Republicans have repeatedly tried to take down vulnerable Democratic congressmen by linking them to Nancy Pelosi and her liberal politics. It didn’t work in 2006 or 2008.
And yet, Republicans believe 2010 will be the year Pelosi sinks some of her own members.
They’ve used the California Democrat against Rep. Frank Kratovil Jr. in rural Maryland, because he voted with her to pass a climate bill reviled by much of the farm lobby. They’ve run ads featuring her against Blue Dog Democrats, like Rep. Zack Space in economically depressed Ohio, who voted for the Democratic budget last spring. And they think Pelosi will be an albatross for vulnerable lawmakers like Illinois Rep. Bill Foster, a Democrat in a Republican-leaning district who supports Pelosi’s calls to include a public option in the health care plan.
“Pelosi will be used in appeals from Republican candidates in every district,” said David Wasserman, an editor of The Cook Political Report. “In districts where [President Barack] Obama is still above water, she could be the only figure that’s used.”
Conservatives have always hated Pelosi, now the House speaker, who they characterize as a pampered San Francisco liberal with a moralizing streak. And they’ve successfully used her for years to raise money from the party faithful. What they haven’t been able to do is use her to knock off Democrats from conservative districts.
But her low popularity rating, ethical issues of House Democrats and willingness to walk point on the White House agenda have persuaded Republicans to give her top billing in the 2010 elections. Already, a spate of ads sponsored by the National Republican Congressional Committee has linked freshman lawmakers to the San Francisco congresswoman.
Last week, an ad targeting Bill Owens, the Democratic nominee in a New York state special election, said he was “approved by Nancy Pelosi” and touted his opponent as able “to stop Nancy Pelosi. And in August, television ads targeted at vulnerable House Democrats accused them of siding with Pelosi on health care.
“Foster already votes with Pelosi 90 percent of the time, now what do you think he’ll do?” asked the announcer in an August ad targeting Foster for his support of the Democratic health care plan.
Democrats say it’s a tired and ineffectual strategy.
“When Republicans have no ideas and no solutions, they resort to ineffective personal attacks,” said Jennifer Crider, spokeswoman for the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee. “Republicans’ Karl Rove-style attacks didn’t work in 2006, didn’t work in 2008 and they won’t work in 2010.”
Pelosi supporters say that the speaker has been generous in giving her conservative Democrats an escape route, letting them vote against big-ticket items as long as the Democrats have the 218 votes on final passage of major bills.
But hanging the speaker around the neck of targeted incumbents is a tactic lifted straight out of the Democratic playbook. In 1998, Democrats “Newt Gingrich-ed” Republicans by turning the then-House speaker into a symbol of Republican extremism. They picked up seats in those midterms, bucking historical trends.
“Nancy Pelosi is a very polarizing figure, and she is clearly much more well-known today then she was four years ago,” said Carl Forti, a Republican consultant who worked on Pelosi-themed ads at the NRCC in the 2006 campaigns. “She can definitely be used to help indict or impeach Democratic candidates on the issue.”
The attacks on Pelosi could further spook conservative House Democrats, several of whom fear that House leaders haven’t done enough to protect them from taking tough votes on controversial issues like cap-and-trade legislation.
“There’s some members who are frustrated about that,” said Rep. John Yarmuth (D-Ky.). “I think the fact that it looks now like the Senate’s not going to act on energy increases that frustration.”
But conservative Democrats warn that using the general to kill the rank and file — particularly those who haven’t voted in lockstep with party leadership — won’t be easy.
“I’ve been lucky enough to do this for a while, and they have always done that from the day I got here,” said Rep. Gene Taylor, a conservative Democrat from Mississippi. “But if they are trying to link someone who is not linked with someone else, I actually think it backfires.”
And getting voters to turn their ballots into a referendum on the House Democratic leadership might be difficult, as serious issues such as the still-struggling economy, the war in Afghanistan and massive health care reform stay center stage.
“To try and pin all that on Pelosi, I think that trivializes the frustration” of lawmakers, Yarmuth said.
But there is no denying Pelosi has become a divisive national figure. Among the 87 percent of voters who say they recognize Pelosi, nearly 53 percent don’t like her, according to June polling by NBC and The Wall Street Journal. Thirty-four percent say they have a “very negative” opinion of her — a rating that’s 4 points higher than former Vice President Dick Cheney.
“We haven’t had a speaker as well-known or as unpopular as Nancy Pelosi in years and years,” said Republican pollster Whit Ayres.
Democratic aides say that the downturn was fueled by Pelosi’s handling of the torture controversy last spring, when she accused the CIA of lying to her and other lawmakers about its use of waterboarding.
The ethical problems of Democratic Reps. Charles Rangel of New York, and Jack Murtha of Pennsylvania also make Pelosi a greater target.
When Pelosi took control of the House in 2006, she famously promised to end the “culture of corruption” in Washington. She pushed to strengthen ethics in the House, passing legislation last year that created an Office of Congressional Ethics. But the ethical clouds still surrounding key members could damage the party’s brand in the 2010 elections.
“There’s an increasing noise level surrounding both Rangel and Murtha,” said Wasserman, “and that ties back to Pelosi much more than to President Obama.”
In 2006, attacks against former House Majority Leader Tom DeLay finally gained traction when Democrats linked the forceful Republican leader to party ethics scandals. The strategy was clearly aided by the deep unpopularity of President George W. Bush and the Republican brand.
Republicans aren’t yet charting an anti-Obama strategy in 2010, given his relatively high approval ratings, but the GOP believes Pelosi has reached a tipping point with voters.
“President Obama is seen to be in the middle of the road,” said Forti. “But Pelosi has pulled this agenda further to the left, and that’s what puts the Blue Dog Democrats in the GOP-leaning districts in a tough spot.”