House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi’s face is popping up in TV ads, hanging on door knobs and spilling out of mailboxes every day in Georgia.
The Democratic leader may not be running in the competitive and expensive special election in the Atlanta suburbs, but she is arguably as visible ahead of the June 20 vote as the candidates themselves.
At least, that’s what Republicans are hoping. The GOP is relying on the specter of Pelosi to drive up GOP turnout and counteract President Donald Trump’s shadow over the race, which has helped make Georgia’s 6th District competitive for the first time. The anti-Pelosi gambit is a tried-and-tested strategy in dozens of House races over the last seven years — though some Republicans fret that Pelosi’s toxicity may have reached a point of diminishing returns.
Republican Karen Handel regularly denounces Democrat Jon Ossoff’s campaign for being financed by “Nancy Pelosi and members of the resistance movement,” while ads from the National Republican Campaign Committee say that Ossoff would “represent Nancy Pelosi” as a “childish radical” in Congress. Congressional Leadership Fund, a super PAC aligned with House GOP leadership, lashes Ossoff to the minority leader as a “rubber-stamp for Nancy Pelosi’s liberal agenda.”
CLF even paid for a trolley to drive around the building where Handel and Ossoff met for their prime-time debate last week, strung with the sign: “San Francisco ❤ Jon Ossoff.”
Pelosi — who has hosted fundraisers for Ossoff in Washington, but hasn’t stumped for him in Atlanta — isn’t popular in the district. An Atlanta Journal Constitution poll found that 58 percent of likely voters view her unfavorably. Nationally, Pelosi has a 14 percent favorability rating with Republicans, according to a POLITICO/Morning Consult poll released last week.
Ossoff, who’s taken a centrist tone throughout the race to appeal to independents, won’t say whether he would support Pelosi, saying he hasn’t “given it an ounce of thought.”
“The campaign is about who’s going to deliver results for home, not palace intrigue in Washington,” Ossoff said when asked about the GOP using Pelosi as a bogeywoman in the race. “I don’t think the attack ads are having much effect.”
CLF spokeswoman Ruth Guerra said Ossoff’s refusal to comment on Pelosi’s leadership “speaks volumes to the fact that he knows she is a deeply unpopular figure and that he knows that it wouldn’t play well in his district.”
The NRCC’s spokesman Jesse Hunt also said in an emailed statement that Ossoff’s “declining to answer publicly about whether he supports Pelosi, despite continually fundraising with her, is proof positive of the problem she poses for Democrats.”
“Nancy Pelosi epitomizes out-of-touch, liberal elitism and she still carries around baggage from the failed Obama policies she pushed through the House,” Hunt said.
The GOP strategy confirms the fears of some Democrats who wanted to see Pelosi relinquish her leadership position early last year, thinking the party could use a fresh — and less polarizing — point person in the House, though Democratic strategist and former DCCC political director Ian Russell said the focus on Pelosi "reeks of desperation."
But at the same time, some Republican operatives are worried that the Pelosi attack ads are losing their potency, after years at the center of House Republican strategy.
Mark Roundtree, a Republican consultant in the state, said that the GOP has “played that hand pretty hard a lot, maybe even overplayed it.”
“Nancy Pelosi matters to maybe half of the voters, and it may be effective in ginning up the base, but the other half can’t tell you who that is,” Roundtree said.
Increasing Republican turnout is a key focus for outside groups like CLF, which is sending its volunteers to 300,000 doors before Election Day.
“The left has Trump and the right has Pelosi,” Roundtree said. “Trump trumps that because the vitriol around Trump on the left is a whole lot more intense than around Pelosi on the right.”
Todd Rehm, another Republican consultant in Georgia, said outside groups are largely driving the Pelosi-centered messaging.
“Somebody in Washington, on the Republican side, looking for a bogeyman will, every single time, come up with Nancy Pelosi,” Rehm said, noting that the GOP should make the Fulton County, Ga., tax commissioner the bogeyman instead as property taxes are a key local concern.
These concerns have not affected Republican strategy, which has centered on Pelosi for months. An infusion of Pelosi-themed ads from the NRCC and CLF rushed into Georgia in late March and early April, when Republicans feared Ossoff might win the special election in the April 18 primary. He ended up falling short of a majority, getting 48 percent of the vote.
One national Republican strategist warned that while Pelosi is widely disliked, there is evidence that brandishing her doesn’t actually affect how people vote. In fact, the source noted that name-dropping Pelosi may not even motivate the conservative base.
“Given everything the literature and years of research informs on how messages affect voters, it’s extremely unfortunate that we’re going to the same wells with the same tired methodologies in 2017,” the strategist said, granted anonymity to speak candidly about the race’s messaging. “There is zero evidence that linking a candidate to Nancy Pelosi is a meaningful, powerful message that will persuade swing voters or motivate the GOP base.”
That viewpoint will be of little comfort to Democrats, though, if Handel pulls out a victory on June 20. Both parties say there are few swing voters left in the district after about $50 million in campaign and outside group spending. The election may come down to which side can motivate and turn out more base voters, and the GOP base dislikes few Democrats more than Pelosi.
“She’s trying to buy this election,” said Steve Haynes, a 62-year-old recruiter who lives in the district. “The Democrats see the stakes as ultra-high here, but they’re about to be seriously disappointed.”