When Mark Sanford debated a cardboard cutout of House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi in his South Carolina race last week, it was a replay of a tried-and-true Republican strategy: Demonize Pelosi and wrap her like a stone around your opponent’s neck.
The tactic can be effective, torn from a well-worn playbook that dates from nearly a decade ago. But it does beg a question: Why isn’t Speaker John Boehner targeted in the same way by Democrats?
Unlike his predecessor as speaker, the Ohio Republican has not yet become a standard attack line for Democrats in races nationwide, leaving some to wonder how the most powerful elected leader in the Republican Party has escaped unscathed.
“The weight around Republican ankles is the whole Republican Congress,” offered Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee spokesman Jesse Ferguson.
Yet interviews this week with lawmakers, pollsters, and strategists found no clear consensus on an explanation for the disparate treatment.
One answer is that Democrats simply see more gain in attacking the tea party—and like-minded congressional Republicans—as a group with frightening ideas. Boehner is not typically viewed as a tea-party leader, and is often at odds with that faction himself. And while he could conceivably be attacked as an ineffective leader, many experts say he is simply not seen as a scary figure.
“Fear is a bigger driver,” one Democratic strategist said.
Indeed, during the 2012 elections, Democratic ads focused on Rep. Paul Ryan, R-Wis., Mitt Romney’s vice presidential running mate who was himself the architect of GOP proposals to overhaul Medicare and other social programs.
Majority Leader Eric Cantor, R-Va., and others in the House Republican Conference also provide a broader “collective” cast of well-known foils for Democrats than is available in the Democratic caucus for Republicans, said Lee Miringoff, director of the Marist Institute for Public Opinion in Poughkeepsie, N.Y.
Still, a Gallup poll released last week showed both Pelosi and Boehner are well-known. Only 11 percent of those surveyed said they had never heard of Pelosi (the most well-known of all four of the House and Senate majority and minority leaders), and only 14 percent said they had not heard of Boehner.
Pelosi led the list of the four leaders in unpopularity, with 48 percent of those surveying saying they had an unfavorable opinion of her, while 31 percent had a favorable opinion. Forty-one percent said they had an unfavorable opinion of Boehner, while 31 percent had a favorable view.
Frank Newport, Gallup’s editor-in-chief, said he believes—though he has not seen data to back this up—that Pelosi has fallen prey over the years to a polarized and intense right-wing media barrage, while more-liberal media voices are less prone to outright personal attacks.
Some of this too may be based on Pelosi’s success in driving the Democratic agenda, such as her role in helping to pass President Obama’s Affordable Care Act while speaker.
“You attack power, not weakness,” said a senior House Democratic aide, “which is why Boehner is less frequently used.”
“I like him, actually. He’s a nice guy,” added Rep. Jim McGovern, D-Mass., of Boehner, who said the speaker has traditionally had a “reasonable and moderate” record.
“If he had it his way, the House Republican Conference wouldn’t be as dysfunctional as it has been,” McGovern said.