GOP seeks to win with anti-Pelosi strategy

McClatchy NewspapersFebruary 21, 2010 

WASHINGTON — If all politics are local, don't tell that to Jimmy Higdon.

Higdon, a Republican from Kentucky, won a state Senate seat in December in a largely Democratic district with an unlikely strategy: He nationalized his race, warning of one-party rule by featuring Democratic House Speaker Nancy Pelosi's pictures in his television advertisements and campaign literature. Higdon, who was outspent by a 4-to-1 margin in the race, is happy that she's so unpopular.

"It worked for me. ... And I'm really happy that I had a good team that recognized that," he said. "Because that's not something I would have dreamed up."

Expect the Republican Party to replicate the strategy in races around the country this year.

"The strategists will try to make her the lightning rod who represents all that is wrong in Washington," said Jeffrey McCall, a media studies professor at DePauw University in Indiana.

Pelosi, who has a job approval rating of 39 percent in her home state of California, is taking hits from all sides these days.

Newspaper cartoonists and comedy writers routinely take jabs at her, and many Democratic women are still smarting from the speaker's decision to support Barack Obama over Hillary Clinton in the 2008 Democratic primary.

"The thrill is gone. ... The speaker didn't turn out to be the elected official that many of us hoped," said Mary Ellen Balchunis, a political science professor at LaSalle University in Philadelphia. "Instead, many of us see her as another politician." Balchunis said Republicans were "trying to make her the Hillary."

Pelosi, 69, a 12-term representative from San Francisco, declined to comment. Her spokesman referred questions to the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee.

Maryland Rep. Chris Van Hollen, the chairman of the DCCC, said Republicans used an anti-Pelosi message in a lot of Southern congressional districts in 2008 and in special elections in Mississippi and Alabama, without success.

"We've been there, and they've done that and failed," he said.

In addition, Van Hollen said, Democratic incumbents don't always walk in lockstep with Pelosi's positions and they're "doing a good job carving out an identity for themselves."

"That message that they're just rubber stamps for the speaker doesn't fly," he said.

The National Republican Congressional Committee stepped up its attacks on Pelosi last week by unveiling a fake letter from the speaker to "naive Republicans."

"Democrats are in control now, and we are making everything better," it reads. "Want to know how? We are creating a dependence on the government and we are succeeding — just look at how great things are one year after Democrats passed the ultra-successful stimulus bill. Now nearly one in 10 people don't have a job." It concludes: "The time has come to retire the real Nancy Pelosi and take back America."

McCall said the attacks on Pelosi were similar to the Democratic efforts in 2006 and 2008 to tie Republican candidates to President George W. Bush and his vice president, Dick Cheney.

"It's a rough-and-tumble world out there, and if it works, it works," McCall said. He said that polls consistently found that Pelosi was the most recognizable leader of Congress, and it was easy to portray her in a negative light.

"She comes across as the prototypical San Francisco liberal Democrat who is easily wrapped in the trappings of big spender, big government, pork, entitlements, that sort of thing," McCall said. "And one thing to keep in mind: She represents those labels pretty well, based on her political positions. But going beyond that, it's not necessarily who or what she is, it's how she can be portrayed."

While it might appear to be a good strategy to target Pelosi, running a negative campaign could backfire against the Republicans, said Ivan Kenneally, an assistant professor of political science at the Rochester Institute of Technology in Rochester, N.Y.

"What they've figured out is that while she has remarkable appeal in her district and is essentially untouchable, she is not very popular beyond her district and doesn't have a lot of mass appeal," he said. "But anytime you run a negative campaign it can backfire. That's always the case."

Kenneally said Pelosi had "impregnable self-confidence" that could rub people the wrong way, and he predicted that Democrats will let her "quietly roam around the periphery" during the 2010 campaign season, as they did in 2006 and 2008.

"They've gone out of their way to make sure that she's less visible during the heart of the campaign season, and she's always been incredibly compliant," he said. "She understands the limitations of her appeal."

Adam Hanft, the chief executive officer of the branding and marketing firm Hanft Projects, said the strategy wasn't in danger of creating a backlash as much as it was of having a neutral effect because attacks against Pelosi fell into the "been there, done that" category.

"If anything, she's probably too easy of a target," he said. "It's just that it's not new news anymore, and politics needs a new story. You're not going to convince anybody who isn't convinced already by attacking Nancy Pelosi."

There could come a point at which beating up on a woman could backfire with the public, Hanft said, but he added that Pelosi would benefit by making a few self-deprecating remarks.

"She's relatively humorless, and Americans like humor," he said. "Reagan's humor brought in a lot of people who might not agree with him politically. He was the master of charm. She could help her cause by lightening up. ... She'd be less of a whipping girl, and I think she'd be a little less easy for the Republicans to take on with such a gladiatorial spirit."

(Sacramento Bee political editor Amy Chance contributed to this article.)

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