Speaker Nancy Pelosi haunted vulnerable Democrats for much of the past year, and now that she’s been elected as the party’s House leader once again, defeated Members considering another run worry that ghost will linger.
Pelosi this year headlined Republican stump speeches and starred in conservative attack ads on television screens from Georgia to Nevada as a symbol of all things wrong with Washington, D.C. The California liberal was an unwelcome symbol for Democrats in Congressional contests across the South, but Pelosi’s shadow extended even into the trenches of the deep-blue Northeast. Republicans demonized the Speaker in New Hampshire state Senate races against candidates who had never even met her.
Foes and allies alike now say Pelosi is a consideration as they shape their own political future, even as they field recruitment calls from the White House. Some ousted Democrats went further, stating that her role as Minority Leader — cemented in Wednesday’s Democratic Caucus meeting — makes them less inclined to run in 2012.
Blue Dog Rep. Bobby Bright told Roll Call that for “everybody that lost,” Pelosi’s continued leadership would be a consideration.
“It was a major issue in my district. In fact, it was the only issue. So yeah, it would be a major factor for me to consider if I did come back,” said the Alabama Democrat, who lost his re-election bid and has yet to decide whether to run again.
Before the election, Bright became the first incumbent Democrat to say publicly he would not support Pelosi as the next Democratic leader. He ran ads touting his opposition. But Rep.-elect Martha Roby (R) still hammered his vote in favor of Pelosi for Speaker in January 2009.
In New Hampshire’s 1st district, Rep. Carol Shea-Porter (D) lost a battle against Frank Guinta (R), who featured Pelosi in multiple attack ads.
“I am considering running again,” she told Roll Call this week, confirming that President Barack Obama called her campaign shortly after the loss. She also allowed that Republicans effectively used Pelosi to beat Democrats in races across the Granite State.
“I think it was really awful the way so many of these dirty money groups pounded her, and pounded us with her,” she said. “It was to the point where they even put her in ads for New Hampshire state Senate candidates who had never met her. It was abusive and dirty politics.”
But Shea-Porter, like other Pelosi allies, did not discourage Pelosi’s move to secure the House Minority Leader position for the next Congress. And she suggested that conservative groups were seizing on sexism to fuel the anti-Pelosi sentiment.
“Does it mean they were so dirty we can never put a woman in a position of leadership? No, I don’t think that’s the right response,” Shea-Porter said. “I think the response is you stand up there and say, ‘Look, attack her on issues, that’s fine. Attack any one of us on issues, that’s democracy. But when you’re putting her in New Hampshire Senate lit when she doesn’t have any issues there, there’s another force at play.’”
Republicans are showing little sign of backing off a tactic that contributed to historic gains in the 2010 cycle. The Republican National Committee, which did a “Fire Pelosi” bus tour this summer, hung a large red banner with that message on the RNC headquarters across from the Capitol South Metro station all summer. When Pelosi announced her bid for the Minority Leader spot, they swapped it out for a “Hire Pelosi” sign.
The National Republican Congressional Committee declined to comment on Pelosi’s election Wednesday, but NRCC spokesman Ken Spain referred back to a press release saying “the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again, and expecting a different result.”
The release quipped his party is “happy to oblige” Democrats if they are “willing to sacrifice more of their members in 2012 for the glory of Nancy Pelosi.”
Don’t put ousted Florida 2nd district Rep. Allen Boyd in that category. Boyd said keeping Pelosi as the face of the party would discourage defeated Members to run again and scare off strong new candidates.
“At some point you have to put your personal agenda and ambitions aside for the good of the country,” Boyd said of Pelosi. “The truth is Nancy Pelosi’s season has passed.”
Defeated 10-term Rep. Gene Taylor (Miss.) faced near-constant criticism for his ties to Pelosi even though they were on opposite sides of the political spectrum. His Republican challenger, Rep.-elect Steve Palazzo, used C-SPAN footage of Taylor’s 2009 vote for Pelosi as Speaker on his campaign Web site.
Taylor, who rarely voted with Democrats on major issues, said he probably would not consider running again, in large part because of the potential drag of Pelosi and Obama.
“It was bad enough, and she wasn’t even on the ballot,” he said. “She was obviously a factor. I just don’t think I want to be on the ballot with Barack Obama in Mississippi in 2012.”
National Democrats may not be rooting for Taylor to try again. Regaining seats such as Bright’s and Taylor’s in the deepest red districts in the South won’t be easy, which is one reason the White House and others are reaching out to New England Members who lost and looking toward close races to try to persuade defeated Democrats to mount comeback bids.
This cycle, a number of defeated Republican House Members did just that, launching renewed bids for seats they lost in 2006 in a Democratic wave as they had to run from their party’s own unpopular leader, President George W. Bush. The Republicans returning to Congress include Reps.-elect Tim Walberg (Mich.), Charlie Bass (N.H.) and Steve Chabot (Ohio).
A CNN poll released earlier in the week found Pelosi’s favorable ratings at 33 percent, with 52 percent of respondents holding an unfavorable view. It’s worth noting that she is the best-known and most popular Congressional leader in the poll, which set favorables for Speaker-designate John Boehner (R-Ohio) at 30 percent, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) at 28 percent and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) at 26 percent.
Other Members acknowledged that Pelosi’s status matters to their re-election prospects.
Unsuccessful Senate candidate Rep. Brad Ellsworth said Pelosi was absolutely a factor in his defeat, judging by the ads seeking to tie him to her. The Indiana Democrat said his decision to run for his old seat could also be affected by whether she stays or goes.
“You’d have to determine you could overcome that,” he said.
Pelosi was defiant as she emerged from the Democratic Caucus meeting Wednesday afternoon, having secured the Minority Leader position with a 150-43 vote.
“I feel confident,” she said, flanked by a familiar leadership team. “And I’m so proud of our Members, and so many of them have said to me that they want to keep the door open to running again and to work with this leadership team.”
Rep. Christopher Murphy (Conn.), who helped head up the House Democrats’ incumbent retention efforts this past cycle, largely dismissed Pelosi’s negative impact on recruitment.
“I think whoever was in the leadership of the Democratic Caucus was going to become a flashpoint,” he said. “Most Democrats are not going to be irrelevant over the next two years, but they are certainly not going to be the focus of attention like we were for the last two years. So no. I’m not convinced that the leadership of the House minority is going to make or break our chances in the next cycle.”
Steven T. Dennis and Anna Palmer contributed to this report
Sen. Jeff Flake, R-Ariz., takes a selfie with his cut-out head during the Hoops for Youth 16th annual charity basketball game held at George Washington University's Smith Center, September 8, 2014. The members of Congress team beat the lobbyist team 46-40. Buy photo here.