Republicans Put Target on Pelosi in Fight to Control CongressBy and
Minority leader featured more frequently than in 2014 campaign
Some Democrats distance themselves from her this election year
If there’s one person Republican congressional candidates can rally around for their November election campaigns, it’s House Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi.
Much as animosity toward President Donald Trump rouses Democrats, Pelosi is a bete noire for Republicans, who’ve long targeted her as the prototype of a San Francisco liberal. But this year, the GOP is turning it up a notch.
“Nancy Pelosi will be front and center in every competitive race in 2018,” promised Jesse Hunt, a spokesman for the National Republican Congressional Committee.
Pelosi, 78, who hopes to find a way back into the speaker’s chair if Democrats can gain the 23 seats needed to take control of the House, has been pictured or mentioned more than three times as often in broadcast television campaign spots for federal office when compared to the same point in the last midterm campaign four years ago. That’s roughly 7,000 TV ads so far this year, according to data from Kantar Media’s CMAG, which tracks political advertising.
It’s not a perfect comparison with 2014 ago because a special election last month for a House seat in southwest Pennsylvania, one where Pelosi became a major topic, attracted more advertising than typical so early in an election year. Roughly 45 percent of this year’s spots featuring her were played there, with the biggest single sponsor being the Congressional Leadership Fund, a super-political action committee endorsed by House Republicans.
She even figures in Republican primary fights. A challenger running for the party’s nomination against 12-term Republican Representative Walter Jones of North Carolina has also used Pelosi in his ads, as he’s tried to suggest the incumbent is too liberal for the district.
The effects aren’t confined to Republicans. Candidates from Pelosi’s own party from more conservative areas are feeling increasingly emboldened to distance themselves from her amid complaints that she’s overstayed her welcome and is an obstacle to the next generation of Democratic leaders.
Democrat Conor Lamb, who won the special election in Pennsylvania’s 18th Congressional District, forcefully distanced himself from Pelosi during his campaign and said he wouldn’t support her continuing as the Democratic leader in the House. His actions and victory over the Republican candidate in a district that Trump won by 20 percentage points in 2016 may embolden other Democrats to defy her.
Brendan Kelly, who late last month won the Democratic nomination to face incumbent Republican Mike Bost in Illinois’ 12th congressional district, has said he wouldn’t support Pelosi as speaker, should Democrats win the House. Their race in the conservative district is rated as a "toss-up" by the nonpartisan Cook Political Report.
Pelosi’s unfavorable rating has typically been about 20 percentage points higher than her favorable rating in surveys that have measured her standing over the past five years. A Wall Street Journal/NBC News poll conducted March 10-14 found 21 percent of adults have a positive view of her, while 43 percent view her negatively. By comparison, 24 percent viewed House Speaker Paul Ryan, a Wisconsin Republican, favorably and 37 percent rated him unfavorably.
Besides the Pennsylvania special election ads, Pelosi has also been featured in spots sponsored by Americans for Prosperity, a group that’s part of the political network led by billionaires Charles and David Koch. Through April 1, AFP had run 3,428 commercials that mentioned the Democratic leader in the House as part of its attacks two Democrats in the Senate: Claire McCaskill of Missouri and Joe Donnelly of Indiana. They are among 10 Democratic senators facing re-election this year from states Trump won.
“The Koch Brothers are desperate to prop up the Republican majority they bought," Pelosi spokesman Drew Hammill said in a statement.
While not included in Bloomberg’s analysis of advertising in federal races, Pelosi has also made her way into 2018 television spots for campaigns for governor in Texas and Idaho. She also routinely gets mentioned in radio ads and on campaign literature.
How much that motivates Republicans remains to be seen. But it may give more incentive to a group of younger Democrats who continue to try to coax Pelosi to step aside to make room for new blood, even though there’s no obvious replacement waiting in the wings.
In November, Representative Tim Ryan of Ohio won the support of one-third of House Democrats when he challenged Pelosi for leadership. While she maintained support from most Democrats, she’s twice had to defend her position in the past year: after Republicans used her against Democrat Jon Ossoff in a special election in Georgia, and again after Lamb’s win.
“I don’t think he ran against me the entire time,” Pelosi said of Lamb after he won last month’s election. “I think he ran on his positive agenda. I feel pretty confident about my ability to, first and foremost, be a master legislator for the good of the American people. I have proven that.”
Representative Kurt Schrader, an Oregon Democrat and member of the conservative Blue Dog caucus, said he thinks Pelosi is a liability for their party. "That’s been crystal clear," he said. "The Republicans are the ones who are her biggest advocates."
"I’ve got nothing against the leader, she’s a great person, she did a good job, but there’s a time and a place for all of us and it is time to think maybe about moving on," Schrader said. "I think that’s the clear message out there. And I think she’s a team player, she wants to do the right thing."
Defying Pelosi won’t be easy. After 16 terms in office, she’s a skilled politician and prolific fund-raiser who has managed to firmly enforce party discipline on votes in the House.
John Lapp, a Democratic strategist and former executive director the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, said Republicans’ reliance on Pelosi is a sign they’re out of ideas. "That is a stale playbook that didn’t work in the heart of Trump country with the election of Conor Lamb to Congress and it’s not going to work nationally," he said.
Polling shows support from Pelosi does hurt some of the voters Democrats will need in November. A March 15 poll from Morning Consult, found that an endorsement from Pelosi made independents 29 percentage points less likely to back a candidate, and Republicans 57 points less likely.