Even Joseph Crowley, the Democratic congressman who ranks fourth in the leadership hierarchy (but not for much longer, due to his ouster in a New York primary), purposely whiffed last Sunday when asked whether he thought Pelosi deserves another stint as speaker if the party wins the House. He said, “Well, look, you know, I do think that that’ll be up to the new Congress to decide who the next leader or speaker [will] be.” Having lost his seat by double digits to a young Democratic insurgent, he apparently sees no upside in the status quo.
But Pelosi has many fervent defenders who respect her prowess, especially as a tactician and fund-raiser, and contend that the usual Republican attacks will fail in 2018—because this year is historically unique. The veteran progressive organizer Steve Rosenthal, a former AFL–CIO political director and former deputy political director at the Democratic National Committee, told me:
I may be in the distinct minority among people on the left, but the president of the United States may have committed treason [in Helsinki] and we could well be facing a constitutional crisis. For the sake of the country, Democrats need the A-team on the field … I’ve spent a lifetime working in the trenches of Democratic campaigns. Voters don’t care about who the leaders are in Congress. They care about the problems they face every day, and they care about the integrity of our country. Democrats have a very solid case to make on the economy and as the Trump offenses continue to mount, if we can’t make this an election about the future of our very democracy, then shame on us. Plus, in this election, women may well be the deciding vote in many of these districts and Pelosi is the highest-ranking woman ever in our history.
Rosenthal basically says that Trump’s baggage will trump Pelosi’s, at least in competitive districts. He’s seconded by Larry Sabato, the seasoned political analyst at the University of Virginia. He told me that he’s not surprised by the candidate rebellion against Pelosi (“Most people have seen this coming for quite a while”), and it has long been true that the anti-Pelosi ads “motivate some Republicans.” However, he said, “Pelosi is out of power, and Trump as the devil figure for swing voters has much more currency.”
If Sabato is right, we could see a repeat of what happened in 2006. People forget that when the Republicans first tried to demonize Pelosi in a midterm election—2006 was her third year as the House Democratic leader—they failed abysmally. Defending their shaky House majority, they peppered TV viewers with ads that linked Democratic candidates to “far-left liberal Nancy Pelosi,” to “San Francisco liberal Nancy Pelosi” and her “soft on security” values. Airing black-and-white photos of her wide-eyed stare, she looked like a fiend from Night of the Living Dead. But the overriding issue that year was George W. Bush’s Iraq war, not Pelosi. Democrats captured the House, and she got the gavel.