Ex-football pro Heath Shuler hopes to sack Nancy Pelosi

Rep. Heath Shuler of North Carolina is sounding out a challenge to Nancy Pelosi as Democratic leader in the House. It's a long-shot effort, but reflects some party members' unease with Pelosi.

By , Staff writer

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    Rep. Heath Shuler, D-N.C., greets supporters at his campaign's election return party in Asheville, N.C., Tuesday, Nov. 2, 2010. Shuler challenged Rep. Nancy Pelosi as Democratic leader in the House of Representatives.
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It looks like soon-to-be-ex-Speaker Nancy Pelosi has a challenger to her position as head of beleaguered Democrats in the House of Representatives.

It’s Rep. Heath Shuler, a relatively conservative lawmaker from North Carolina who avoided the Election Day ouster suffered by many “Blue Dog” Democrats trying to hang onto their seats in red districts where tea party-inspired Republicans were victorious.

“It will be very tough,” Shuler acknowledged to the Clay County Progress newspaper in his home state. “It is probably a race we can’t win. But we need a moderate voice in the Democratic Party.”

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He’ll no doubt elaborate when he appears on CNN's "State of the Union" Sunday and then on MSNBC's "Morning Joe" on Monday. But he’s right about his chances of ousting Pelosi.

The first woman to hold the most senior position in the House, Pelosi is acknowledged to be one of the most effective Speakers in congressional history – both in terms of organizing her party’s troops and in getting her agenda passed.

But that also made her a big, fat political target for Republicans (and especially tea partyers), for whom “Fire Pelosi” became a campaign rallying cry.

Some moderate-to-conservative House members have privately said they’d prefer a less politically-toxic minority leader to bring them back from the wilderness. But most senior House Democrats have lined up behind her, and the party avoided an in-house fight between Reps. Steny Hoyer and James Clyburn over the number two slot by creating a new position for Clyburn, making him the third-ranking Democrat in the House behind Pelosi and Hoyer.

On Friday, 31 female House Democrats endorsed Pelosi. In a “Dear Colleague” letter they wrote: “At a time when the incoming Majority is expected to threaten the progress we have made for women and families, we need Nancy Pelosi as Democratic Leader to help us stay unified and fight back.”

Still, many Democrats are uneasy about Pelosi’s announcement that she intends to run for party leader in the House when members vote this coming week.

“Sometimes in this business it's difficult to know when to move on," Rep. Albio Sires (D) of New Jersey told Fox News. "With all the losses that we had with governors and all the redistricting that's going to be done, we don't need the target.”

"This is very disappointing for a lot of us in the center,” Rep. Dan Boren (D) of Oklahoma told Fox, expressing the need for “someone to lead the party who is going to be bipartisan.”

Pelosi herself doesn’t see it that way. On National Public Radio she said:

“The reason they had to try to take me down is because I've been effective in fighting the special interests in Washington, D.C. I'm also the most significant attractor of support for the Democrats…. My motivation for running [to be minority leader] is to be in the strongest possible position to create jobs, to continue the work we did in the previous administration, to preserve Social Security, to protect what we did for health care reform and Wall Street reform.”

Most Democrats in the House apparently agree, but Rep. Shuler is angling for a challenge in any case.

Shuler, who’s 38 years old, is a relatively junior lawmaker, having served just two terms before his recent reelection. A stand-out college quarterback at the University of Tennessee who came in second in the vote for the Heisman Trophy in 1993 and was a first-round pick in the 1994 NFL draft, Shuler had a relatively brief professional football career that was largely unsuccessful.

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