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Democrats' leadership vote tells tale of two Americas: Pelosi's and Ryan's

WASHINGTON — Democrats demoralized by the election result faced a symbolism-laden choice Wednesday: Stick with the California progressive stalwart who leads their congressional wing, or replace her with with a man from a working-class Ohio area.

They wound up re-appointing Nancy Pelosi to another term as their leader in the House of Representatives. But the challenge to her reign from Ohio colleague Tim Ryan was like a microcosm of a broader debate within the party.

The dilemma for the Democrats was embodied in the two people running for the leadership — one from the solidly liberal bastion of San Francisco, where they actually improved on their score from 2012, versus one from a formerly solid bastion where the party hemorrhaged votes.

Ryan fell short — getting one-third of the votes Wednesday. He had challenged Pelosi with a clear message: that Democrats need to refocus on bread-and-butter economic issues, after getting electorally clobbered in working-class areas, and among male voters.

Economic opportunity was always central to the party's 2016 platform — but critics on the left say it was too often obscured by less voter-enticing issues such as gun control, climate change, police brutality, and transgender bathrooms.

"We need to talk about economics. It's the issue that unites us," Ryan said after the caucus vote Wednesday. 

"Many of you have heard me say this a million times in the last two weeks, and I believe it in my heart that if we're going to win as Democrats, we need to have an economic message that resonates in every corner of this country."

A look at their two districts — Ryan's and Pelosi's — tells the story of what just happened to Democrats.

Ryan's district contained five of the counties where Democrats lost the most votes in Ohio, compared with 2012. According to a database gathered by The Canadian Press, they saw 80,000 of their voters in these counties stay home, vote for a third party, or switch to Donald Trump.

It's a working-class area on the edge of Appalachia, the mountain range that divides the eastern U.S. with the midwest. It was once filled with steel mills, steel-workers' unions, and Democrats.

Now it has oil fracking — but less steel, fewer union workers, and, lately, fewer Democrats.

Hillary Clinton lost a whopping one-fifth of Barack Obama's voters in these five counties. In fact, Trump's campaign manager told an audience Wednesday that she knew her candidate would win during an event in Ryan's district.

It was Labour Day.

"We show up to the county fair. There are about 80,000-85,000 people there, waiting in the ... hot sun. Shoulder to shoulder, 10 deep. It was astonishing," Kellyanne Conway told the Center for Politics at the University of Virginia.

"That is the day I knew these guys were going to win."

A longtime pollster, she said she was struck by the substantive questions people asked and things they told her at the event: "They'd say, 'Make good on your promises. Bring jobs back to this part of Ohio.'"

Clinton actually won the county — but barely. Democrats used to dominate. In fact, she only gained votes in three of Ohio's 88 counties — in three places where people are 50 per cent likelier to have a bachelor's degree than in Ryan's area, and where the median income is $54,000, compared to $41,000 in Ryan's area.

Compare that to Pelosi's district.

San Francisco is another economic and demographic world. The global capital of hippies and digital startups has median incomes almost double those in Ryan's district. 

According to the database compiled by The Canadian Press, it has one-third the rate of evangelical churchgoers, and one-third the rate of military veterans as Ryan's district.

It's far more diverse, ethnically — the white population in Pelosi's district is about half, versus 80-90 per cent in the counties that comprise Ryan's congressional district.

The Democratic vote did something here that it did very few places Nov. 8 — it grew.

In the two counties in Pelosi's district, Clinton gained almost 70,000 and almost 40,000 votes more than Obama. But as she noted Wednesday. it wasn't enough to make Clinton president.

"My heart is broken that we did not win the White House this time. That is — it's a pain and not for me, personally, but for what it means to the American people," Pelosi said. 

"So I would trade anything not to have this opportunity of (leading the opposition)."

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