When Republican strategists earlier this month began running a television ad in Indiana linking Democratic challenger Brad Ellsworth to House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), Ellsworth wasted little time in issuing a direct response.
“This election isn’t about Nancy Pelosi or [Sen.] Hillary Clinton [D-N.Y.],” Ellsworth begins in a TV spot released a week later. He then proceeds to check off his socially conservative credentials in a district that gave President Bush 62 percent of the vote in 2004.
Ellsworth’s campaign denies that the response ad is a concession that the National Republican Congressional Committee’s (NRCC) Pelosi strategy works and said it is merely trying to rebut misleading attacks. But national Republicans say recent polls in Indiana’s 8th District show that their strategy of tying Ellsworth to Pelosi, Sen. Clinton (D-N.Y.) and the Democratic agenda is working.
And just days after Ellsworth’s rebuttal, the NRCC went to the well again and launched another ad featuring photos of Pelosi and talking about the Democratic agenda.
The NRCC asserts the Pelosi ads have helped Rep. John Hostettler (R-Ind.) narrow the gap on Ellsworth. The incumbent trails 44-40 in an independent Research 2000 poll released last week by WISH-TV in Indianapolis, but no other district-wide numbers have been made public on the race, and the NRCC declined to release its internal polling numbers.
Rumors swirled last month that an unreleased Democratic poll showed Ellsworth with a sizeable lead, but Ellsworth’s campaign does not comment on polling data.
Republicans say Democrats’ efforts to nationalize the election and attach Republicans to President Bush cut both ways when it comes to Pelosi and other Democratic figures like Clinton and Sen. Edward Kennedy (D-Mass.).
They are casting Ellsworth as an unwilling enabler who will further an agenda even though he might not fully support it. And, in that calculus, his vote for Speaker of the House comes first and foremost.
Ellsworth has declined to commit to voting for Pelosi for Speaker, saying he doesn’t know who might be running against her. As of now, no other Democrat has indicated he or she would run for the position if the party wins the 15 seats necessary to take the House.
“All they’re talking about is ‘We need a new Congress. We need a (Democratic) Congress,” NRCC spokesman Ed Patru said. “When you take that one step further in a state like Indiana, in a district like Indiana’s 8th, that’s overwhelmingly Republican … it complicates things immensely for these candidates.”
Ellsworth campaign spokesman Matt Weisman said Ellsworth is more concerned about setting the record straight on his stances than on disassociating himself with Pelosi. He said “Speaker Pelosi,” as the strategy has been called, doesn’t have much to do with Ellsworth’s race.
“[A Democratic majority] depends on at least 14 other races,” Weisman said. “He can only do what he can do, and what he is running for is to represent this district in Congress. To put whatever the national situation is on this one election, I think, is misleading.”
Democrats say many people don’t even know who Pelosi is – a Newsweek poll several months ago showed 51 percent of people had never heard of her – and point to the limited use of the strategy as proof that it doesn’t work. Patru said the NRCC hasn’t used Pelosi in other districts, but Rep. Charles Taylor (R-N.C.) has used her in ads attacking Democratic challenger Heath Shuler.
The Republicans are also seeking to tie Ellsworth to the liberal National Committee for an Effective Congress (NCEC), which has provided him with $3,000 in support despite differing with his views on several social issues. As Ellsworth notes in his ad, he opposes abortion rights, gay marriage and gun control.
The NCEC, which could not be reached for comment, has also contributed to other Democratic candidates who differ with it on social issues, including Shuler and Pennsylvania Senate candidate Bob Casey, who both oppose abortion rights.
Weisman said Ellsworth is very clear about where he stands on issues with respect to donors and looks forward to building a record on them if he is elected.
“We welcome their support,” Weisman said. “The Democratic Party is a big tent, and there’s a lot of common ground. But, that said, he is pro-life, and he’s been very clear about the fact that he’s pro-life.”
Pelosi spokesman Drew Hammill said, “The voters of Indiana’s 8th District know they’re electing a representative who will be an independent voice for their best interests. These personal attacks just demonstrate how truly desperate the Republican Party has become.”
Hostettler’s campaign did not respond to calls requesting comment.