Adam Schiff is trying to be House Democratic leader


The shadow campaign to lead House Democrats next year has been underway for months — and in many ways years — as a new generation of leaders quietly makes a play for the top positions. But an eleventh-hour push by Rep. Adam B. Schiff (D-Calif.) in recent weeks has taken Democrats by surprise and raised questions about how the caucus wants to mirror the diversity that makes up its party’s base.

Schiff, who gained attention investigating Russia’s involvement in the 2016 election before leading the first impeachment of President Donald Trump, is exploring a bid to lead the House Democratic caucus if Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) retires after the midterm elections, according to more than a dozen House members and top aides who have spoken directly with the congressman.

This account of Schiff’s recent efforts is based on interviews with eight lawmakers and 18 staff members and lobbyists familiar with leadership dynamics, all of whom spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss private conversations.

If he can amass enough interest in his candidacy, Schiff would upend a race that was considered largely set, challenging a variety of Democrats gunning for the top spot, including possibly Majority Leader Steny H. Hoyer (D-Md.) and Rep. James E. Clyburn (D-S.C.) and Rep. Hakeem Jeffries (D-N.Y.), who has positioned himself among members as Pelosi’s heir apparent and represents a new generation of Democrats.

Schiff’s overtures, which began in earnest earlier this year, have focused on consolidating support among his home base, the expansive California delegation, according to members of that group. And though he has not made an explicit ask for endorsements, he is gauging members’ interest and planting the seed that leading the caucus is his goal.

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Schiff has also reached out to members in a variety of key blocs in the vast Democratic caucus, including the minority tri-caucuses made up of the powerful Congressional Black Caucus, the Congressional Hispanic Caucus and the Congressional Asian Pacific American Caucus. He has also reached out to the ideological factions within the Democratic caucus: both the large Progressive Caucus and the centrist New Democrat Coalition, of which he is a member, according to several people with knowledge of the outreach.

The jockeying for leadership roles comes as House Democrats are eager to take the party into the next generation, satisfying an increasingly restless progressive base while pushing back against a more conservative, but divided, opposition intent on payback for the treatment of President Donald Trump.

The debate inside the caucus mirrors the sentiment of many Democratic voters who are demanding a younger and more diverse leadership structure in the party — a tension that flared during the 2020 Democratic primaries and is resurfacing as President Biden’s poll numbers slide. Schiff, 62, represents the kind of leader many Democrats have urged the party to move beyond: older, White and in politics nearly three decades. Both Jeffries and Clyburn are Black and members of the Congressional Black Caucus, though Clyburn is older than Schiff.

Schiff’s trial balloon has been met with surprise and skepticism that he could earn enough support to win, according to several lawmakers. Jeffries, for example, has spent years assembling broad support among the House Democratic caucus.

“I told (Schiff) I thought it would be a difficult thing because of the lead that Hakeem has,” said one member of the California delegation, who had spoken with Schiff.

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And while the California delegation is a powerful bloc, often sticking together in party leadership votes, its response to his outreach has been tepid, according to several members. Several are unsure Schiff can make the necessary inroads.

“I am with Jeffries and have been for quite some time,” said a second member of the California delegation, who noted they admire Schiff and think he has been a fantastic member. “This puts me in an awkward place.”

No one interviewed expressed outright support for Schiff. However, every member thought while leadership might not be the right place, Schiff deserved a prominent position within the party.

Lawmakers and staff members who had communicated with Schiff or his office also noted they were not explicitly asked for support in their conversations.

When asked about Schiff’s desire to seek the top spot in leadership, spokeswoman Cate Hurley said his “time and energy are focused” on reelecting Democrats.

“Chairman Schiff is doing everything possible to support vulnerable Democratic colleagues and promising challengers so that we can retain the House Democratic majority in November,” she added. Schiff declined to be interviewed for this story.

House Democrats continue to say privately that they believe a new generation of leadership should come to the forefront. Jeffries, 51; Assistant Speaker Katherine M. Clark (D-Mass.), 59; and Democratic caucus vice chair Pete Aguilar (D-Calif.), 43, are considered the leadership trio in waiting, given they are all young, have served in Congress for less than a decade and all belong to minority caucuses. (Jeffries is Black, Clark is a woman, and Aguilar is Hispanic and previously represented a battleground district).

Schiff’s pursuit of leadership was a topic of conversation this past weekend at a Congressional Black Caucus fundraiser in New York City, according to multiple people in attendance. One person said lawmakers, including several from the New York and California delegations, were “infuriated” that anyone mulling a run for leadership would consider splintering the caucus.

“Anyone whose strategy is that they’re going to split the CBC is going to fail,” the person said.

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The CBC is well aware that for the first time in its history it can elevate the first Black leader of any party in either chamber of Congress. Members have received the signal that Jeffries would want the top spot, but the CBC also would honor and equally support Clyburn in whatever position he may seek, according to people familiar with the group’s thinking.

In an interview with The Washington Post earlier this year, Clyburn said that while becoming speaker “was not on his radar,” he was not necessarily going to step away from seeking a higher position and dismissed accusations of ageism, noting that leadership needs to have “a healthy balance of strength and experience.”

There is an acknowledgment, however, that a Clyburn run for the top spot could divide caucus allegiances. But the CBC does “not believe we’ll lose to Adam Schiff,” one person familiar with the group’s thinking said.

Schiff’s strategy to ascend to leadership is based on the assumption that Pelosi would step down as speaker at the end of the year, a promise she made members when she ran for the top job two years ago. Yet she has spent this term deflecting questions about when she would retire, with those closest to her often reminding that she has never declared a decision before an election takes place.

“The speaker is not on a shift, she’s on a mission,” Pelosi spokesman Drew Hammill said, refusing to weigh in on Schiff’s exploration.

Hoyer has long aspired to replace Pelosi and is not deterred by members once again calling for younger, more diverse leadership, according to people close to him. He told The Washington Post in February he hopes colleagues recognize his service to the caucus over the decades and would reelect him to leadership.

Hoyer and Clyburn are in their 80s and have been in the top three positions since 2006. By testing the waters of support among his colleagues, Schiff is skirting what has been broadly viewed as the order of succession.

“I think it’s very, very difficult to go from outside the leadership position to jumping everybody,” said a person familiar with the inner workings of the caucus. “That is a dynamic that would be hard for any politician. But I think there’s no question that if Schiff thinks he can take the top spot or even the top two or three, I don’t think there’s any question his math is complicated, if not impossible.”

Several members and aides also expressed hesitation that in running for the top spot, Schiff is jumping over another Californian, Aguilar, who has worked to amass support for a potential leadership bid with Jeffries and Clark. Aguilar also has the support of many within the Congressional Hispanic Caucus, a group that would like to elevate him and potentially a Latina into the leadership ranks.

Schiff is a prolific fundraiser, which is a necessary requirement for the leader of the party. He has hired political fundraiser Bruce Kieloch, whom Pelosi uses for the House Majority PAC. He has $19 million cash on hand in his personal campaign account and his leadership PAC has raised $7 million this year for candidates and the DCCC, according to FEC filings.

Schiff is battleground chair of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, but members have been seeing an uptick in Schiff’s activity on the fundraising circuit, where he has visited vulnerable incumbents’ districts and helped the challengers in the group’s program for candidates trying to unseat Republicans.

In one recent campaign swing, Schiff rapped for Rep. Daniel Kildee and Hillary Scholten in Michigan, Rep. Angie Craig in Minnesota, and Rep. Cindy Axne plus two Democratic challengers in Iowa, according to his Facebook page. He is heading to Nevada next week, multiple lawmakers said.

House Democrats are noticing. One House Democrat said his fundraising numbers are “pretty impressive.”

Schiff, they say, believes he is more experienced than other colleagues who are seeking leadership positions, having served in the House since 2001. And they note he is extremely close with Pelosi, a fellow Californian who has repeatedly placed Schiff in prominent positions, a sign that she trusts him.

And Schiff is looking for a place to go as the end of his term as House Intelligence chairman approaches. Not only is he term-limited as chair, but a Republican would lead the committee if they win back the majority. Furthermore, Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) has promised to remove Schiff from his committees as payback for Democrats’ stripping two of his own from their assignments.

Lawmakers also said Schiff has mused about one day running for Senate, which has made some skeptical that he would stay in the House long term if he were to land somewhere in the leadership hierarchy.

People who have spoken to Schiff about his ambitions acknowledge he has done a tremendous amount for the party, including leading the Russia investigation, impeachment and the Jan. 6, 2021, investigation, and note he is battle-tested against Trump and his allies. He is a constant presence on cable news, serving as an effective attack dog defending the party.

Several Democratic members said they are thankful for the intense work he has put in over the years, but note a leadership position takes a different type of work: years of visiting member districts, fundraising on their behalf, countless dinners with colleagues, getting to know the names of spouses and children, and learning a member’s struggles and strengths.

While voters have no direct say in who will make up House leadership, members said they are taking into consideration the demands of their constituents and a desire to move beyond the typical top-down legislating style that has become commonplace over the past several decades.

But Schiff’s high profile that has garnered him support among the progressive base has also worried Democrats that he can drag the party down as an easily recognizable face for Republicans to target.

“We are all very grateful for what he has done and what he continues to do,” one Democratic lawmaker said, “but it’s been more of a high-profile political role than what we may need to knit the caucus together.”