Is Nancy Pelosi all she’s cracked up to be or a political conundrum? I’m not talking about her control of the House Democratic Caucus or her ability to raise enormous sums of money for House Democratic candidates. She seems to have a pretty good track record in both areas.
I’m talking about the nearly legendary notion in the GOP consulting community that Pelosi is the gift that keeps on giving to Republican candidates and campaigns.
For decades, many Republican congressional candidates have been guided by consultants with a one-page playbook — go negative, early and often. Given her ideological prerogatives and penchant for rhetorical missteps, Pelosi has always been the easiest of subjects for the negative-campaign crowd.
How effective negative campaigns are or have ever been is open to debate. But there is increasing evidence that tying candidates to Pelosi as a campaign tactic may not have the impact needed to bring a race home for Republicans. Just ask Rick Saccone, the losing GOP candidate in the recent special election in Pennsylvania’s 18th District, whose campaign tried to tie Democrat Conor Lamb to Pelosi.
The former speaker is a known commodity to voters, with her unfavorables coming in at nearly 60 percent. They may love her in California and New York’s Upper West Side, but the majority of America isn’t nearly as keen on the House minority leader as her liberal elite supporters in and out of Congress.
Anti-Pelosi rhetoric and negative advertising still stir the GOP base, and perhaps the specter of another Pelosi speakership will send some on K Street heading for their checkbooks to get behind Republican PACs. But Pelosi’s value as a political target may have come and gone, or at least reached a point of diminishing returns, especially with independents who tend to decide elections these days.
In our most recent “Winning the Issues” survey, we asked voters what would matter more to them in deciding their vote for Congress this fall — a candidate’s position on Pelosi or a candidate’s position on the tax cut plan and how individuals are benefiting. The tax cut beat out Pelosi 73 percent to 12 percent.
Last month, Business Insider ran a piece on Pelosi’s continuing political viability and the impact on House races in the unlikely event she stepped down. The gist of the piece argued that life without the controversial leader would be an election nightmare for Republican consultants who depend on liberal Democratic boogeymen to serve as foils in most campaigns.
Without Pelosi, one GOP operative suggested to the news site, “the chances of Republicans retaining their majority in the House would evaporate.” Another said it would be a “concern throughout GOP campaigns who use her polarizing status as a pillar of their attack ads.”
I found neither of these comments to be the least bit surprising. It’s the lens through which many political strategists see the political landscape. But it’s becoming increasingly clear that relying on typical negative campaigns featuring Pelosi or Chuck Schumer or George Soros or the next negative target du jour is not going to be enough to reliably carry the day for Republicans.
Democrats also seem to have wised up to an electorate that is demanding more issue specificity from those who want to represent them.
“We can’t just run against Trump. We’ve got to be for something” has been a frequent Democratic talking point in recent months. Actually, they’re right and I don’t say that very often. It’s a lesson too many Republicans failed to learn during the two terms of Barack Obama.
Pushing your ideas
My argument with political consultants on both sides for many years has been based on one fairly simple question: As a political party, what is our product? For most consultants, instead of promoting what we’re for, the political product has been relying on over-the-top, accusatory ads that paint the opponent somewhere between Karl Marx and Darth Vader.
In contrast, what do I think the political product should be? The candidate’s ideas.
What the Pennsylvania special election should have taught us is that candidates who have something substantive to say that connects with voters and addresses their concerns can weather negative attacks based on tenuous connections to liberal partisans like the House minority leader.
Pelosi may still provide Republicans with a strategic opportunity, however. She seems determined to take on the GOP tax cuts — a substantive policy area that matters to people — with an evolving criticism of the Republicans’ signature legislative achievement.
She’s called the tax cut bill “crumbs” and said it was “undermining American democracy.” She’s called it “unpatriotic” and “pathetic” and promised that if Democrats win back the House, “It may have to be a ‘replace and repeal’ — replace [Republicans] and repeal the bill.”
The Democrats’ idea of an alternative to the Republican tax bill? Last month, they proposed raising taxes by $1 trillion, according to The Washington Post. Now, that’s a real difference worth debating between the nation’s two political parties.
Pelosi’s over-the-top rhetoric often drives people to look for an alternative that gives Republicans an opportunity to make their case. Voters are willing to listen.
But Republicans have to sell their product — right now, the tax cuts — and President Donald Trump has a responsibility to help. Tossing his speech notes because talking about tax cuts is “boring” not only is self-defeating but puts his party’s majorities in jeopardy. Pelosi has given him an opening. He should take advantage of it.
Republicans need to re-evaluate the wisdom of campaign strategies that depend on painting Democrat opponents as little more than Pelosi clones. That’s likely not going to be enough this fall, despite her negatives.
What Republicans should do is stand on their own ideas. They’re winning the issues.
David Winston is the president of The Winston Group and a longtime adviser to congressional Republicans. He previously served as the director of planning for House Speaker Newt Gingrich. He advises Fortune 100 companies, foundations, and nonprofit organizations on strategic planning and public policy issues, and is an election analyst for CBS News.