It’s been nearly eight years since Nancy Pelosi was speaker of the House, but her name is still an ubiquitous slur in Georgia politics.
The California Democrat was featured prominently in countless television ads during last year’s 6th Congressional District special election, which framed her as a radical liberal intent on overwhelming Georgia’s values. And she’s back in full force this year, her image surfacing in competitive U.S. House races and even Georgia statewide contests.
Democrats have fielded questions about whether they would support Pelosi for House speaker, and several have distanced themselves from her. She remains deeply unpopular among conservatives in Atlanta’s suburbs and across the country, and GOP groups have come to rely on Pelosi as a foil on nearly every issue.
There are signs that it worked: In last year’s 6th District special election, the GOP-aligned Congressional Leadership Fund spent more than $6 million linking Pelosi with Democrat Jon Ossoff ahead of his defeat. And Republicans intend to stick to that strategy up and own the ballot ahead of November’s midterms.
“Nancy Pelosi is absolutely toxic,” said Courtney Alexander, a spokeswoman with the group, who added, “She’ll be used across the country to demonstrate how out of touch the Democratic Party is.”
And it’s put the House Democratic leader on the defensive. Her office touts her fundraising ability and vote-wrangling skills even as she talks about building a “bridge” to a new generation of leaders should her party flip the House in two months.
But the pressure is mounting. Several of her erstwhile House allies are attempting to rein in her influence in Washington, and some younger Democratic lawmakers and candidates have pledged to oppose her.
That hasn’t happened yet in Georgia, where Democratic congressional candidates in north Atlanta’s competitive suburbs have so far resisted the calls for Pelosi to step aside. All four of Georgia’s House Democrats backed Pelosi for speaker in 2017.
Both Lucy McBath and Carolyn Bourdeaux say it is too early to speculate on whom they would support if elected in November — although Bourdeaux adds the caveat that House leadership “could use some new blood and new ideas.”
Their hesitancy to embrace Pelosi hasn’t stopped Republicans who intend to use her as a living symbol of Democratic policies. Her recent comments comparing benefits of the $1.6 trillion package of tax cuts to “crumbs” for the middle class has already reverberated.
U.S. Rep. Karen Handel, R-Roswell, who faces McBath in the 6th District, telegraphed her strategy at her campaign kickoff party in August. Surrounded by dozens of supporters in a crowded Roswell restaurant, she dropped Pelosi’s name several times and drew hoots when she raised the specter of her as the next House leader.
“This Democrat Party is even more radical and more extreme than they have ever been before,” Handel said. “These are individuals who haven’t only embraced, but have actually elected, self-proclaimed, self-designated socialists.”
Pelosi is just as present in some statewide contests — even though she has no role whatsoever in statewide issues.
The day of the GOP runoff, the Republican Governors Association debuted a 30-second TV ad calling Democrat Stacey Abrams a “career politician funded by Nancy Pelosi’s California friends.” It ended with an image of “radical left” Abrams sandwiched between Pelosi and Hillary Clinton.
That spot ran 1,860 times in Georgia’s four major markets: Atlanta, Augusta, Macon and Savannah. Paul Bennecke, the RGA’s executive director, said his organization’s internal polls show those messages quickly helped Republicans rally behind Brian Kemp — and freed up the RGA to target swing voters.
“Given the GOP primary and runoff were so long and bruising, we felt the best thing we could do out of the gate for our nominee was to consolidate the Republican base behind him,” he said. “There really isn’t any equivalent to Nancy Pelosi and Hillary Clinton for doing that.”
Abrams brushed aside the attacks as desperate and emphasized her pragmatic streak, including working across the aisle on compromise legislation when she was the top Democrat in the state House.
Down the ticket, Pelosi is also a constant specter. When Republican Geoff Duncan’s campaign for lieutenant governor swiped at his Democratic opponent, Sarah Riggs Amico, it described her as having “Nancy Pelosi” values. His spokesman, Dan McLagan, said it’s hard to avoid using the California Democrat as a punching bag.
“Liberalism is a failed religion,” he said, “and Nancy Pelosi is its high priestess.”
An Atlanta Journal-Constitution poll from last year reinforced why that tactic was embraced in the first place: Nearly 60 percent of likely voters in that contest held an unfavorable view of Pelosi, who as speaker from 2007 to 2011 was a key ally to then-President Barack Obama.
A national Gallup poll in June was even starker, showing that only 29 percent of respondents viewed Pelosi favorably, compared with 53 percent who saw her unfavorably.
But more recent studies have questioned whether those attacks pack the same kind of punch. An August poll commissioned by CNN found only one-third of registered voters nationwide see Pelosi as a key factor in their election decision — ranking her at the bottom of nine other factors in the contest.
“I want to pay attention, but I’m one of those people who is very sensitive to negativity. And I overlook a lot of things,” Amy Spray, an independent voter in Toccoa, said of the Pelosi attacks. “I can get caught up in all those attacks, or I can just focus on my community. That’s where I’m at right now.”
Tim Evans, a Republican in Johns Creek, also said he tuned out the glut of Pelosi ads during last year’s special election. His mind has already made up: “I ignored them because I know she just wants to get her hands back on the gavel, but her time has come and gone.”
Each and every one of those ads targeted Ossoff, who had his face plastered with Pelosi’s on iconic San Francisco images such as the Golden Gate Bridge and cable cars; Handel mentioned Pelosi more than 10 times during a televised debate.
He has a decidedly different view of the attacks.
“It’s the fallback hit when they’ve got nothing better, and it riles up ultrapartisan Republican voters,” Ossoff said. “But most voters are not hard-core partisans. The GOP spent $20 million trying to tie me to Pelosi in a traditional Republican stronghold and still barely held on.”
In his race, he added, he improved on previous Democratic performance in the district by about 20 percentage points.
“Repeat that nationwide and they lose a lot of seats,” Ossoff said. “So how effective is it really?”
The Atlanta Journal-Constitution is covering the issues and candidates up and down the ballot in a busy election year. Recent stories have focused on the expansion of Medicaid as an issue in the governor’s race and the influence of outside spending on Georgia campaigns. Look for more at ajc.com/politics as the state heads for the general election on Nov. 6.