Will Democrats pull an “October Surprise” this year and announce that the highly polarizing Nancy Pelosi of San Francisco won’t be their candidate for House speaker after all? Growing up in the Bay Area, I saw Pelosi’s iron will and stubbornness up close for decades. The possibility of her stepping back seems remote. But she’s also the shrewd tactician who always tells moderate Democrats they can publicly spurn her because the imperative is “Just win, baby.” If the race for House control is close in October, many Democrats hope she’ll step back to deprive the GOP of a campaign issue.
Some Democrats are willing to publicly acknowledge that the highly liberal Pelosi alienates independents and moderates. “People pretend that it isn’t a problem, but it’s a problem that exists,” Representative Brian Higgins (D., N.Y.) told the Washington Post last week. He said frustrated colleagues told him that Republicans’ anti-Pelosi ads cost Democrats the House special election in Ohio, where they trailed by only 1,500 votes. One third of the national ads run by Republicans in that race mentioned Pelosi, and she became a real issue when Democrat Danny O’Connor, after first saying that Democrats need “new leadership,” finally admitted he would vote for her as speaker over a Republican if Democrats put her forward: “I would support whoever the Democratic party put forward.” This comment dominated local coverage of the House race for the week leading up to the special election.
Higgins says that challengers in other competitive districts are getting the same treatment when it comes to Pelosi: “They are stuck with that question, and they do not deal with it well. You equivocate, and it jams you up, and it costs you votes.”
Pelosi is toxic enough that NBC News reported on Friday that she might have trouble winning the necessary 218 votes for speaker even if Democrats become a majority of the House:
At least 42 of the party’s nominees for House seats have declared they will not back Pelosi, and nine incumbent Democratic lawmakers are on the record opposing her, bringing the total to 51. An additional 34 Democratic nominees are neither for nor against Pelosi, who has led her party in the House since 2003.
Donna Edwards, a former Democratic congresswoman of Maryland, supported Pelosi while she was in the House, but said on Meet the Press today that if Democrats win back the House in November, the current nervousness of their candidates about Pelosi doesn’t mean they’ll abandon her if she runs for speaker:
Nancy Pelosi is the best vote counter ever. And she’s not going to run for speaker unless she believes that she can get the votes to do it. . . . But you know what, I think she may deserve it. I mean, she’s already raised almost $90 million for Democrats across the country. She knows that, you know, she can be a lightning rod. And you know what she says? She says, “Just win, baby.” Because she knows that when they come in, they’re going to have to make the decision, she’s the one who brought them there.
The attacks on Pelosi will only intensify as Election Day approaches, and her current poll numbers are already remarkably low. A new American Barometer poll found that only 27 percent of voters wanted her to stay as Democratic leader. Nearly half of Democrats thought it was time for a fresh start. So did 79 percent of independents.
“Democrats are split on whether to keep Nancy Pelosi as leader, and independents and most voter groups want someone else to step up,” said Dritan Nesho, the CEO of HarrisX, the survey taker. “The findings suggest a yearning for change.”
Every election season, speculation rises about whether there will be an “October surprise” that will upend the contest. In 2016, we had two: the reopening of the FBI investigation into Hillary Clinton’s private server and emails, and the infamous Access Hollywood tape that was supposed to sink Donald Trump but didn’t.
Republicans will probably fall back on warning voters about what a return to power by Democrats would mean: efforts to scale back border controls and even abolish ICE, higher taxes and more regulation, and a focus on impeaching the president.
Democrats privately scoff that Pelosi’s departure could be this year’s surprise. Instead, they are focusing on the recent accusations from disgruntled former White House staffer Omarosa Manigault-Newman, who also was a guest on today’s Meet the Press. Omarosa predicted that a tape of Trump using the “N-word” against African Americans would surface shortly before the election: “I know it exists, and what I regret is that these people are probably trying to leverage it as this October surprise.” I have no idea whether such a tape exists, but I rate Omarosa’s overall credibility on a par with that of fabulists.
A “Bye, Nancy” pass to appeal to swing voters strikes me as at least as likely if not more so as an October surprise. Republicans haven’t been buoyed by the strong economy as much as they thought they would be. They will probably fall back on warning voters about what a return to power by increasingly liberal Democrats would mean: efforts to scale back border controls and even abolish ICE, higher taxes and more regulation, and a focus on impeaching President Trump. Despite her best efforts to downplay such issues, Nancy Pelosi is easily identified with this left-wing agenda.
Democrats know that such last-minute attacks have worked before. In previous elections, such as 1996 and 2012, their late-summer optimism turned to November ashes under withering Republican attack ads that warned what a return to Democratic control would mean.