Nevada Democrat Shelley Berkley lost a close election for Senate last week. Although it was a Senate campaign, Berkley was coming from the House, which meant her opponent, Dean Heller, had had an easy weapon to deploy against her: Nancy Pelosi. Tying candidates like this to Pelosi has been a favorite tactic of congressional Republicans and their supporters. When Fred Barnes profiled Harry Reid in September, he asked GOP operatives why Pelosi was constantly invoked but Reid wasn’t.
Pelosi is “toxic” with voters, he found; Republican strategists described her as “the gift that keeps on giving.” Barnes continued: “In focus groups conducted by Republicans, swing voters respond negatively to any mention of Pelosi. It’s clear she’s a drag on Democrats. But when Reid is raised, the reaction is weak.” And so it is that Pelosi compounds the Democrats’ “Obama problem,” so to speak: the punishment voters have meted out to Democrats, especially in the House and in gubernatorial elections, for the array of unpopular big-government excesses of the Obama administration. House candidates are particularly susceptible to the mood swings of the electorate, so you would think Pelosi would step down as House minority leader and give the Democrats a fighting chance as they head into the often-difficult second-term midterm elections. But you would be wrong.
Today, Pelosi announced that she intends to stay on as Democratic leader. It’s true that substantively this may not make too much of a difference, since the Democrats have just about eliminated any moderate wing of their party and moved their entire caucus much closer to Pelosi’s liberal extremism and patent unwillingness to reach across the aisle and work with Republicans. So it isn’t clear the Democrats had anyone much less extreme to replace her with.
At the same time, she is broadly, if unsurprisingly, disliked by the national electorate, and the Democrats may have had an opportunity to at least try some of the rebranding efforts that Republicans are now undertaking in the wake of their own shellacking last week.
In a sense, Pelosi’s party needs all the help it can get. With messy, costly legislation and high unemployment, Pelosi has presided over a difficult term as party leader. That probably won’t improve much if the president’s stated budget negotiation aims are any clue: Obama would like to raise taxes a bit more than he previously indicated, it seems. Obama doesn’t have another reelection campaign coming up, but the House Democrats do.
Not only does Obama share in the blame for what keeps happening to Pelosi’s caucus, but so does Reid. Under his leadership, Senate Democrats have chosen to grind the legislative process to a halt, shutting Republicans out and refusing to pass a budget for going on three years. Until the Democratic Party leadership takes their foot off the neck of the economy, it’s Pelosi’s House Democrats that that can expect to keep paying the price at the ballot box.