GOP sees Pelosi as Dems Achilles’ heel

June 10, 2009

While President Obama enjoys sky-high approval ratings, Republicans are refocusing on a familiar Democratic target: House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (Calif.).

The San Francisco lawmaker has long been a GOP punching bag, but as polls suggest more Americans are paying attention to the highest-ranking House member, Republicans hope they can use Democratic policies that have met with widespread opposition for political gain.

“As we look at key swing districts, we’re continuing to find her numbers are not only bad, but there’s a sense that she’s the embodiment of the San Francisco liberal agenda,” said Guy Harrison, executive director of the National Republican Congressional Committee (NRCC).

Last week, the NRCC launched automated calls in Iowa districts held by Democratic Reps. Leonard Boswell, Bruce Braley and David Loebsack when Pelosi stopped in Des Moines for a fundraiser.

Later, the NRCC issued a press release criticizing Democratic Reps. Tim Walz and Keith Ellison for attending a Minnesota fundraiser with the Speaker, hitting the two for accepting money she raised as cap-and-trade legislation moves through Congress. Republicans have framed the bill as instituting a national energy tax.

“She is in charge of the House, and obviously she has essentially more power than Obama does on most of these issues,” Harrison said. “She is pushing her agenda through. She is pushing the national energy tax when others in her party are asking her not to. She is really the power source on this.”

With Obama’s approval rating hovering near 60 percent in most polls, Republicans have been largely unable to land blows on the president, even for policies the public finds unpopular.

But Pelosi’s poll numbers are much weaker. A May 29-31 Gallup poll taken for USA Today showed just 34 percent of Americans had a favorable impression of the Speaker, and 50 percent had an unfavorable view. A Research 2000 poll for Daily Kos had similar bad news, with Pelosi sporting 30 percent favorable ratings and 58 percent unfavorable.

“The majority of people are opposed to her. President Obama will not be on the ticket in two years,” said Rep. Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.), who is heading the NRCC’s recruiting drive. “The head that will be on the ticket will be Nancy Pelosi.”

But Democrats and independent observers say there is little historical precedent for a Speaker of the House being a drag on the ticket. Ex-Rep. Martin Frost (D-Texas), who ran the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee for two cycles in the 1990s, could think of only two instances in which Speakers had been a major part of a party’s campaign efforts — in 1982, when the GOP ran ads targeting then-Speaker Tip O’Neill (D-Mass.), and in 1998, when Democrats went after Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.)…

… Rep. Tom Cole (R-Okla.), the veteran Republican strategist, said attacks against Pelosi would work because the Speaker is a “revolutionary,” like Gingrich,  who helped guide her party back to the majority, a position that engenders divisiveness.

“If you’re a storm-the-gates kind of figure, you’re going to make a lot of enemies on the other team,” Cole said. “I think she’s pretty easily now a target, and there are vast parts of the country where she is not a political asset. The best part about a disaster is you can take it anywhere.”

Democrats pointed out the attacks on Pelosi have been tried in the past, and they haven’t worked.

“When Republicans have no ideas and no leadership, they resort to personal attacks,” said Jennifer Crider, Pelosi’s political director. “Republicans’ tired and unimaginative personal attacks didn’t work in 2004, didn’t work in 2006, didn’t work in 2008, and they won’t work in 2010.”

Pelosi’s hometown gives Republicans at least some way to insinuate the top Democrat in the House is out of touch, Frost said. GOP talking points frequently refer to Pelosi’s “San Francisco values.”

“They’re trying to say there are a lot of gays out in San Francisco. They’re trying to invoke prejudice against gays,” Frost said.

But asked what “San Francisco values” are, Harrison offered a different take. The phrase “gives us an opportunity to define where the House Democrats are going,” he said. “That is the center for liberal values, so I think it’s one of the ways we can talk about where the Democrat Party is trying to take us: toward more government, more welfare, a control-and-command economy.”

“If her numbers remain that low, she will be a slight drag on Democratic candidates,” said John Pitney, a political scientist at Claremont McKenna College. “People have only a vague idea of what a Speaker does and how the job relates to their own House member.”

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But, said Pitney, harping on Pelosi can bring Republicans two things their party is hard-up for these days: cash and excitement.

“The real impact will be on Republican activists, contributors and core voters. In politics, you need a good enemy,” Pitney said. “Because of President Obama’s overall popularity — and because they fear charges of racism — Republicans are reluctant to go after him on a personal level. Speaker Pelosi is a better political target.”

“The primary audience right now is Republicans themselves, so they can regroup and are ready for next year,” agreed Todd Myers, a Republican consultant in Washington state.

“Republicans are rallying together, realizing that we’re not dead, that we do have an alternative,” Myers said. “Nancy Pelosi is emblematic of why that’s so important.”
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