House Republicans are turning to a reliable villain to rev up their listless base: Nancy Pelosi.
Afraid of the ripple effect of President Donald Trump’s early scandals, the GOP is looking to motivate conservative voters by painting all Democratic candidates with Pelosi’s “San Francisco liberal values.” It’s an old standby for Republicans, which they’re testing out again in special House elections in Montana and Georgia, where Democrats are running unexpectedly strong in GOP-friendly districts.
“I think we’ll see if it works. I believe it still works,” National Republican Congressional Committee Chairman Steve Stivers of Ohio said of the GOP focus on Pelosi.
Pelosi remains a deeply unpopular figure among GOP voters. She has only a 14 percent favorability rating with Republicans, according to a Politico/Morning Consult poll released Wednesday. And she doesn’t do much better with independents — just 20 percent of those voters view her favorably.
But in what’s shaping up to be a tough environment for Republicans driven by Trump’s tumultuous administration, some Democrats are starting to think, or at least hope, that the Pelosi-bashing trick might be growing old.
“A national campaign, using her as the boogeyman, I don’t think it’s going to work anymore,” said Rep. Gerry Connolly (D-Va.). “It’s a playbook that worked for them. And people tend to stay with what works until it doesn’t. … But I think it’s a hopeful smokescreen on their part that maybe [they think] will deflect from Trump.”
Republicans have long demonized Pelosi, even before she won the speaker’s gavel in 2006, in a strategy that her supporters say reeks of sexism. But the plan for the most part has been wildly successful, with the GOP controlling the House since 2010 and likely for the foreseeable future. And with Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton gone but Pelosi still House minority leader, she’s Republicans’ primary Democratic punching bag.
This time, Republicans aren’t the only ones tuning in to see whether vilifying Pelosi is still a winning strategy. Pelosi’s caucus, restless after years in the minority under her leadership, is watching what happens now more than ever. And some are already privately demanding change if Democrats don’t pick up one of the special election seats up for grabs.
“There’s a real widespread sense if the Republicans’ only attack on us is Nancy Pelosi, why are we leading with our chin?” said one House Democrat. “There’s a greater and greater sense that it’s time for a change in leadership.”
Pelosi’s advocates say any talk of a change in leadership is minor at most and completely unrealistic. And, they argue, Republicans are only targeting her because they have nothing to show for having all the power in Washington.
“The GOP brand is in tatters, and their top legislative priority, Trumpcare, polls at 17 percent,” said Jorge Aguilar, executive director of Pelosi for Congress. “The tired, rehashed strategy of attacking Pelosi doesn’t work and demonstrates just how bankrupt of ideas House Republicans are.”
While the special election for Health and Human Services Secretary Tom Price’s old seat in Georgia’s 6th Congressional District pits Republican Karen Handel against Democrat Jon Ossoff, Republicans in Georgia and Washington have tried to shove Pelosi front and center, peppering mentions of her name and her picture into paid ads for months.
Republicans have used the Pelosi strategy so frequently that many Democratic strategists working on House races now bake in an assumption that they’ll have to defend against that attack into their initial game plan. And that pattern has continued in the closing days of the race for Montana’s at-large district, which was vacated by now-Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke.
A recent spot run by the Congressional Leadership Fund, the super PAC affiliated with Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wis.), for example, closes by placing pictures of Democratic candidate Rob Quist and Pelosi next to each other.
“Quist doesn’t stand with you, and in Washington Quist would stand with Nancy Pelosi and her liberal, out-of-touch agenda, not Montana,” the narrator says. “You wouldn’t trust Pelosi with your vote. Why trust Rob Quist?”
In a new robo-call running in the state, Vice President Mike Pence also gets in on the action, urging voters, “Don’t let Nancy Pelosi and the liberal Democrats take this seat out of Republican hands.”
One sign outside of Helena even included the words: Quist + Pelosi = GUN CONTROL.
Pelosi has appeared far more than any other national figure in Republican advertising in the two marquee special election races — even though Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders spent the past weekend in Montana campaigning for Quist, and Pelosi’s personal involvement has been minimal. The ads paint her as too liberal and too out-of-touch for the voters in the districts.
And that’s been a cause for consternation among Democrats involved in both campaigns, as well as for those thinking about the party’s broader strategy as it looks to win over the kind of Republican-leaning and independent voters it will need to seize the House in 2018.
Several rank-and-file Democrats said there have been quiet, small-group discussions recently about whether there should be a leadership shakeup ahead of the 2018 midterms, and, if so, when.
Still, it seems unlikely that House Democrats, long publicly resistant to the party change that many privately say is needed, would choose now to turn their caucus upside down.
Even members who say it’s time for a fresh leadership slate — Pelosi and her deputy, House Minority Whip Steny Hoyer (D-Md.), have led the caucus since 2003 — say the intracaucus tensions aren’t as discernible right now. And they’re generally happy with the way Pelosi has challenged Trump, called attention to his potential ties to Russia and united the caucus to fight GOP efforts to repeal Obamacare.
But there is an increasing awareness within the caucus, lawmakers and operatives say, that Pelosi’s image could haunt them in ways it never has before. If Democrats have a real chance to take back the House by making the midterms a referendum on the president — a luxury they didn’t have in the Obama era — could Pelosi stand in the way?
“Watching these specials, I’ve thought the name Nancy Pelosi could be the finger in the dike that prevents a wave from taking over,” said one long-time Democratic consultant. “And I think Democrats are silly not to think that’s an issue.”
The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee declined to comment.
To hear Republicans tell it, using Pelosi as their main cudgel is an obvious play. After Pelosi was reelected Democratic leader, Trump campaign manager Kellyanne Conway tweeted, “What a relief. I was worried they had learned from the elections & might be competitive and cohesive again.”
And since Pelosi is not perceived as a “resistance” figure in the same national way that Obama or Sanders are, tying Democratic candidates to her doesn’t lend them the kind of anti-Trump feeling that might appeal to some women and independents in these suburban districts, according to national operatives and pollsters.
Many Democratic strategists dismiss the idea that Pelosi’s image is a serious drag on the party, noting that Trump is far better known and more controversial, and that Republicans have been running on an anti-Pelosi line long enough that they’ve figured out how to combat it.
“This is what Republicans do because they’re pathetic little frat boys who don’t have policies to run on,” said one Democratic aide.
But within the House Democratic Caucus, some members have grown concerned that Republicans see a chance to replicate their success from previous midterm cycles — chatter that only grew last month after Ossoff missed a chance to avoid a runoff in his race by 2 percentage points, after months of being hammered as a Pelosi lackey.
“We should all be concerned,” said one House Democrat, “that this could be a political liability for us to pick up seats.”
John Bresnahan contributed to this report.