Pelosi steps back into limelight

The spotlight is back on Rep. Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.). 

The Democrats’ upset victory in a special House election this week has stimulated hopes the party can retake the chamber and triggered speculation about what kind of role Pelosi will play in the 2012 elections.

During a press conference on Thursday, a beaming and re-energized Pelosi said, “We had a spectacular election in New York-26.”

Pelosi was frequently cited as one of the most powerful Speakers until the historic GOP wave of 2010 stripped her of her gavel. As she withdrew from the media’s eye, House Minority Whip Steny Hoyer’s (D-Md.) political stock rose. 

That dynamic is changing in the wake of Tuesday’s result. Pelosi found a rallying 

cry of “Medicare, Medicare, Medicare” in the weeks before the New York election, and pounced on the issue with a prepared public statement as soon as the race was called. 

During her press conference on Thursday, Pelosi mentioned “Medicare” 22 times. 

As the top Democrat in the House, Pelosi has to toe a delicate line. She must speak for her caucus but also be mindful of her low approval ratings. Republicans privately say they want Pelosi to be a prominent player on the national scene next year, saying it will help them hold the House and boost their fundraising efforts. 

After being attacked by Republicans last year, the minority leader has adopted a much lower profile. Lacking the policymaking power and seeking to unite her caucus after losing 63 seats in the midterms, Pelosi has, for the most part, conducted interviews with liberal-leaning media outlets in 2011.

Medicare was a major factor in Kathy Hochul’s win in New York’s 26th district on Tuesday, putting the Democrats one step closer to their goal of ousting the new GOP majority after only two years.

“I fundamentally believe that the House of Representatives is in play,” Rep. Steve Israel (N.Y.), chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, told reporters at a briefing Thursday. “The Democrats can win a majority in November 2012.”

Even if Democrats win back the House, it is far from certain that Pelosi would become Speaker again. Democrats need roughly two dozen seats to capture the lower chamber, but a slim majority might not be enough for Pelosi to become Speaker in the next Congress. Nineteen Democrats voted against Pelosi for Speaker in January, while Rep. Peter DeFazio (D-Ore.), who has been critical of leadership, missed the vote. 

A few of those 20 Democrats could be persuaded to back Pelosi for Speaker, though most would likely defect again. 

The San Francisco lawmaker, while beloved by the Democrats’ liberal base, is loathed by the right. Indeed, a Rasmussen poll released this month found her to be the least popular leader on Capitol Hill, with an approval rating of just 30 percent. Fifty-nine percent of respondents viewed her unfavorably, Rasmussen reported.

Republicans spent millions of dollars focusing on Pelosi in the midterm elections, seeking to portray her as a big-spending liberal hell-bent on bankrupting the country.

For several cycles, Democratic candidates in battleground districts have been pressed by the GOP on whether they would vote for Pelosi for Speaker. 

Some Democrats acknowledged this week that Republicans will certainly repeat that strategy next year, particularly if they think there’s a chance that Pelosi could win back the Speaker’s gavel.

“I expect that to happen, that they’ll try to demonize her again,” said Rep. Bill Pascrell (D-N.J.). “We’ll see if they’re successful.”

Some political observers say the Pelosi factor is overrated, pointing out that it didn’t work for Republicans in 2006 or 2008. 

Jane Corwin, the Republican candidate in this week’s special election in New York, tried several times in recent weeks to link Hochul to Pelosi. 

One Corwin television ad blasted Hochul as “Nancy Pelosi’s hand-picked candidate.”

“Kathy Hochul and Nancy Pelosi: Now that’s a team with a history of raising taxes,” the narrator said.

Hochul — the clerk of Erie County — focused her campaign on Medicare cuts championed by House Republicans. She won with 47 percent of the vote, to Corwin’s 43 percent in a district in which Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) defeated President Obama by six percentage points in 2008. 

Rep. Elijah Cummings (D-Md.) said Thursday that it comes as no surprise that healthcare cuts would resonate more strongly in the minds of voters than any controversy surrounding Pelosi.

“The reason why it’s not as big is that we’re talking about life and death,” Cummings said, referring to the millions of Americans who would remain uninsured under the Republicans’ plan.

Rep. Anthony Weiner (D-N.Y.) said the Republicans have a polarizing figure of their own to worry about: House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan (R-Wis.).

“Right now, among the political figures, and their aspirations that frighten Americans, I think that Paul Ryan is seen as a bigger danger [than Pelosi],” Weiner said. 

DeFazio rejected the notion that Pelosi will be the face of the Democrats come campaign season. 

“People can make their own judgment who they want to appear with them or speak for them in their districts,” DeFazio said. “We are not bound to any one spokesperson.” 

Rep. Edolphus Towns (D-N.Y.) said the Democrats’ problems at the polls last year resulted not from attacks on Pelosi, but from a failure of members to articulate the benefits of the party’s legislative agenda, particularly their signature healthcare reform law. For the Democrats to deliver that message more effectively in the coming election cycle, he added, Pelosi will have to establish an even higher profile.

Towns, who was pushed out of his top perch on the House Oversight panel by Pelosi earlier this year, added, “She should be on the front lines and talking about what we’ve done.”

Rep. Mike Quigley (D-Ill.) said the entrenched partisanship in Washington — combined with the ever-evolving sophistication of political advertising — means that any Speaker will be subject to demonization by the opposing party. 

“Any Speaker of the House is going to have a shorter half-life than they used to, because whoever they are, they’re going to carry all the baggage,” Quigley said.