WASHINGTON — House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., is considered so politically toxic in many midterm races that Democrats are not only running away from her — some are promising not to vote for her as speaker if Democrats hold the House.
Congressional campaign watchers say there's no question that Rep. Chet Edwards, D-Waco, a Pelosi lieutenant, is running from the Pelosi label as his opponent makes her an issue.
"I've made no commitments for speaker," Edwards said in a statement to the Star-Telegram. "No one has asked me for my votes for speaker and I will make no commitment to anyone until after I know who is running."
The noncommitment is particularly telling in Edwards' case because of the Texan's connections to the San Francisco Democrat, who picked him as her choice to be Barack Obama's vice presidential running mate. Edwards was a finalist vetted by Obama.
Pelosi also supported Edwards to be a powerful "cardinal," the chairman of a House Appropriations subcommittee that doles out military construction and veterans funding.
But Pelosi is a polarizing figure, especially in places like Edwards' 17th Congressional District, where Republican John McCain won 67 percent of the vote in the 2008 presidential election.
Polls have shown that Edwards is trailing his opponent, former energy executive Bill Flores, despite being a 20-year House veteran. And voters often question him about his support for Pelosi.
Flores has hit Edwards hard on his connection to her, running an ad with a Washington Post voting record database and saying he voted with her 96 percent of the time.
Edwards hotly disputes that percentage, arguing that the speaker doesn't, by tradition, vote that often. He emphasizes that he broke ranks with Democratic leadership, voting "no" on the healthcare bill and the cap-and-trade energy bill, a system of limiting emissions that conservatives say amounts to an energy tax.
Edwards' campaign is even running a television ad touting his independence: "When President Obama and Nancy Pelosi pressured Chet Edwards, Chet stood up to them and voted no against their trillion-dollar healthcare bill and no to cap and trade."
But the energized GOP is personalizing the Pelosi connection: The Republican National Committee's Fire Pelosi 48-state bus tour, with RNC Chairman Michael Steele on board, stopped in the 17th District for a Flores event.
"Nancy Pelosi has become a devil figure for energized Republicans," said Larry Sabato, a political expert at the University of Virginia. "She is seen as a classic San Francisco Democrat. Whether fair or unfair, this negative image is costing Democrats in some close races. They have to protect themselves, and privately, Pelosi is probably understanding of the distancing by some of her caucus members."
As for Pelosi, she recently addressed the growing number of Democrats who are publicly refusing to endorse her.
"All of a sudden, this is a new thing. No. This is not a new thing. This is politics," she told reporters this month. "I don't care. It is not about me." But between now and Nov. 2, Republicans will continue trying very hard to make it about her.