Midterm Elections

Why Pelosi Is the Republicans' Midterm Target

The nature of the demonization matters.

As a GOP villain, she's no Hillary Clinton.

Photographer: Saul Loeb/AFP/Getty Images

That Republicans are targeting Democratic House leader Nancy Pelosi in their midterm election advertising tells us something. How they target her will tell us far more.

First, it's not entirely stupid to zero in on Pelosi, given a dearth of alternatives. Republicans are facing what will likely be the most motivated midterm Democratic electorate since at least 2006. President Donald Trump's multi-faceted profiteering and demagogy have been driving large numbers of Democrats to the polls in special elections. In the not-at-all-unlikely event that Trump will face more disturbing allegations before November, the effect on independent voters and weak Republican voters could be powerful.

Enter Pelosi. With every indication that the Democratic base will turn out to vent its disgust with Trump, Republicans will use Pelosi -- a poor facsimile of Hillary Clinton but at least she's liberal, female and cosmopolitan -- to generate fear and loathing among their own. "Nancy Pelosi will be front and center in every competitive race in 2018," Jesse Hunt, a spokesman for the National Republican Congressional Committee, told Bloomberg News.

Democrats are correct that this is a sign of weakness. Running against Pelosi is tantamount to an admission that solid GOP control of the federal government has produced nothing to brag about. Pelosi has been featured in about one-third of Republican House ads so far in 2018, far more than in 2016 (9 percent) or 2014 (13 percent).

Democrats could conceivably hand Republicans a better message in the next seven months. The GOP had been hoping that the tax cuts and a full-employment economy would do the trick -- a sensible bet. But that message failed in the House special election in Pennsylvania last month, where Democrat Conor Lamb narrowly won a conservative district. Attacks on Pelosi there similarly failed. "There is no way to escape the simple fact that midterms are about the President and his party," said Pelosi spokesman Drew Hammill in an email.

It's possible the tax-cut message will work better in more affluent districts where the impact on paychecks is more readily apparent. It's also possible that perceptions of the economy will improve, and that Trump and Republicans will gain the credit.

If not, it looks as if Republicans will resort to attacks on a wealthy, liberal woman from San Francisco. But not all attacks are alike.

Earlier this year, the American Action Network, which is funded by the conservative Koch brothers, ran an ad that was squarely in the American political tradition, juxtaposing the miracles of deficit-financed tax cuts with Pelosi's dismissive comments about them. The theme was clear: Pelosi and the Democrats are not on your side. They're cosmopolitan elitists who don't appreciate the value of extra cash in the pockets of hard-working people.

If that's the general thrust of Republican advertising this fall, well, that's politics. 

But in the organizational chart of the GOP, the pinnacle is Trump. And Trump resides outside the traditions of American politics or of any other rules-based system.

His political survival may well depend on Republicans retaining control of the House. As the midterm jitters approach, and the prospect of bad news from special counsel Robert Mueller increases, the president is likely to grow even more agitated. Republicans will feel pressure, from the president and elsewhere, to further abandon democratic norms and embrace Trumpian tactics.

Trump is too chaotic and impulsive to drive an economic message. It's hard to flag your tax cut from the front lines of an incoherent trade war. But he has proved since 2015 that he is a faithful and persistent demagogue. From "lock her up" and "fake news" to his eagerness to damage the owner of the Washington Post, Trump's impulses are consistent. (His role model in Moscow exercises similar urges with an abandon that Trump seems to envy.)

The midterm campaign will tell us how far the GOP is prepared to go in its surrender to Trump's right-wing populism. Republican legislators in Pennsylvania recently responded to a judicial override of their rigged legislative districts by seeking to impeach the judges who unrigged them. Republicans in other states have advanced overt partisan obstructions to voting. They could do far worse in November; polling places in targeted neighborhoods could experience untimely malfunctions or simply shut down altogether.

With rare exceptions, Republicans are not running away from Trump. Nor, at present, are they running on anything resembling an agenda. Demonizing Pelosi confirms that the GOP is wandering lost, but not that it's too crooked to stay within the lines of a democratic contest. The nature of the demonization matters. Pelosi's not one of us? OK, fine. But when the first "Crooked Nancy" ad hits the airwaves, and Trump starts tweeting about locking up the House minority leader, it'll be time to grab your democracy and hold on tight. 

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

    To contact the author of this story:
    Francis Wilkinson at fwilkinson1@bloomberg.net

    To contact the editor responsible for this story:
    Katy Roberts at kroberts29@bloomberg.net

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