WASHINGTON — On Capitol Hill, the elections produced one clear winner: House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, the San Francisco liberal whose relationship with a new crop of conservative Democrats will go a long way toward determining her success in the 111th Congress.
With at least 19 freshmen joining the Democratic caucus, Pelosi will have more power than any speaker of the House of Representatives has had since 1994, when Republicans seized control under Newt Gingrich. With Pelosi's increased clout, however, will come a big test of her leadership skills.
Pelosi's major challenge will be to make peace between her party's often-impatient left wing and the more moderate freshmen who won in Republican-leaning districts. At the same time, there'll be new orders coming from the Obama White House.
"She has a president who's dictating her agenda," said Thad Kousser, an associate professor of political science at the University of California-San Diego. "She's not the leader of her party anymore."
Never miss a local story.
In her first post-election news conference, Pelosi said that House Democrats and President-elect Barack Obama shared many of the same priorities: expanding the economy, improving education and health care, ending U.S. dependence on foreign oil and bringing troops home from Iraq. She tried to lower expectations, however, much as Obama has done.
"I think it's important for the American people to know that many of our options have been diminished because of the downturn in the economy in the last couple of months," Pelosi said. She stressed that she'll pursue a centrist agenda, saying, "A country must be governed from the middle."
Pelosi will "have the blessing and the curse of a much larger majority," said Larry Sabato, a political scientist at the University of Virginia. He said that most of the House committee chairmen were "heavily liberal" and would be at odds with many members who were elected in 2006 and this year.
"That's a tough combination," Sabato said. "It will require a lot of negotiation and intra-caucus skill. . . . The curse is that large majorities tend to be very quarrelsome. Majorities always break down over time."
Many of the more conservative Democrats who ran for Congress made a point of distancing themselves from Pelosi.
In her first two years as House speaker, the hard-charging Pelosi pushed through an overhaul of ethics rules, the first increase in the minimum wage in a decade and a $700 billion bailout for Wall Street.
She quickly became a lightning rod. On the left, she was criticized for not backing the impeachment of President Bush and for allowing a ban on offshore oil drilling to expire. On the right, she was criticized as a partisan hack who threw bricks at Republicans instead of negotiating with them.
At the same time, the 68-year-old Pelosi developed a reputation as a shrewd leader who found maneuvering room in the center. She showed particular deftness in wooing conservative Blue Dog Democrats, working with them to pass a pay-as-you-go budgeting plan that forces any new spending plans to be offset by tax increases or spending cuts elsewhere.
Republicans, however, often felt alienated. Many House Republicans were particularly irked when Pelosi gave a speech in September denouncing Bush's economic policies just before the first vote on the bailout for the financial industry. The bailout was rejected. While the bailout was approved on a second vote, critics blamed Pelosi for fueling partisan resentments.
House Democrats passed a long list of bills that had the speaker's backing in the 110th Congress. Among them: increased vehicle fuel-efficiency standards, tax incentives for renewable energy, an expansion of college aid and the Head Start early-education program, an economic stimulus that sent rebates to 130 million families and mental-health "parity" legislation aimed at ending discrimination against patients who seek treatment for nonphysical ailments.
Pelosi boasted that she led the way in tightening ethics laws. However, her critics said she failed to do enough to rein in spending on earmarks, the pet projects that benefit individual members of Congress.
In the last two years, Kousser said, Pelosi's task was to let left-leaning voters know they'd made the right decision by backing the party's candidates in 2006. Now, he said, her task is to convince the public that Democrats won't take the country too far to the left.
If voters perceive that that's happening, he said, they'd want to "put the brakes on" and elect more Republicans to the House in 2010, just as they did in 1994, two years after President Clinton was elected.
"Now her challenge is not with her base, but her challenge is defending these Republican-turf seats," Kousser said.
Pelosi, the highest-ranking woman in U.S. political history and the first Californian to become the speaker of the House, got an early start in politics: Her father was the mayor and political boss of Baltimore.
Then she married a real estate investor and stayed home to raise their five children.
She began flirting with politics much later, and won a vacant congressional seat in 1987. Representing one of the safest Democratic congressional districts in the country, Pelosi won her 12th term Tuesday with 72 percent of the vote. She's the sixth-wealthiest House member, with a fortune estimated at $62 million.
She's had a tough line to straddle. In Washington, Republicans routinely hold her up as a prime example of left-wing tax-and-spend politics. In San Francisco, however, some of her opponents say she's too conservative and too beholden to corporate interests and no longer represents the city's values.
Antiwar activist Cindy Sheehan, an independent candidate who ran against Pelosi this year, assailed the speaker for continuing to fund the war in Iraq. Sheehan's stance resulted in high-profile endorsements from such Hollywood stars as Sean Penn, Martin Sheen and Roseanne Barr.
On Capitol Hill, House Republicans gave Pelosi a daily drubbing this year, blaming her for rising gasoline prices — they called it the "Pelosi premium" — because of her initial resistance to offshore drilling. In one of the few big victories for Republicans, Pelosi finally gave up, allowing a ban on offshore drilling to expire on Sept. 30.
In the waning days of the presidential race, John McCain and other top Republicans portrayed Pelosi as a leftist bogeywoman as they warned of the possibility of one-party rule in Washington. McCain said the Democratic trio of Pelosi, Obama and Democratic Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid of Nevada would constitute the most liberal leadership in history and would "raise taxes, increase spending and concede defeat in Iraq."
While Pelosi's star has never shone more brightly in Washington, her leadership hasn't impressed voters in her home state. A Field Poll earlier this year found Californians giving Democratic Sens. Dianne Feinstein and Barbara Boxer favorable ratings, but only 30 percent approved of Pelosi.
"It's very hard to be a speaker and be popular," Kousser said. "People hate Congress, and you're the face of Congress. That's a tough trick."
MORE FROM MCCLATCHY