By Mike Lillis
Facing tough election contests in November, a handful of centrist Democrats are targeting Rep. Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) in hopes the message will resound with voters put off by the polarizing House minority leader.
Pelosi, a San Francisco liberal who has led the Democrats since 2003, is no stranger to demonization efforts, as Republicans have long used her image in bids to undermine Democratic opponents on the campaign trail.
Rep. John Barrow (D), for instance, is running ads in Georgia's 12th District designed to trumpet his independence from Democratic leaders, particularly Pelosi.
"I voted 54 percent of the time with Speaker [John] Boehner [R-Ohio] … and I voted against Nancy Pelosi for Speaker," Barrow says in one ad.
Irv Halter, the Democratic long shot challenging four-term GOP Rep. Doug Lamborn in Colorado's 5th District, has a similar message for voters.
"Career politicians like Doug Lamborn and Nancy Pelosi have failed," Halter says in a new television ad. "There's only one way to change Washington. Vote them out."
Gwen Graham, the Democrat challenging GOP Rep. Steve Southerland in a tightly contested race for Florida's 2nd District, is also targeting Pelosi directly on the campaign trail.
"Congress is broken. Both parties, Republican and Democrat, are to blame, and both need new leaders in Washington," Graham says in a new ad.
To eliminate any confusion about which leaders bear responsibility, Graham's ad features a picture of Pelosi and Boehner standing side by side.
To be sure, Boehner has his share of conservative critics, and several incoming likely House members have already said they wouldn't back him as speaker. Some GOP candidates are distancing themselves from the House Speaker on the campaign trail – a tacit suggestion that the current crop of Republican leaders simply isn't conservative enough.
Marilinda Garcia, for example, a Republican challenging Democratic Rep. Ann Kuster in New Hampshire, recently declined to endorse Boehner for Speaker just days after the Ohio Republican visited her district for a fundraiser.
Still, the GOP candidates have not taken the remarkable step of attacking Boehner in paid television ads, the way that some Democrats are hitting Pelosi.
Democratic campaign strategists are downplaying the significance of the ads going after Pelosi, saying the candidates are free to adopt whatever tactics they deem most effective.
“Campaigns run their own races,” Emily Bittner, spokeswoman for the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee (DCCC), said Wednesday in a terse email.
Republican strategists have a decidedly different take, accusing Pelosi's Democratic critics of hypocrisy for attacking the minority leader while simultaneously accepting campaign funding from the party apparatus she represents.
“These Democrats are complete hypocrites," Daniel Scarpinato, spokesman for the National Republican Congressional Committee, said Wednesday in an email. "Unless they are willing to give up the millions in outside spending Nancy Pelosi is dumping into their races, then these ads are a complete lie.”
Few Democrats energize the party's liberal base as effectively as Pelosi, the first female Speaker in U.S. history whose prodigious powers of deal-making, fundraising and floor management helped the Democrats pass some of the most significant reforms in generations, including climate change legislation and an overhaul of the nation's healthcare system.
Indeed, the DCCC frequently sends fundraising email blasts to supporters featuring a plea directly from the minority leader. And recent public opinion polls indicate she's by far the most popular of the top four leaders on Capitol Hill.
But in many parts of the country Pelosi is a radioactive personality, whose mere mention can energize conservatives and send Democrats running for cover. It's in these districts that some Democrats have sought to distance themselves from their own party leader.
The Cook Political Report, a well-respected online campaign handicapper, rates the Barrow and Graham races as toss-ups. Halter, meanwhile, is not considered a threat to Lamborn in the heavily conservative district of Colorado Springs.
This post was updated at 6:09 p.m.