If Democrats win the House majority on November 6, they’ll soon hold the speaker’s gavel for the first time in eight years – and all eyes would immediately turn to one person: Nancy Pelosi.
The caucus will quickly have to decide whether to elect the 78-year-old, 30-year House veteran – who was the last Democrat to hold the speaker’s gavel – or whether it’s time for a new generation of leadership.
Whoever gets the job could be a powerful force against the controversial President, who to date has been largely unchecked and rarely challenged by the Republicans who control Congress. That person would likely throw their weight behind Democratic-led investigations into all matters Trump and possibly impeachment of the President.
Pelosi is bullish on resuming the speakership, relishing control of the levers of power to take on President Donald Trump.
She made history becoming the first woman speaker of the House after the Democrats won the majority in 2006 and maintained her perch as the top House Democrat since her party became the minority again in 2010.
But speculation within her own caucus about her viable future has permeated through the halls of Congress.
Pelosi is a politically-charged target on the campaign trail, with dozens of Democratic candidates saying they wouldn’t support her as speaker while a handful of current Democratic incumbents also call for fresh blood in the Democratic leadership.
Those dynamics have fueled many Democrats, in the run-up to Election Day, to privately discuss backup plans – with some predicting Pelosi might not secure the votes she needs among her colleagues to be the next speaker, even if she were to lead her party to a major victory this fall.
As of now, the Democratic caucus elections are scheduled for the week of December 5, a little less than a month after the midterms, setting up a high stakes showdown for the next potential speaker, as well as a lineup of other top leadership posts that could also be competitive.
Then in January, the full House votes on speaker nominees from the two parties, with the winner needing a majority of votes cast to win.
In public, Democratic members say they are entirely focused on the midterms, and many get superstitious talking about anything beyond November.
But behind the scenes, they’re privately gaming out a number of potential scenarios.
Here are just three:
Democrats Win, Pelosi Stays
Pelosi has been insistent, if the Democrats take control of the House, she intends to run and become speaker again — not qualifying that with any ifs, ands or buts.
“I feel very comfortable about the support that I have in the caucus, and that I will be the speaker of the House,” Pelosi told CNN’s Christiane Amanpour this week.
And certainly, she – as the highest-ranking woman in congressional history – has much ground to stand on, building up a long list of legislative accomplishments and relationships over her three-decade career in Congress.
Top Democrats argue Pelosi would be uniquely experienced again as the next speaker, someone who has led a Democratic House before under a Republican president (George W. Bush).
“No one else can make that argument,” a Democratic leadership aide said. “We face, in the majority, dealing with the Republican Senate and the Republican president – she is experienced in doing that and achieving things, in getting things done in that configuration in that split of Washington.”
She’ll lean on that argument — as well as the midterm results – once she starts corralling votes for herself after potentially winning the House.
“Winning washes away a lot of complaints,” the aide said.
And winning by a large majority makes that argument even more solid – especially with her fundraising prowess. Through June, Pelosi had raised $83 million for the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee for the 2018 midterm elections, more than double the next closest Democrat, according to an internal list for the group charged with electing more Democrats to the House.
Inside Congress, allies and opponents say consistently they never underestimate her power or her fight, and colleagues describe her as someone extremely disciplined and effective, most so when her back is against the ropes.
“She never lost a (major) vote on the floor,” Democratic Rep. Gerry Connolly of Virginia told CNN. “Her argument is going to be: Do you really want to discard that and try something entirely untried, unknown, and risk damaging the agenda with unknown, untried new leadership?”
Pelosi’s team – at least publicly – is not blinking either.
“Leader Pelosi has always enjoyed the overwhelming support of House Democrats, and that will continue into the majority she’s so focused on winning,” said Drew Hammill, Pelosi’s spokesman.
Still, she likely will not go unchallenged.
Rep. Tim Ryan – the Ohio Democrat who ran against her for minority leader in 2016 – is toying with a rematch.
Democrats win, Pelosi leaves
This is the scenario members are playing with most behind the scenes.
While Pelosi is adamant about staying, it’s no guarantee. Dozens of Democratic candidates and at least five Democratic incumbents, according to a CNN count, have pledged to vote against her for speaker. If Democrats take the majority by a slim margin, her path to victory is arguably narrow.
“I will not support her,” Rep. Brian Higgins of New York told The Buffalo News in June, calling her “aloof, frenetic and misguided.”
Pelosi is widely known as a solid vote counter, and it’s all-but-certain she’ll know soon after the election whether she has enough votes to win the speakership. If she feels she doesn’t have the votes, it’s a common belief in the House that she’ll step aside and help usher in the next speaker.
Pelosi publicly counters this argument, saying while “it’s time for new blood” in the party, she also thinks it’s a gamble in the current political climate for her to be absent from negotiations with Washington’s top leaders, especially during battles with Trump.
“To have no woman at the table and to have the Affordable Care Act at risk, I said ‘As long as (Trump’s) here, I’m here,’” Pelosi told Amanpour.
While members are privately and subtly jockeying for the gig in case Pelosi leaves, it’s not until November that those campaigns move into full swing. That’s because there’s no clear next-in-line successor to Pelosi.
“You could spin yourself crazy trying to game out the scenarios,” one Democratic congressional aide said of the floodgates that could potentially open for members to run for top posts.
“It is easy to deny her 218,” another Democratic aide said, referring to the number of votes the next speaker would need to win the full House floor vote. “I think the struggle is then: who can get 218.”
The No. 2 Democrat, House Minority Whip Steny Hoyer, has long been high up in the Democratic hierarchy. He’s popular among the caucus and has spent many weeks on the campaign trail this year for colleagues and new candidates. While critics say the 79-year-old doesn’t represent the new generation that many Democrats want, supporters argue he has the experience and the relationships with younger members needed to help transition the caucus to that next generation.
Meanwhile, Assistant Democratic Leader James Clyburn – the No. 3 Democrat in the House – has been public about his aspirations. He told multiple media outlets last month that he was prepared to run if Pelosi decides to leave. And his supporters say it’s time for the House to have its first African-American speaker.
But Clyburn, 78, is not the only name mentioned when it comes to making history on that front. In conversations with members and aides, Rep. Hakeem Jeffries of New York and Rep. Cedric Richmond of Louisiana – the latter of whom chairs the Congressional Black Caucus – are two other names brought up as potential candidates for speaker or other top leadership positions, as they would also represent a younger generation. Both men are in their 40s.
Richmond, who’s been vocal in his support for Clyburn as potential speaker, said Democrats shouldn’t hold Clyburn’s age against him. “I think we should have young people at the table and involved in leadership. I really do. But I haven’t heard a name, young or old, that would change my support of Clyburn – including my own.”
Hoyer and Clyburn competed for the whip position in 2010, but after it was clear Clyburn would not get enough support, he was offered the newly-created position of Assistant Democratic Leader, averting a divisive caucus vote between Clyburn and Hoyer.
A host of other names are also frequently mentioned among members and aides as potential top leadership contenders, including Rep. Cheri Bustos of Illinois, Rep. Ben Ray Luján of New Mexico, Rep. Dan Kildee of Michigan, Rep. Joe Kennedy of Massachusetts and Rep. Adam Schiff of California, among several others.
A handful of other Democrats like Rep. Linda Sanchez of California, Rep. Barbara Lee of California, Rep. Diana DeGette of Colorado, Rep. Katherine Clark of Massachusetts and Rep. Pramila Jayapal of Washington also come up in conversations and some have already announced they’re running for caucus chair or caucus vice-chair.
“There are so many possibilities that are swirling, and so I’m just taking a wait-and-see attitude,” said Rep. Hank Johnson of Georgia. “I would be surprised if (Pelosi) does not affirm herself as our leader in the next Congress. And beyond that … I really don’t know.”
While generic polls currently indicate Democrats have the advantage in winning control of the House, lawmakers are trying not to count their chickens before they hatch.
“A lot could happen between now and Election Day,” said Johnson, the congressman from Georgia.
Many members and aides feel it’s a foregone conclusion that Pelosi would step down if Democrats fail to take back the majority, despite Pelosi’s vow to stay on the Hill as long as Trump is in the White House.
If she leaves, a similar picture would emerge in terms of an open race for top positions, as several aides and members say it would be time to clean house and start fresh with a new slate of leaders at the top.
“If we’re still in the minority” after Election Day, “all of us have got to go,” Clyburn told Politico in April.
But by and large, this is the scenario that no Democrat wants to talk about.
“I can’t even think of not winning,” Pelosi said at a Politico event in May. “You have to believe. You have to believe. You have to believe. You have to believe.”
CNN’s Ted Barrett contributed to this story.