WASHINGTON (AP) -- Nancy Pelosi enters the House Democratic leadership elections on Wednesday in an unusual position: She's running unopposed.
This was not the plan from Pelosi opponents who vowed to usher in a new era for Democrats. But one by one, the powerful California congresswoman picked off the would-be challengers and smoothed the skeptics. In the end, there was no one willing, or able, to mount a serious campaign against her.
Pelosi still lacks the vote tally she'll need in January, when the new Congress convenes, to actually become the House speaker. Democrats are retaking majority control but could face a floor fight as opponents vow to try again to topple her. But after Wednesday's internal caucus election, she'll likely have another job qualification to impress on Democrats weighing their choices. She'll be the only one who ran for, and won, the nomination for speaker.
"You can't beat someone with no one," said Rep.-elect Jahana Hayes, D-Conn., who explained in a statement that she came to Washington eager to hear from colleagues and "hopeful that many candidates would step up to the plate."
But "the only person that declared their intentions, spoke to me about their vision and asked me for my vote is Nancy Pelosi." The newly-elected freshman said she'll be voting yes.
In fact, the Democrats are poised to return their entire top leadership team, including Rep. Steny Hoyer of Maryland in the No. 2 spot as majority leader and Rep. Jim Clyburn of South Carolina as the whip. They are running unopposed.
Plenty of newcomers are set to fill the down-ballot slots, also being decided Wednesday, in closed-door voting that could stretch on for hours.
Those trying to oust Pelosi say they always knew the internal caucus election would fall in her favor. She only needs a simple majority of Democrats, who have a 233-seat majority, with several races still undecided, to win the nomination. But she'll need 218 votes in January, half the full 435-seat House, which is harder, if all Republicans vote against her, as is likely — though she could win with fewer votes if some lawmakers are absent or vote present.
Rep. Kurt Schrader, D-Ore., downplayed the significance of Wednesday's caucus vote and said the true fight for House speaker will occur in January.
"We're not going to make a big play of it," he said. "It's Jan. 3."
Several factions within the Democratic caucus in the House are working against Pelosi, but they have failed to gain ground in recent days.
One group led by Rep. Seth Moulton of Massachusetts, Rep. Tim Ryan of Ohio and Rep. Kathleen Rice of New York has stalled with a letter once signed by 16 Democrats, almost all men, opposing Pelosi, but some have dropped off. They hoped to add more.
Some are among about a dozen freshmen who had said they want new leadership, but others didn't sign the letter, aides said. And another group, the Problem Solvers Caucus, adds eight more Democrats who say they won't vote for Pelosi for speaker unless she agrees to procedural changes for bringing forward bills and legislation.
Together, that's more than enough votes to stop Pelosi in January. Some say only with a floor fight in view will new leaders emerge. They say there are plenty of Democrats on the bench who could step up to the job.
But Pelosi's ability to stand unopposed Wednesday, despite the threats from within and reams of attack ads against her, shows the staying power of her brand of machine politics.
The first woman to wield the speaker's gavel, from 2007 to 2011, when Democrats last held the House majority, she is poised to return to a role few men have had twice — most recently, legendary Speaker Sam Rayburn a half-century ago.
Between now and January, Pelosi will be working the levers of power by doling out the many committee seat assignments, subcommittee chairmanships and other perks she is able to offer, or withhold, as incentives to win over supporters.
Late Tuesday, Rep. Josh Gottheimer, D-N.J., a co-founder of the Problem Solvers Caucus, said in a statement that his group met with Rep. Jim McGovern, D-Mass., a Pelosi ally, who is the incoming chairman of the Rules Committee, as they seek specific changes to the legislative process. Gottheimer said that they had an "encouraging and productive meeting" and that the group looks forward to continuing the conversation.