In a high-stakes special election in Georgia — the most expensive House race in history — the GOP dusted off the same playbook it has used effectively since the Republican wave of 2010: Hammering Democratic candidates with a relentlessly anti-Pelosi message that drives out the conservative base.
Democrat Jon Ossoff never found an answer for the attacks — and Republican Karen Handel won Tuesday night by 4 percentage points.
Why the relentless focus on the Democratic congresswoman from San Francisco?
It was at the heart of their strategy to turn out reliably Republican voters who might be queasy with President Donald Trump’s first five months in office, but did not want to see Pelosi and national Democrats celebrate a marquee victory in their own backyard.
Pelosi “consistently polls very unfavorably,” said John Rogers, the executive director of the National Republican Congressional Committee — the House GOP’s campaign arm.
“I think in this instance it had a motivating effect for our voters on the turnout front,” Rogers said Wednesday.
That the Pelosi-bashing continued to hurt Democrats — already struggling to get their bearings after Trump’s win in November — left some fuming after a morning meeting Wednesday.
Having Pelosi as the face of the party “makes it a heck of a lot harder” to win House seats, said Rep. Tim Ryan, the Ohio Democrat who challenged Pelosi for the House minority leader post after the 2016 election.
“One of the disappointing things from the last couple of days is that that approach still has a little bit of punch to it. It still moves voters,” Ryan said.
Pelosi herself erupted about the GOP ads last week, after Republicans accused Democrats of overly harsh rhetoric in the wake of the shooting at the Republican congressional baseball practice in Virginia.
“As we sit here, they’re running caricatures of me in Georgia,” Pelosi said.
She complained of the “vitriolic things that they say that resulted in calls to my home constantly, threats in front of my grandchildren — really, predicated on their comments and their paid ads.”
Pelosi said she didn’t want to hear Republicans “all of a sudden be sanctimonious” as if they had “never seen such a thing before.”
“I respect the comments of some in our Caucus but right now we must be unified in order to defeat Trumpcare,” the minority leader said in a written statement to CNN.
The focus on Pelosi comes in part because she’s the only figure in Democratic politics who is universally known and detested on the right.
In 2010, it was Pelosi and then-President Barack Obama. Years later, it was Pelosi, Obama and then-top Senate Democrat Harry Reid. Now, with Obama and Reid gone, Republicans have occasionally tried latching Democratic senators to Chuck Schumer and Elizabeth Warren, with mixed results. But the Pelosi attacks on the House side have been consistent for years.
Ossoff regularly attempted to deflect questions about whether he would back Pelosi in the House, saying he hadn’t given it any thought.
That non-answer didn’t work — so some Democrats on Wednesday were going further in distancing themselves from the former speaker.
Rep. Seth Moulton, a Massachusetts Democrat, told CNN his party needed new leadership.
“Whether she’s a leader or not is up to the caucus to decide,” Moulton said. “But this is something we certainly have to discuss, because it’s clear that I think across the board in the Democratic Party, we need new leadership.”
Republicans’ ability to effectively use Pelosi as their bogeyman in Georgia was especially stark when contrasted with the Democrats’ tactics there.
Trump’s collapse in November — he beat Hillary Clinton by just 1.5 percentage points in a district that Mitt Romney had carried by 24 points four years earlier — was the sole reason national Democrats saw the race as potentially competitive.
And progressive activists’ willingness to pour millions of dollars’ worth of small-dollar online contributions into Ossoff’s campaign — donations fueled almost entirely by a desire to deal Trump a political setback — was what convinced Democrats to take the race seriously.
Yet neither Ossoff’s campaign nor the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee attempted to tie Republican winner Karen Handel to Trump in a television ad even once.
Democrats were hesitant to attack the President in such a historically heavily Republican district. But their reluctance left Ossoff running on a milquetoast message, allowing Republicans to drive the narrative that he would be a Pelosi lackey on Capitol Hill.
“One important lesson is that when they go low, going high doesn’t f**king work,” Tanden said.