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Nancy Pelosi is still the GOP’s favorite bogeyman — even as Democratic candidates inch away from her

No matter who the Democratic candidate is, count on Republicans running attack ads linking them with Nancy Pelosi.

“Angie Craig: Good for Pelosi, bad for Minnesota.”

The ad follows a familiar script: “Nancy Pelosi is determined to be speaker again, and she needs Angie Craig to get there.” Ominous music plays as darkly shaded images of Pelosi and Craig, the Democratic candidate in Minnesota’s 2nd Congressional District, hit the screen. “The Pelosi-Craig agenda is higher taxes, sanctuary cities, and out-of-control spending,” the narrator reads.

“Angie Craig: Good for Pelosi,” the narrator concludes, “bad for Minnesota.”

Versions of this ad, which was run by the campaign of Rep. Jason Lewis, the Republican representing the 2nd District, have appeared for most of the last decade. Copy and paste a different Democrat’s name, face, and home state on this one, and you’d have an ad that’s good to go in dozens of other battleground congressional races in the 2018 midterms.

Presidents, politicians, and hot-button issues come and go, but it seems that one thing remains constant in the biannual war for control of the U.S. House: Nancy Pelosi’s status as an all-purpose bogeyman, someone Republicans turn to time and time again to rile up the base voters who loathe the former Speaker of the House. It’s a strategy many Republicans believe has helped ensure their control of the chamber since 2011, and may help save their majority this November.

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The San Francisco Democrat, who has been in Congress since 1987 and has been Democrats’ House leader since 2003, has long been one of Washington’s most divisive figures: To her detractors, she is synonymous with arrogant elitism and big-government liberalism; to her supporters, she’s an unrivaled political tactician and irreplaceable campaign cash rainmaker.

Democrats in tough races haven’t always embraced Pelosi, but most end up rallying around her at some point. But something is changing in this crucial midterm year: Even as Republicans in Minnesota and elsewhere labor to make her public enemy No. 1 yet again, Democratic candidates are increasingly cold on the prospect of the veteran leader remaining at the helm of the party.

Pawns and rubber stamps

Each Democratic candidate running in a battleground U.S. House district in Minnesota this year has been hit with at least a passing Pelosi-related attack.

Craig, running again in the 2nd District after losing to Lewis in 2016, is getting it from all levels: Beyond the Lewis ad, outside groups supporting Republicans have also worked to link Craig with Pelosi. A flood of social media ads placed by the corporate-backed Business-Industry PAC warn that a Craig victory will mean a return to a Pelosi speakership. “Will Angie Craig vote to increase your taxes, kill jobs, and stall the economy by voting for Nancy Pelosi as Speaker of the House?” one ad asks.

Dan Feehan, the DFL candidate running in the 1st Congressional District, is also being targeted with Pelosi attacks by his opponent, Jim Hagedorn, who charges that Feehan was “hand-picked” by Pelosi to run in CD1.

Feehan is also being attacked by the National Republican Congressional Committee, the GOP’s House campaign arm that has dropped $2.2 million into CD1 against the Democrat. One online ad, placed by the NRCC, describes Feehan moving from Washington, D.C., where he worked for the Barack Obama administration, to southern Minnesota so he could run for Congress. As an image of Feehan moves across a map of the U.S., from D.C. to Minnesota and then to California, the narrator intones that Feehan is “bankrolled by Nancy Pelosi and her California friends because [he] will support their tax-and-spend liberal policies.”

To a lesser extent, the DFL candidates in Minnesota’s 3rd and 8th Districts, Dean Phillips and Joe Radinovich, have been tarred as pawns for Pelosi. A spokesperson for the Republican National Committee, Preya Samsundar, said in a statement earlier this month that Phillips will be “another rubber stamp for Nancy Pelosi’s obstructionist agenda.”

Dan Feehan, the DFL candidate running in the 1st Congressional District, is also being targeted with Pelosi attacks by his opponent, Jim Hagedorn, who charges that Feehan was “hand-picked” by Pelosi to run in CD1.
The Congressional Leadership Fund, a GOP super PAC that has spent some $4 million on ads against Radinovich, said after his primary win that he would “continue his tax-and-spend ways by being a rubber stamp for Nancy Pelosi’s extreme, liberal agenda.”

Even President Donald Trump has tested out the Pelosi line of attack, and he did so against an unlikely target: DFL Rep. Collin Peterson, running for a 15th term in the 7th District, which went for Trump by some 30 points in 2016. In a tweet backing Peterson’s challenger, Dave Hughes, Trump called Peterson a “Pelosi Liberal Puppet” — though Peterson votes with House Republicans more often than some Republicans do.

Time for ‘new leadership?’

Putting pressure on Democratic candidates to answer for Pelosi is a key part of the GOP strategy. Increasingly, though, Democratic candidates are answering in a way that candidates have been reluctant to in the past: that they support new leadership in the party. That shift reflects a desire to blunt the GOP’s attacks, but it also suggests that support for the longtime Democratic leader may be waning among the party’s next generation.

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Phillips, the gelato entrepreneur and distilling dynasty scion running against GOP Rep. Erik Paulsen, had his views on Pelosi put in the spotlight in a New York Times story from March about upstart House Democratic candidates who are less enthusiastic about the prospect of her continued leadership of the party.

Featured alongside Pennsylvania Rep. Conor Lamb, whose victory in an intense special election earlier this year was helped by his refusal to back Pelosi, Phillips called for a “new generation of leadership” for Democrats in Congress. (To date, at least 60 Democratic candidates for House have echoed this call.)

A spokesperson for Craig, meanwhile, said the Democratic candidate is “open to new leadership in the House and will make a decision after all candidates have announced, in order to best reflect the needs and interests of the Minnesotans she will represent.”

“If he is fortunate enough to be elected,” a spokesperson for Feehan said, “any individual running for speaker is going to have to show him that they are committed to serving the people of southern Minnesota and that they have a vision for moving this country forward on critical issues that impact all of us.” (Radinovich’s campaign declined to elaborate on the candidate’s stance on Pelosi.)

To Republicans, though, it doesn’t matter if the Democrats they link to Pelosi are strong supporters or if they’re lukewarm on her. What makes Pelosi such a powerful presence in Republican messaging is that she is an extension of the liberal policy agenda on immigration, health care, and taxes, said Courtney Alexander, spokesperson for Congressional Leadership Fund.

“The reality is, they will support her agenda,” Alexander said of Democratic candidates. “That is what is a motivating factor to voters.” She said that Pelosi is the most toxic politician in the country, and claimed Republicans and Democrats alike see her as the embodiment of everything that’s wrong with the Democratic Party.

“It’s very telling how deeply unpopular she is in her own party, the extent that these candidates have scrambled to walk this tightrope,” she said.

That Pelosi can be so directly tied to major liberal policy initiatives such as the Affordable Care Act — which she passed as speaker — along with liberal reforms on immigration and other key issues is at the heart of what makes her so useful in GOP attacks, says Jim Cottrill, a professor of political science at St. Cloud State University.

“She kept her party together, which neither John Boehner or Paul Ryan has been able to do, to get things done,” he explained. “Part of the danger, as a Republican voter, is not only will she push for the things you don’t like, she may get them done.”

That approach may explain the increased dissent against her coming from the party’s younger guard, Cottrill says. “She’s seen as establishment, willing to compromise — she’s not going to push for the progressive option no matter what. Liberal as Pelosi is, she’s a realist, which you have to be as a leader.”

Cottrill also argued that, with Obama out of the White House and Hillary Clinton off the political stage, Pelosi — who has very high name identification and is, per most polls, less popular than liberal figures like Sen. Bernie Sanders — is more useful than ever. “They always have to have someone to hang around Democrats’ neck,” he said.

Worth the trouble?

Pelosi may be a crucial feature of Republicans’ strategy to keep control of the House, but she’s also playing a more important role than ever in Democrats’ efforts to take control of the chamber.

She has long been known as a prolific fundraiser, but Pelosi’s rainmaking pace for the 2018 midterms has been staggering: As of this week, she had personally raised over $120 million for Democrats this cycle.

Whether they like Pelosi or not, each of the Democrats running in Minnesota’s battleground races has been helped by her considerable fundraising apparatus one way or another. Most of the money Pelosi has raised has gone to the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, House Democrats’ official campaign arm, which has made it a priority to support each of the DFL candidates in Minnesota’s battleground races. Beyond the DCCC, Pelosi’s House Majority PAC is bankrolling ads backing Phillips, Craig, and Feehan.

Craig was the only one of the DFL challengers in Minnesota to get support from Pelosi’s personal PAC, which cut her campaign a $10,000 check. Phillips is the beneficiary of $900,000 in spending in media on the CD3 race by House Majority PAC. Radinovich has not received any money from Pelosi, nor has House Majority PAC spent on the CD8 race yet, though the DCCC has spent $1.2 million there.

These four DFL candidates, who range in age from 32 to 49, might exemplify a generational divide when it comes the question of who should be leading congressional Democrats. Pelosi, who has been the House leader for 15 years, is 78; her two lieutenants, Rep. Steny Hoyer of Maryland and Rep. Jim Clyburn of South Carolina, are 79 and 78, respectively.

Their grip on top positions is a cause of concern for many within the party, who worry that it has prompted ambitious, younger Democrats to leave Congress to take on bigger roles. If Democrats do win the House on November 6, Pelosi ascending to the speakership is a likely scenario, but not a sure thing. (In the 2017 leadership elections, she beat back a challenge from Ohio Rep. Tim Ryan, who nevertheless was supported by a third of the Democratic caucus, including Rep. Tim Walz.)

The long lead-up to these midterms has been filled with debate in opinion pages and magazines about whether Pelosi is “worth the trouble,” as she put it last year — that is, whether her fundraising and legislative acumen helps Democrats more than her divisive profile hurts them in elections. She certainly seems to think so: “If I weren’t effective, I wouldn’t be a target,” she said in a recent TIME Magazine profile.

Ultimately, as effective Pelosi historically has been as a GOP bogeyman, it’s unclear how much she will influence an election poised to be dominated by the most divisive figure in Washington: President Trump. “It could be the point where it’s diminishing returns,” St. Cloud State’s Cottrill says. “I don’t know if Republicans are scared enough of Pelosi to say, I gotta get out and vote.”