Republicans say they will seek to tie House candidates across the country to House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), whose leadership of House Democrats has come under new scrutiny following a disappointing special election loss in Georgia.
The GOP made clobbering the California Democrat a central piece of their messaging in Georgia’s recent special election, hammering her almost as much as Democratic candidate Jon Ossoff. With Republican Karen Handel emerging victorious on Tuesday, Republicans are making clear that they’ll stick with this strategy in the 2018 midterms.
“Nancy Pelosi will be front and center in the millions of dollars we’re going to spend over the next two years across the country,” said Congressional Leadership Fund (CLF) executive director Corry Bliss, whose group spent almost $7 million in the Georgia election cycle.
CLF, a super PAC aligned with House GOP leadership, regularly linked Pelosi to Ossoff. After attacking a Democratic candidate in an earlier Montana special election by tying him to Pelosi, CLF followed the same strategy in Georgia, with 10 out of its 14 ads against Ossoff mentioning the minority leader.
Some ads chided her as an emblem of the liberal elite out of step with a traditionally Republican district. Other ads referred to Ossoff as Pelosi’s rubber stamp, or framed her as an outsider trying to manipulate the district, an attack that dovetailed with accusations that Ossoff was an outsider because he lived a few miles from the district lines.
That strategy was directed in no small part by CLF’s internal polling, which found Pelosi’s favorable rating in the district at just 33 percent and her unfavorable rating at 54 percent, according to polling from a week before the election. Her national favorability sits at a slightly lower 29 percent, according to the Huffington Post’s average of recent polling, with a 49 percent unfavorable average.
CLF’s internal polling also found that those attacks stuck with voters. Two-thirds of voters surveyed told the group that they were familiar with the group’s ad “Thank you, Georgia,” which used actors posing as exaggerated stereotypes of San Francisco liberals linking Ossoff to Pelosi.
“This midterm is going to be a referendum on Nancy Pelosi and her San Francisco liberal values,” Bliss said. “That’s what the elections are going to be about … We saw a little glimpse of that on Tuesday.”
The GOP super PAC wasn’t the only group looking to hang Pelosi around the Democratic candidate’s neck in Georgia.
The National Republican Congressional Committee (NRCC) mentioned her or showed her picture in most of its independent expenditures, while the U.S. Chamber of Commerce framed Ossoff as an extension of Pelosi, as well as progressives such as Sens. Elizabeth WarrenElizabeth WarrenWarren, Democrats urge Trump to back down from veto threat over changing Confederate-named bases OVERNIGHT DEFENSE: Joint Chiefs chairman says he regrets participating in Trump photo-op | GOP senators back Joint Chiefs chairman who voiced regret over Trump photo-op | Senate panel approves 0B defense policy bill Trump on collision course with Congress over bases with Confederate names MORE (D-Mass.) and Bernie SandersBernie SandersThe Hill’s 12:30 Report: Milley apologizes for church photo-op Harris grapples with defund the police movement amid veep talk Biden courts younger voters — who have been a weakness MORE (I-Vt.).
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Pelosi has come to encompass a laundry list of attacks Republicans have levied against Democrats over the years, dating back to when their goal was to flip the House and snatch the Speaker’s gavel from her.
“Nancy Pelosi is the gift that keeps on giving. She represents everything wrong about the Democrat Party,” said Andrea Bozek, a former NRCC aide who helped on Handel’s campaign.
“Democrats aren’t going to win elections until they get out of their D.C. bubble, learn to respect all voters and change their failed policies.”
The Democrats’ loss in Georgia, their fourth consecutive defeat in a contested special election, resurfaced questions about whether Democrats can retake the House with Pelosi leading the charge.
Some Democrats, such as Reps. Seth Moulton (Mass.), Kathleen Rice (N.Y.) and Tim Ryan (Ohio), argued that Ossoff’s loss was a wake-up call that Democrats need to do more soul searching and find a message that resonates with voters.
“I think the first step to getting a winning strategy is a change in leadership,” Rice said Thursday on CNN’s “New Day.”
“It’s time for a new generation of leadership in the party … our leadership owes an explanation of what happened, how resources were spent, but also a plan going forward,” Moulton told reporters, according to The Boston Herald.
Republicans have found that attacks on Pelosi pay electoral dividends, arguing that any Democratic candidate, no matter how moderate, will ultimately just be another vote for Pelosi’s agenda.That’s made it difficult for Democrats to win red districts, and it could imperil their chances of retaking the House next year even as President Trump’s low approval rating promises the chance for a Democratic House takeover.
“I think the leader is always going to be attacked, but if you have a polarizing leader who is someone that doesn’t have support of their entire caucus, then that’s where it has a major effect,” said one House Democratic campaign staffer who is open to a leadership change.
The campaign aide also brushed aside the idea that Pelosi’s negatives are outweighed by her strong fundraising chops, noting that similar conventional wisdom led to much of the party falling in line behind Hillary ClintonHillary Diane Rodham ClintonWhite House accuses Biden of pushing ‘conspiracy theories’ with Trump election claim Biden courts younger voters — who have been a weakness Trayvon Martin’s mother Sybrina Fulton qualifies to run for county commissioner in Florida MORE’s failed presidential bid.
“At what point will we say as a party, maybe we shouldn’t defer to the person that’s been around for 30 years?” the aide added.
Smelling blood in the water, Republicans such as Trump and NRCC Chairman Steve Stivers (R-Ohio) have mockingly begged Democrats to keep her on as leader, arguing that Pelosi’s continued leadership will help Republicans keep their hold on government.
But other Democratic leaders aren’t sounding the alarm on Pelosi just yet. Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee (DCCC) Chairman Ben Ray Luján (N.M.) defended the California Democrat’s leadership role fresh off Ossoff’s defeat, declaring that the House is in play in 2018.
“Being leader is a tough responsibility, and there’s no one who works smarter and around the clock than Leader Pelosi,” Luján said in a Thursday conference call with reporters.
And while a few restless Democrats may be openly weighing a new path forward, the DCCC leadership doesn’t appear convinced that the Pelosi attacks cost them special election seats.
“Anyone who is suggesting they know why the outcomes in these specials resulted are making conclusions without data,” Luján said.
“We saw the ugly ads that were run going into that closing weekend — we’re going to try to make sense of what happened.”