By Aaron Blake
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, October 12, 2010; 8:44 PM
With three weeks to go until Election Day, national Republicans are flooding the airwaves with a simple message: The Democratic candidate running in your district is just like Nancy Pelosi.
In addition, more than 70 percent of the 108 ads the committee has run have featured the House speaker in some way - with an unflattering photo, a reference to how often an incumbent has voted with her or a mention of Democratic legislation with Pelosi's name attached to it.
Republicans are betting heavily on Pelosi's unpopularity with voters. A recent Associated Press poll put her favorable rating at 33 percent, with 56 percent of respondents viewing her unfavorably.
The NRCC has already spent $20 million on ads out of the $45 million it plans to spend. Pelosi has made more unflattering appearances in Republican ads this campaign season than President Obama has.
But it's not clear that tying candidates to the speaker will sway voters. Democrats tried to do the same thing with then-House Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.), whose approval ratings during the 1996 and 1998 elections were about as low as Pelosi's are today.
"We seemed to get sucked into using him as the foil, and I can't remember winning one race attacking Gingrich," said Democratic pollster John Anzalone. "Of course, you did not have a bad economy."
Still, Democrats picked up seats in 1996 and 1998.
Many of the current attack ads paint Democrats as spineless followers of Pelosi's agenda. The NRCC is running the spots even against open-seat candidates who have little connection to the speaker.
"These campaigns are ultimately being framed around the issues of jobs and the economy, but the speaker serves as a reference point for how often a Democrat has voted to either ignore those issues or make things worse for middle-class families," said NRCC spokesman Paul Lindsay.
Democratic strategists say they are surprised that Republicans are putting so much effort into vilifying Pelosi. They note that the GOP failed to tie Democratic nominee Mark Critz to the speaker in a special House election in Pennsylvania in May.
Even so, Democrats in tough districts have done their best to distance themselves from their party's leadership. Relatively few of them mention Pelosi in their own ads, and when they do, it's often to criticize her.
An ad by Rep. Jason Altmire (D-Pa.) features voters saying that he is "not afraid to stand up to the president . . . and Nancy Pelosi." Rep. Joe Donnelly (D-Ind.) notes in one spot that he "voted against Nancy Pelosi's energy tax," while in another he disparages the "Washington crowd" as a picture of Pelosi, Obama and House Republican Leader John A. Boehner (Ohio) flashes on the screen.