded by many Democrats as the frontrunner for the No. 1 position — likely minority leader — though Rep. Adam Schiff (D-Calif.) is privately considering a run as well.

Rep. Katherine Clark (D-Mass.), currently the No. 4 Democrat, is expected to seek the second-ranking position. She has a potential rival in Rep. Pramila Jayapal (D-Wash.), who had expressed interest in a leadership run before a tense intra-caucus spat over a letter she had led that opened the door to talks in Russia’s war on Ukraine.

And Rep. Pete Aguilar (D-Calif.), currently the caucus’ vice chair, has aligned himself with Clark and Jeffries and is expected to seek the No. 3 position.

“While the election results are still being counted, it is clear that American voters are rejecting Republican extremism and affirming Democrats’ commitment to working people,” Clark said in a statement on Tuesday night’s results.

Plenty of other top Democrats remained hopeful that they could notch more upset victories in the coming hours.

On that same post-election briefing call on Wednesday, the head of the House Democratic campaign arm addressed fellow caucus members just minutes after conceding his own race. Rep. Sean Patrick Maloney, who led the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, fell to a GOP opponent in a tough upstate New York face-off.

“Republicans want to jump the gun and declare the victory, but at this moment we do not know who will have the majority,” Maloney told fellow Democrats, according to a person on the call.

The campaign arm’s executive director, Tim Persico, gave a detailed recap to members of the state of play across the country, as key races in California, Arizona, Washington and Oregon remain uncalled. He projected Democrats would win at least 200 seats — and said there remained a “small path” to the majority.

Indeed, rather than the drubbing that even their own party’s operatives were predicting, Democrats appear likely to hang onto all but a handful of their most endangered incumbents. By Wednesday afternoon, battleground Democratic incumbents like Rep. Matt Cartwright — who represents a red-leaning northeastern Pennsylvania seat — had emerged victorious. Yet Rep. Tom O‘Halleran, whose sprawling Arizona seat had become more GOP-friendly in redistricting, was ultimately dealt a loss.

One leadership race that may get off to a quicker start than others: bids to succeed Maloney at the DCCC helm. Reps. Tony Cárdenas (D-Calif.) and Ami Bera (D-Calif.) are expected to throw their hats in the ring to help the party recapture the majority in 2024.

Nicholas Wu contributed reporting.

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