The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Republicans don’t think targeting Nancy Pelosi is the way to defend their House majority – yet

House Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi addresses delegates on fourth and final day of the Democratic National Convention at Wells Fargo Center on July 28, 2016 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. / AFP PHOTO / SAUL LOEBSAUL LOEB
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Six years ago, when she was still speaker of the House, Nancy Pelosi’s advisers estimated that she starred in roughly 200,000 ads by Republicans tying their opponent to the unpopular California Democrat.

Pelosi was the Democrat that Republicans most loved to hate, and their relentless campaign in the summer and fall of 2010 left her brutally unpopular, helping the GOP sling-shot to a 63-seat gain that delivered them back into the House majority.

These days Pelosi has drifted from the spotlight, barely a supporting character in GOP attack ads as Republicans focus most of their fire on Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton and President Obama. The obvious omission shows Republicans believe that Democrats still don’t have a realistic shot of capturing the House majority — catapulting Pelosi back into the speakership — even as they hedge their bets with Donald Trump at the top of their ticket.

Take the latest ad from Sen. John McCain’s campaign, in which the Arizona Republican goes after “liberal Ann Kirkpatrick” for her support of Obama. Pelosi is almost faded out of the commercial, standing next to Obama and cheering as he signs the Affordable Care Act into law.

[Pelosi’s national popularity plummets as 2010 elections loom]

Instead, the more typical ad from the independent expenditure unit of the National Republican Congressional Committee is the recent one run against Emily Cain, the Democratic nominee to take on freshman Rep. Bruce Poliquin (R-Maine). The 30-second spot shows Clinton and Cain’s images on screen most of the time, listing several positions that the two share.

“Emily Cain, she sides with Hillary, not us,” the narrator says.

Now that Democrats are beginning to talk about a wave big enough to win the House majority, some Republicans have begun to ponder whether to bring back the anti-Pelosi, more nationalized approach to their campaign. After a Washington Post story raised the possibility of Democrats winning back the House, the NRCC sent out a few dozen carbon copy releases challenging Democrats to say whether, should they win the majority, they would vote for Pelosi as speaker.

“These Democrat candidates are essentially campaigning on the promise of giving Pelosi, one of the most toxic political figures in recent cycles, the speaker’s gavel again, yet find themselves afraid to publicly express their implicit support,” the NRCC releases said.

[Nancy Pelosi wants the speaker’s gavel back. And she needs Hillary Clinton’s help to do it.]

But there’s still hesitancy to take the focus off of Clinton, according to Rep. Greg Walden (R-Ore.), chairman of the NRCC. “Pelosi is very unpopular in the districts where we need to be competitive, as is Hillary, frankly,” Walden said Wednesday.

“In a presidential year the nominees are always the big objects in the room,” Walden added, saying that he expects each Republican incumbent to hone his or her campaign message to what suits their district best.

Pelosi’s defenders believe that any discussion of renewing the political assault on Pelosi is part of an effort by Republicans to avoid the taint of Trump, whose unpopularity in key suburban districts has made Democrats more hopeful of securing the majority at any point since 2010.

“House Republicans have nothing to show for themselves except for the extreme, toxic rhetoric of Donald Trump, which they themselves have stoked for years,” Drew Hammill, Pelosi’s spokesman, said.

The difference between now and 2010 is one of stature and the complexity of a midterm campaign versus a presidential contest.

[Can Democrats ride an anti-Trump wave to retake the Senate and the House?]

In 2010 Pelosi commanded the stage on the health-care debate, becoming such a focal point that over the March weekend when the House passed the ACA, thousands of tea party activists gathered outside the Capitol chanting “Nancy, Nancy” over and over again.

While Obama’s own approval rating dipped badly, his personal favorable ratings held up better. He was more difficult to demonize, a historic figure as the first black president. Pelosi relished her role as liberal icon from San Francisco, and Republicans seized on it, making her a co-star — if not the lead — in the ads run that year.

A Washington Post-ABC News poll, on the eve of the 2010 midterms, put Pelosi’s favorable rating at 29 percent while 58 percent of voters viewed her unfavorably. Moreover, independent women viewed the first female speaker unfavorably by a 2-to-1 margin.

“She was the face of that,” Walden said, noting that after six years as minority leader Pelosi does not occupy the same stature. “It’s different today.”

To be sure, Pelosi is not a popular figure. She does not appear in public with Democrats in key races, sticking to the closed doors of fundraising rooms because she remains able to effectively tap wealthy progressive donors.  In a recent online pitch to donors, Pelosi’s aides raised the specter of “a new round of attacks on Nancy” as a way to spur contributions.

The problem is playing out in Minnesota, where last month, The Post’s Dave Weigel found two widely touted Democrats who were fearful of saying whether they would support Pelosi for speaker in the traditional first real vote of the new Congress.

“My mind would be open,” Angie Craig, the nominee for a suburban district outside the Twin Cities, told Weigel. At a debate in a neighboring district state, Sen. Terri Bonoff (D) found herself on the defensive when Rep. Erik Paulsen (R) called her a “Nancy Pelosi” recruit.

“I’ve never said that,” said Bonoff. “I did not talk to Nancy Pelosi during that period when I was considering running.”

Walden dismissed the Democratic talk of there being up to 80 House seats in play because of Trump’s unpopularity. “They’ve been banking on an anti-Trump vote since January,” he said. “I’m seeing the data, and the data don’t show any kind of a wave, and in fact our members are pretty strong in the polling.:

There is one way that Pelosi’s supporting role might be elevated, and that’s if Trump’s support craters and the contests for president and control of the Senate are a forgone conclusion.

“The notion that the Democrats could take the Senate and the White House and then put Pelosi back in as speaker of the House is not very palatable to most of the voters in the districts we care about,” Walden said. “There are a lot of voters that remember what it was like when there was no check and balance and Democrats had a free run.”

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