Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) may be the GOP’s favorite congressional punching bag, but she won’t be enough to carry the party into the majority, Republicans say.
As Republicans conduct post-mortems on a disappointing special-election defeat in Pennsylvania last week, former party strategists say the GOP cannot rely solely on a game plan of nationalizing House races.
While Democrats have been on the ropes for months in a toxic political environment for incumbents, their candidate in the Pennsylvania special election, Mark Critz, successfully distanced himself from the national party and attacked his Republican opponent on local issues.
It’s a tack they hope to replicate in tight races across the country, especially in many districts where the Democratic incumbent has voted against major party priorities, like healthcare and climate change legislation. The idea is to blunt the GOP effort to link Democratic candidates to Pelosi and President Barack Obama, who are broadly unpopular in many swing districts.
Republicans say they must respond accordingly.
“While the national issues are very important, there needs to be some local flair,” said former Rep. Tom Reynolds (R-N.Y.), who served as chairman of the National Republican Congressional Committee (NRCC) in 2006.
A strategy of targeting party leaders like Pelosi and Obama “gets you part of the way there,” said Rep. Adam Putnam (R-Fla.), a former chairman of the House Republican Conference.
“The highest-interest voting bloc is energized by issues related to Washington, anger at Washington. That is an extraordinary force, but that doesn’t mean you can ignore local issues, local concerns and the need to recruit good candidates,” Putnam said. He added that he was not criticizing the GOP candidate in Pennsylvania’s 12th district, Tim Burns, who is running again as the party’s nominee in November.
Democratic efforts to protect the conservative members Pelosi has called her “majority makers” could also pay off. While the party’s House majority is significantly larger than in 2008, the vote margins on the hottest-button legislation have been razor-thin. More than two dozen Democrats voted against the healthcare, climate change and financial reform measures.
In Idaho, first-term Rep. Walt Minnick (D) has voted against virtually every significant Democratic initiative. With little to target, Republicans have zeroed in on one of the first votes he cast as a member of Congress: the vote to make Nancy Pelosi Speaker of the House.
“That controls the agenda and sets the path forward in Congress,” said Raul Labrador, a conservative Idaho state representative who upset a top GOP recruit to capture the Republican nomination.
A Minnick spokesman, John Foster, said the congressman had a solid professional relationship with Pelosi but would not commit to voting for her again for Speaker, if Democrats retain the majority.
“Walt will do what he does with every vote: review the options before him and make a decision at that time,” Foster said.
Highlighting the vote for Speaker is a tradition in congressional races, but it’s a tactic that Republicans acknowledge is thin.
“I don’t think a vote for Nancy Pelosi is the sole single reason that could dislodge any candidate,” Reynolds said.
That dynamic will be at play in other Republican-leaning districts won in recent years by conservative Democrats.
“It’s tough. If a Democrat has voted with their district, that makes them much more difficult to defeat,” said Rep. Tom Cole (Okla.), the NRCC chairman in 2008.
Cole and Reynolds attributed the loss in Pennsylvania to a variety of factors and said the party remained on track to pick up a sizable chunk of seats in the fall, and possibly the majority.
“I’d rather be us than them going into this election. That’s the first time I’ve been able to say that in a while,” Cole said. “We just need to fight these elections one at a time.”
While Republicans said the party needed to broaden its strategy to include local issues, they emphasized that nationalizing the election in certain races would be key to mobilizing the base and driving fundraising and turnout.
“Every campaign is different, but the fact remains that Speaker Pelosi is a liability to the vast majority of candidates in her party facing tough elections this fall,” NRCC spokesman Paul Lindsay said. “It’s no wonder why Democrats are realizing that their only hope of surviving this election cycle is to attempt to distance themselves from the Pelosi agenda and try to co-opt Republican positions on key issues.”
In many cases, Republicans said, a national message is tied to the party’s principles.
“Jobs are a national issue. Debt is a national issue,” Rep. Jeb Hensarling (R-Texas) said. “The debt is not an issue that’s particular to one congressional district.”
Crowing over their victory in Pennsylvania, Democrats welcomed a GOP focus on Pelosi and Obama.
“House Republicans test-drove their strategy in the Pennsylvania special election of trying to use President Obama and Speaker Nancy Pelosi as bogeymen, and that strategy once again failed,” a spokesman for the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, Ryan Rudominer, said. “Republicans’ tired and unimaginative personal attacks didn’t work in 2006, didn’t work in 2008, and they don’t work in 2010.”
She noted Republicans once again tried to nationalize the election by way of an “anti-Obama, anti-Pelosi” message.
“It didn’t work,” Pelosi said, calling the strategy Republicans have employed regularly in recent years “predictable.”