The Democrats have little say in the agenda of the Republican-run House, and no dispassionate expert predicts the party will win control in the November elections. More likely is a Republican House majority for at least three or four more elections.
That should be a prescription for chaos, despair and money woes for Democrats. Instead, the minority party in the House is unified and dominating the fundraising war with Republicans.
The explanation: Rep. Nancy Pelosi of California. The 74-year-old Democratic leader's political skills and instincts, toughness and prodigious fundraising abilities have kept her party's spirits higher than expected.
"I've never seen any leader like her; she's at it 25 hours a day," says California Representative Henry Waxman, who is retiring this year after 40 years in the House.
"She has kept our caucus together," says Maryland Representative Chris Van Hollen, a leader-in-waiting. "We are much more unified than the Republicans."
At the start of this Congress, Republicans thought they could pick off a few Democrats to retain some tax cuts for the wealthy; Pelosi held her caucus together, and the Republicans capitulated. She did the same with the farm bill when conservatives tried to reduce spending for food stamps. On immigration, the united Democratic front prevented Republicans from passing watered-down bills -- to their detriment.
It hasn't been easy. House Democrats are a disparate lot and feel little affection for the White House. Nonetheless, they rally behind their leader.
Pelosi "has a unique ability to reach out and listen to the caucus," Van Hollen says. "She then translates that into action and positions to forge consensus."
Two assets make her leadership easier. One is the behavior of Republicans, who gin up Democrats when they shut down the government, cut programs for the poor or go after the president. Democrats have taken delight in the recent chatter among a few Republicans about impeachment.
Pelosi is a fund-raiser extraordinaire, which endears her to her members. The San Francisco Democrat has raised $396 million since she joined the leadership ranks less than 12 years ago.
House Democrats have outraised House Republicans $125 million to $101 million in this cycle. Pelosi herself has brought in more than 35 percent of that, traveling to 58 cities so far.
She draws on money-raising skills she developed in the 1980s, before coming to Congress, when she was chairwoman of the California Democratic Party. She takes pride in the fact that Washington's K Street lobbying corridor isn't part of her fundraising foundation. Instead, her base includes California, a gold mine, and she has energized liberal activists all over the country. Nobody plays the Republican threat better.
Led by President Barack Obama and Minority Leader Pelosi, the Democrats are winning the battle for small donors. In this cycle, the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee has raised $51 million from small donors (those who give $200 or less), almost triple the small donations to the rival Republican committee.
Republicans complain that Pelosi is an unyielding partisan. She is, but there is little to suggest that a more yielding minority leader could deal with the hard-line House Republicans.
She was House speaker during the Democrats' debacle in the 2010 elections; only someone who commanded intense loyalties could have survived. Now Pelosi, who looks and acts about 20 years younger than she is — Van Hollen says she is "a whirlwind of action on the policy and political front" — can stay on as leader as long as she wants. She's one of the few who believe the Democrats might take back the House this year.
As the first female speaker, she became an historic figure, paving the way for Obama's 2008 victory and playing a pivotal role in the passage of the Affordable Care Act. In some ways, her performance when her power is diminished and her party is struggling is what's equally impressive.