Republicans’ efforts to tether Pennsylvania Democrat Conor Lamb to party leader Nancy Pelosi were unsuccessful in this week’s special election, but they aren’t abandoning the strategy.
Instead, in an election season where their own leadership is unpopular — and an energizing force for Democrats — Republicans see Pelosi as a critical counterweight in not only motivating their own base voters but in winning back independents who have been lost in the Trump era.
“Nancy Pelosi will not disappear in any way, shape or form; she will continue to be a central part of our messaging in 2018,” said Jesse Hunt, spokesman for the National Republican Congressional Committee. “Independent voters have as much disdain for Pelosi as Republican voters do.”
Indeed, these persuadable voters are a critical constituency for the GOP this cycle. In the Pennsylvania contest, and in off-year elections such as the Virginia governor’s race, Republicans met their target turnout numbers for party members, countering notions that the GOP base is depressed. But they were outperformed by increased Democratic turnout and crossover votes.
Given those data points, Republicans should be “less concerned about Republicans not showing up and more concerned about losing college-educated suburban voters by 20 points,” said one House GOP strategist.
The dynamic only figures to persist, particularly as the Trump White House appears to be in a perpetual state of chaos, complicating the party’s case for governing. The past week was marked by major staff shake-ups and the threat of more to come. Trump fired his secretary of state on Tuesday and has his national security adviser on the ropes, all against the backdrop of his controversial agreement to meet with North Korean leader Kim Jung Un.
The story of adult film star Stormy Daniels continues to linger. The special counsel’s probe is broadening, with Robert Mueller subpoenaing records from the Trump Organization. And Rick Saccone’s loss to Lamb marked yet another failure by a candidate actively endorsed by Trump.
“The biggest reason Democrats are so fired up is they see Trump as temperamentally unfit for office, and a majority of independents feel the same way,” said David Wasserman, House editor for The Cook Political Report. “If Republicans have any shot at keeping the House, they are not only going to need to personalize and localize the races, but they’re also really going to need to scorch the earth and make the Democrat unacceptable.”
Part of making the latter happen, particularly to persuadable voters, is using Pelosi as an albatross for opponents, Republicans say. In Pennsylvania, Lamb was able to define himself independently of the liberal congresswomen early in the race, even running ads saying he would not support her as leader in 2019. Though Democrats say Lamb’s success shows GOP efforts to use Pelosi in this way will fail, Republicans counter that his distancing efforts proved their point. Other candidates, they say, will have to navigate primaries that won’t allow them to follow suit.
For many voters, Pelosi “encapsulates everything that is wrong with Democrats, and why their agenda is too liberal for the country,” said the House GOP strategist. “While they may personally dislike Trump, they don’t dislike the GOP agenda.”
For her part, Pelosi dismissed the notion. “We won. We won the race. The ‘D’ next to [Lamb’s] name was very significant in those blue parts,” she told reporters this week. “This is part of the bankruptcy of the Republican Party. They can’t win on the issues so they go after a person.”
This explanation, however, ignores an overarching dynamic of the midterms. With Democrats making the elections a referendum on Trump, Republicans are looking to respond in kind.
Veteran GOP operatives are using the threat of Speaker Pelosi 2.0 as a way to get Republican voters to seriously consider the lessons of the Pennsylvania special election. But they are also making clear the ways in which Trump makes his own party vulnerable.
“Learning from this defeat is the key to preventing Speaker Pelosi’s return in 2019,” said Karl Rove in a Wall Street Journal op-ed. The president, he wrote, “riles up the opposition more than he energizes his side. … Team Trump should deploy the president to raise money and win primaries for electable candidates. But he should avoid rallies in the campaign’s closing months. Mr. Trump drowns out a candidate’s message and makes the news all about whatever wild line he slings into the ether.”
Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, who helped his party win back the majority in 1994, echoed similar sentiments. “It is time for Republicans nationwide to wake up to the very real threat of a Democratic-controlled House of Representatives led by Speaker Nancy Pelosi,” he wrote in an editorial for Fox News. “President Trump must take some serious responsibility for the recent election results. If he continues to alienate people (especially women), no amount of policy effort will offset the decline in Republican enthusiasm and voting.”