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The Nancy Pelosi election

By Aaron Blake

With three weeks to go until Election Day, national Republicans are flooding the airwaves with a simple message: the Democratic candidate running in your district is (or will be) just like Nancy Pelosi.

The message is almost ubiquitous. According to The Fix's analysis of campaign ads from the National Republican Congressional Committee -- the House GOP's campaign arm -- the committee has run an anti-Pelosi ad in 47 of the 56 districts where it has run independent expenditure ads so far.

In addition, more than 70 percent of the 108 total ads the committee has run so far feature the House speaker in some way -- whether it be a picture, a reference to how often an incumbent has voted with her, or a glancing reference to a piece of Democratic legislation with Pelosi's name attached to it.

Republicans are betting heavily on Pelosi's unpopularity, using her even more often than President Obama in their ads. The scope of the strategy is also as wide -- if not wider -- than the Democrats' use of President Bush in 2006 and 2008, when his unpopularity made him a drag on the GOP up and down the ticket.

A recent Associated Press poll put Pelosi's favorable rating at 33 percent, with 56 percent viewing her unfavorably. That's worse than where Obama is right now, but it's comparable to where Bush was in 2006 and slightly better than where Bush was in 2008.

But that's not really an apples-to-apples comparison since presidents are always better known to the average person than members of Congress -- even ones as high-ranking as Pelosi.

The better one might be former House Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.), who carried similar numbers into the 1996 and 1998 elections.

"We seemed to get sucked into using him as the foil, and I can't remember winning one race attacking Gingrich," said Democratic pollster John Anzalone. "Of course, you did not have a bad economy."

Still, Democrats did pick up seats in 1996 and 1998 -- the latter victory led Gingrich to resign from office.

Republicans believe Pelosi is Gingrich on political steroids; they argue she is reviled nationwide and that a surprising amount of people are well aware of who she is; her name recognition is at least 85 percent in basically every competitive district, according to Republican operatives privy to seat-by-seat data.

Republicans also note that people who like Pelosi are generally lukewarm about that feeling while those who dislike her generally do so with a passion. (That's not an uncommon trend among politicians.) The AP-GfK poll had just 7 percent of people viewing Pelosi very favorably, while 39 percent viewed her very unfavorably.

In addition to the vast majority of districts where the NRCC is running the anti-Pelosi ads, the committee has run no fewer than four anti-Pelosi ads each in a trio southern districts held by Reps. Mike McIntyre (D-N.C.), Ben Chandler (D-Ky.) and Allen Boyd (D-Fla.).

Most of the attacks center around an incumbents' voting record with Pelosi, but the NRCC is even running the ads against open seat candidates with little connection to the Speaker.

A few examples:

* A new ad in the open seat in Illinois's 10th district doesn't even mention Democratic nominee Dan Seals until midway through the 30-second spot -- well after it spends half the commercial tearing apart the "Pelosi healthcare plan."

* An ad in retiring Rep. Marion Berry's (D-Ark.) district indicates "Nancy Pelosi's team" is helping Chad Causey (D), a former congressional aide.

* An ad in Indiana's open 8th district describes state Rep. Trent Van Haaften's (D) legislative record before suggesting it might as well belong to Pelosi, Obama or Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.).

Republicans see the strategy mostly as a jumping-off point: a simple message they can use to define the their Democratic opponent early, nationalizing the race in their favor before moving on to more detailed messages.

"These campaigns are ultimately being framed around the issues of jobs and the economy, but the speaker serves as a reference point for how often a Democrat has voted to either ignore those issues or make things worse for middle-class families," NRCC spokesman Paul Lindsay.

The NRCC has spent $20 million on ads so far, and it plans to spend $45 million total. That means, regardless of how much it uses Pelosi from here-on-out, a very hefty percentage of its ad dollars are tied into the anti-Pelosi strategy.

Democrats in tough districts have so far done their best to distance themselves from the Democratic leadership, but relatively few of them have mentioned Pelosi in their own advertising.

Rep. Jason Altmire's (D-Pa.) first ad features constituents saying he's "not afraid to stand up to the president ... and Nancy Pelosi." One of Rep. Joe Donnelly's (D-Ind.) ads notes he "voted against Nancy Pelosi's energy tax," while another distances him from the "Washington crowd," as a picture of Pelosi, Obama and House GOP Leader John Boehner (Ohio) flashes on the screen.

But other efforts by Democrats so far speak more generally about voting against their party, rather than voting against a particular party leader. That's an easier way to assert independence, but with Republicans really driving home the Pelosi message, we may see other Democrats (like Alabama Rep. Bobby Bright and New York Rep. Scott Murphy) forced into some uncomfortable situations when it comes to the speaker.

Democrats are astounded by the degree to which Pelosi is being used as a foil -- noting that Republican attempts to tie Democratic nominee Mark Critz to the Speaker in Pennsylvania's 12th district special election back in May failed miserably, as Critz triumphed easily with an intensely local message.

Republicans have placed a b-i-g bet on Pelosi dragging down Democratic candidates across the country. If they win the majority, the decision to devote so much time and energy to her will almost certainly be credited. If they fail to retake control, however, there will be significant second-guessing about putting the Speaker at the center of so much of the GOP's messaging.

By Aaron Blake  | October 12, 2010; 11:48 AM ET
Categories:  Ad Wars, House  
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