It is no secret that the Republican strategy to keep the House in 2018 includes running against Democratic House Leader Nancy Pelosi.
Both the National Republican Congressional Committee and the Congressional Leadership Fund super PAC have run television ads during special elections this cycle linking Democratic nominees to Pelosi, and GOP strategists are gleeful when they talk about the Democratic leader’s baggage and their intention to use her in their TV ads.
The strategy is a reasonable one. After all, when a president is as unpopular as Donald Trump, the best strategy for the president’s party is to try to make the election a referendum on someone or something else. Moreover, it’s usually easier to motivate voters to turn out against a villain than it is to generate enthusiasm about your own incumbent’s accomplishments and promises.
Pelosi isn’t the first House speaker to become the target of the political opposition.
In 1980, congressional Republicans ran a now-famous television ad that argued “the Democrats are out of gas. Vote Republican for a change.” The spot featured an actor who looked like House Speaker Tip O’Neill. Less than two decades later, Democrats were running against Speaker Newt Gingrich.
Pelosi’s poll numbers are mediocre at best, with anywhere from one-quarter to one-third of voters saying that they have a favorable view of her. In contrast, about half of respondents have an unfavorable view.
For some, Pelosi is a “San Francisco liberal” who represents everything wrong with the left, from culture and values to taxes and government spending.
But Pelosi’s ideology and longevity are not the only reasons her poll numbers are bad. In an article last June, The Washington Post’s Philip Bump noted that the poll numbers of other legislative leaders, including John A. Boehner, Paul D. Ryan and Mitch McConnell, were also terrible. He explained that their ratings tanked when they moved into the congressional leadership.
Will it work?
Still, it is far from clear that running against Pelosi this year will be effective among voters who matter, no matter how bad her numbers are and no matter what a handful of special elections showed in 2017.
Pelosi is the House minority leader at a time when Republicans control the House, Senate and White House. She is a public figure, certainly, but her role is not particularly high profile now, and she has little power on Capitol Hill. Trump, in contrast, dominates the political stage and occupies the most powerful position in the government. Given that, it will be challenging for Republican nominees around the country to make the midterm elections “about” Pelosi.
Trump’s ratings generally are no better than Pelosi’s. In the Jan. 13-17 NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll, only 36 percent of respondents said they had positive feelings for Trump, while 56 percent had negative feelings. (Obama’s ratings were 57 percent positive and 29 percent negative.)
Moreover, it’s surely the case that the voters with the strongest dislike for Pelosi are conservative Republicans, who have disagreed with her on politics and policy for decades and who are among the president’s strongest supporters. They are likely to turn out and vote Republican whether or not Republican campaigns feature Pelosi in TV spots.
Weaker partisans, swing voters and less ideological voters are less likely to be strongly anti-Pelosi, and it is difficult to believe that they will see the midterm election as a choice between Trump and Pelosi rather than as a referendum on the president and his party.
Who’s being judged?
History, after all, strongly suggests that midterms tend to be referenda on the man in the White House, not on House minority leaders.
In the last 80 years, the president’s party has gained seats twice in midterms — once after the Sept. 11 attacks and once in 1998, when Republican legislators invited a backlash by ignoring public opinion and doggedly pursuing Bill Clinton’s impeachment even though most voters had a very favorable view of the president’s job performance and opposed impeachment.
Instead of gaining a handful of House seats, as was expected, the GOP lost a handful of seats during Clinton’s second midterm, when the president was on the defensive because of the Lewinsky scandal. Republicans unwisely made the midterms about impeachment.
Republicans’ best chance for maintaining control of the House this November rests on a combination of events and circumstances, including nasty Democratic primaries that produce weaker nominees, Republican candidates’ efforts to localize their races, and developments that energize the GOP or depress Democratic turnout.
Running against Pelosi could fit into that equation, but it is difficult to imagine that it would move the needle significantly.
Note: This column first appeared in Roll Call on February 21, 2018.