The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

The Democrats’ persistent Pelosi problem

House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) speaks at a weekly news conference on June 9. (J. Scott Applewhite/AP)

Politico has a pretty stunning quote about House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) from a fellow House Democrat, following Tuesday's big Georgia special-election loss:

“I think you’d have to be an idiot to think we could win the House with Pelosi at the top,” said Rep. Filemon Vela (D-Texas), who supported Pelosi in her last leadership race. “Nancy Pelosi is not the only reason that Ossoff lost. But she certainly is one of the reasons.”

Yikes. That's a brand of criticism you don't even generally see from any fellow Democrats — much less ones who voted for Pelosi for leader. Clearly feelings are a little raw after Tuesday night. And, not for the first time, Pelosi is finding herself embattled after Republicans successfully wielded her as a liberal bogeywoman.

Vela is right that Pelosi isn't the reason Ossoff lost. She may not even be the biggest reason (there was the conservative lean of the district, Ossoff's residency issues, questions about his message, etc.). But it's also pretty clear — and has been for some time — that in the types of districts Democrats need to win to retake the majority, she is an effective cudgel. And more than that, she's about the only good cudgel Republicans have left right now.

Polls have regularly shown this, of course. But now that President Barack Obama is out of office, Pelosi is really the only game in town for the GOP. And notably more than six years after her speakership ended after the 2010 election, she continues to draw similarly passionate opposition. Republicans drove her unfavorable rating up over 50 percent in that election, and today it remains right around 50 percent.

A Quinnipiac poll last month, in fact, showed exactly 50 percent of registered voters had an unfavorable view of her vs. just 30 percent who had a favorable one. Even among Democrats, about 1 in 5 (19 percent) didn't like Pelosi. And independents were overwhelmingly anti-Pelosi, with 58 percent disliking her and 23 percent holding a positive view of her.

Fox News polled on Pelosi in March, and its survey showed her numbers improving only slightly since her time as speaker, from 24 percent favorable and 56 percent unfavorable in September 2010 to 33 percent and 50 percent today. It also showed 23 percent of Democrats disliked her, with independents opposed 53-21. And fully 36 percent of registered voters had a “strongly unfavorable” view of her vs. just 13 percent who have a “strongly favorable” one.

Those are bad numbers — almost Trumpian. They suggest both that Pelosi hurts Democrats with swing voters and enthusiasm.

And unfortunately for Democrats, the picture is probably even worse in the districts that matter. That's because their path back to the majority runs through districts that lean conservative, just by virtue of how the population is dispersed and the congressional map is drawn/gerrymandered.

President Trump won 230 out of 435 congressional districts (53 percent) and 30 out of 50 states (60 percent) last year. And according to the Cook Political Report's Partisan Voter Index (PVI), there are 241 House districts that are more Republican than the national average vs. just 194 seats that are more Democratic. Republicans won just four districts with a Democratic-leaning Cook PVI in their big wave election year in 2014; Democrats will need to win dozens of GOP-leaning PVI districts to take back the House.

That means, in the districts where this will all be hashed out, Pelosi is probably even more unpopular than those national numbers. And as shorthand for “liberal,” you can't get much better than the House minority leader from San Francisco.

Pelosi's defenders note that other congressional leaders, including Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wis.), have similarly bad numbers, and they argue that Republicans will simply demonize whoever replaces her. And that's true. But Pelosi seems to be uniquely able to fire up the opposition; Fox News's poll showed 53 percent of Democrats have strongly unfavorable views of Ryan, versus 72 percent of Republicans who strongly disliked Pelosi. For another comparison, just 40 percent of Republicans strongly disliked Senate Minority Leader Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.).

“I don’t know what we’d do without Pelosi,” Corry Bliss, executive director of the Congressional Leadership Fund GOP super PAC, told The Post's Mike DeBonis. “I hope she never retires. Another Democratic leader would not start with that level of name recognition.”

The flip side of all of this is that Pelosi is a fundraiser without compare — and that should not be discounted. That matters to helping Democrats win races, too. And on the legislative front, Democrats have hailed her for years as a successful and well-liked leader.

But that's also part of the problem for Democrats: Pelosi is hard to dislodge as long as she wants to stay on as leader. By virtue of the party's minority status, it is actually tilted toward the more liberal wing of the party (i.e. fewer centrist Democrats holding down swingy districts). What's more, she has racked up years of goodwill in the party that's much more hierarchical than the GOP. Members who feel like Vela are still the exception, and there has yet to be a real anti-Pelosi groundswell in the Democratic Party.

Something big needs to change if Pelosi doesn't voluntarily step down. The party took a step in that direction in November when nearly one-third of them (63 in total) voted against her for leader — the most ever. And now Vela's comments suggest the opposition might be growing.

We shall see.