Did Nancy Pelosi cost Elizabeth Colbert Busch a victory?

May 8, 2013

The Fix and the Post's Paul Kane have been longtime friends -- and email exchangers on all things politics. We decided -- in homage to Bill Simmons and Malcolm Gladwell -- to start publishing some of our email back and forths.  (Our first on President Obama's relationship -- or lack thereof -- with Congress is here.)

Today we take on the question of how much (or little) House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi hurt Elizabeth Colbert Busch's chances of winning Tuesday's special election in South Carolina.

FIX: If Nancy Pelosi stepped down as Minority Leader in late 2012, is Elizabeth Colbert Busch coming to Congress right now?

PK: Huh, let me think more about her stepping down, but first, man, I really thought this had been put to rest after 2010. Then Sanford rode an anti-Nancy wave to victory. Wow. Pelosi is still unpopular by every polling metric -- but the intensity has died down. As the Post/ABC News poll found on the eve of the 2010 midterms, 47% of voters had a "strongly unfavorable" view of Pelosi. That's an astounding number -- just 12% had a "strongly favorable" view.

You and I have long believed, in congressional politics especially, it's the most heated partisans who have outsized influence. Back then Dems estimated that more than 200,000 negative Pelosi ads ran, to great success and +63 seats for Rs. Then, in 2012, largely out of view in a presidential cycle, she wasn't really a factor and Dems picked up 8 seats. What I can't tell is, did Sanford show us that heading into 2014 that Republicans can use Pelosi as their national bogeyman again? Or did it just prove that in a district where voters gave Mitt Romney nearly 60% of the vote -- not at all where the battleground is expected next year -- that Pelosi is wildly unpopular?

FIX: Ok. To answer that question, I am going to go back 10 days ago. That was the point where Sanford was flailing wildly in the wake of allegations he had trespassed on his ex-wife's property. It was bad. How bad? He was taking out full page ads in local newspapers trying to explain himself.  Then, all of a sudden, he started appearing on the campaign trail with a life-sized cutout of Pelosi.  (BuzzFeed did a great piece on Sanford's love of props.) And he started to get his mojo back. (I can't believe I just used the word "mojo".)

Sanford focused relentlessly on how Colbert Busch was a rubber stamp for Pelosi and the national Democratic agenda in the final week of the campaign. Asked on Tuesday about the key to the race, Sanford said: "What I would say is that if there was turning point in this election, it was me standing on the side of the sidewalk with a Nancy Pelosi cutout having a debate we weren't able to have in the first district."  He's right.  Without pivoting to that message of bashing national Democrats, the race stays focused on Sanford's less-than-appealing personal life. And he probably loses.

The key question in all of this is whether Sanford could have/would have been able to make the national Democratic argument as effectively if Pelosi wasn't the face of House Democrats.  Can you demonize Steny Hoyer? Ot Jim Clyburn? I guess you can try but no one knows who either of them are — or, at the very least, they are way less well known than Pelosi nationally. I know for a fact that some Democratic strategists were hoping that Pelosi stepped aside after 2010 and 2012 for just this reason — because they knew she gave Republicans such an easy target to nationalize House races.

What say you?

PK:  I agree with the micro-level analysis of what Pelosi meant to this particular race, she provided that pivot point and, yes, if it were Minority Leader Hoyer instead, we would have had a nail-biter race or Sanford might have lost.

The macro issue is, will that same anti-Pelosi message play in a lot of other districts in 2014? That’s where I differ, and that’s where I think it didn’t make much difference whether she stayed or left. The GOP ran the “Fire Pelosi” campaign to a "T" in 2010, and there just aren’t many seats left for them to go after next year in which a message largely focused on Pelosi and her liberal ways will sway undecided voters.

Consider: Dems hold just 7 seats that are Bush-McCain-Romney seats. That's 7 districts that went for the GOP presidential nominee in the last 3 POTUS contests. Beyond those 7 seats, the Rs aren’t playing a lot of offense. And a brand new Democratic challenger, who has never served in the House with Pelosi, is going to be very difficult to tie to the minority leader in a swing district where the voters have become post-ideological, post-partisan cul-de-sac folks just looking for results.

Finally, for an anti-Pelosi campaign to really have any resonance, in the battleground swing districts, not ruby red ones like SC-1, the House will have to be in play and the specter of Speaker Pelosi will have to be viable. In an environment where the Ds really have a legit shot at claiming the majority, yes, an anti-Pelosi campaign could have an impact in a few races. I just think Rs would prefer to not be in that position!

All this does point to a fascinating question that I’ve not yet addressed: when does Pelosi retire?

FIX: Oh, good one! Let's review my history of prognosticating on the Pelosi retirement question. In the aftermath of the 2010 election where she went from Speaker to Minority Leader in a single day, I told anyone who would listen that she would retire. Wrong.  After the 2012 election, where Democrats picked up a few seats but didn't come close to retaking the majority, I said she would retire. Also, wrong. So, whatever I predict I think should be used as a guide for what won't happen.

I think what kept Pelosi in office after 2010 and after 2012 remains true. She doesn't believe anyone else can raise the sort of money and lead the House caucus in ways that will allow them to get back to the majority.  And, given that she has swamped anyone who tried to challenge her (or even thought about it) after the last two elections, I tend to think she's right.

Agree? Disagree?

PK: Totally agree as to why she has stayed. Look, the reality is that for the roughly $180m the DCCC raised in the ’11-’12 cycle, Pelosi had a hand in 40-45%. In some way, shape or form. The liberal donor base adores her, still, and there is simply no one in the caucus who can step into those shoes. Not Hoyer, not [Chris] Van Hollen, not [Steve] Israel, not [Debbie] Wasserman Schultz.

She has more energy and raises more money than most of those folks combined. Her members know that, too. Yet many Dems privately believe that Pelosi’s presence has stunted the growth of the House Dem Generation Next. At some point these younger folks have to be taken off their training wheels and given control, for new ideas and a different energy to form. Some smart Dems simply believe that Pelosi has reached a point where, whenever she goes, she wants the entire troika of 70-somethings  – Pelosi, Steny and Clyburn – to retire at the same time. She has never said that directly to Hoyer and Clyburn, as best I can tell, but it’s what other Dems think.

When will that happen? Gosh, I just don’t know. The smartest words that I wrote in 2012 were these, the night before she announced her intention to stay put: “Guessing Pelosi’s intentions has been a fool’s errand for Democrats for years."

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Sean Sullivan · May 8, 2013