Last November, just a couple weeks after Donald Trump’s surprising victory and Democrats less-than-impressive showing in House races, Democrats re-elected Nancy Pelosi as their leader – a post she has held since 2003. While there was a significant bloc of “no” votes – the most ever cast against her – she easily dispatched Rep. Tim Ryan of Ohio with two-thirds of the caucus vote. A number of Republicans, including Trump campaign manager (and now White House aide) Kellyanne Conway, reacted with glee. Republicans have been using Pelosi as the face of liberal, elite and out-of-touch Democrats for years. They were more than happy to know they could continue to use her as a political boogeyman for 2018.
It didn’t take long for the GOP to pull out the Pelosi playbook. Republican businessman Greg Gianforte, who is running in the May special election for Montana’s at-large seat to succeed newly appointed Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke, is up with an ad casting his Democratic opponent – banjo player and rancher Rob Quist – as supportive of “Pelosi’s liberal agenda” on issues like guns and sanctuary cities. As my colleague David Wasserman writes, this race is a long-shot for the Democrats, but has “the potential to get interesting if Democrats are able to cast it as an outsider musician versus a GOP millionaire.” Quist, with a big cowboy hat and mustache, looks like he walked out from a TV western. Yet, the “liberal agenda” ad should serve as a reminder of how difficult it may be for even the most perfectly cast Democrats to escape the “Pelosi label.” This is especially true for candidates like Quist who lack a deep reservoir of name recognition or money.
Democrats are a bit more optimistic about their opportunities in the suburban Georgia 6th district. While former Rep. and HHS Secretary Tom Price easily carried the district, Trump won this well-educated Atlanta suburban district by less than two points. This gives Democrats hope that they can woo Trump-wary GOPers to their candidate, Jon Ossoff, a young former Hill staffer and film-maker. While early GOP attacks have cast him as inexperienced and unserious, we should expect to see the Pelosi attachment begin in earnest in the run-off. Already, says one Democrat, there are online ads calling Ossoff “Pelosi’s hand picked” candidate.
To be fair, both of these districts are heavily Republican and tough for Democrats to win even under the best of circumstances. The Cook Political Report’s Wasserman rates them both as Likely Republican. Yet, it’s also clear that Republicans are trying to use Pelosi as a wedge to pry off soft GOP voters from Democrats. As one Democratic strategist put it, using Pelosi says to voters, “sure you may not like Trump or all that he’s doing, but remember, this [Pelosi] is what you *really* hate.” She signals, said another Democrat with clients in red states, “that nothing has changed for the Democrats.”
Yet, another Democratic House strategist argues that Pelosi will be less of an issue in 2018 than Trump. “I think it’s really hard to make a House minority leader the kind of boogeyman that an unpopular President is.” Moreover, says another Democrat, she remains the most impressive fundraiser in the Congress and “counts votes better than anyone.”
Despite the fact that the president isn’t on the ballot, a midterm election is a referendum on the person in the White House. If you like what the president is doing, you will reward his party. If you don’t, you will take your frustration out on the party. Trump is starting his tenure as the most polarizing president in modern history. And, House Republicans are poised to vote for a health care bill that is, at this point, deeply unpopular. Those powerful factors can more than help negate the “Pelosi drag.”
But, we also know that America is more polarized than ever too, with red and blue lines becoming more hardened every year. Getting a red state voter to support a Democrat – or to stay home and not vote for a Republican – is not an easy thing to do. It’s that much harder when the face of the Democratic party has a unfavorable rating of 49 percent and a favorable rating of just 28 percent. These two special House elections may not be the perfect testing ground for whether Democrats can pick up seats next fall. But, they are a preview of the challenges Democrats – especially those in red seats – will face in trying to convince voters looking for a change from Trump politics to reward a party that presents more of the same.