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Why Republican Candidates Aren’t Getting Asked Who They’d Back for Speaker

Democratic candidates constantly get asked about Pelosi, but Republicans are rarely questioned about McCarthy, Jordan

Rep. Jim Jordan, R-Ohio, wants to be House Republicans' top leader, but GOP candidates are rarely asked whether they support his bid. That might be about to change, if Democratic criticism and advertising has anything to do with it. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photo)
Rep. Jim Jordan, R-Ohio, wants to be House Republicans' top leader, but GOP candidates are rarely asked whether they support his bid. That might be about to change, if Democratic criticism and advertising has anything to do with it. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photo)

Democratic candidates can’t escape the question, “Do you support Nancy Pelosi?” But how many Republican candidates can say they’ve heard the equivalent about Kevin McCarthy or Jim Jordan, the two GOP speaker hopefuls?

A Roll Call analysis found only 13 press reports in which Republican candidates in the 86 competitive House races were asked about or commented on McCarthy or Jordan in the context of who should be the next Republican leader.

By contrast, at least 66 Democratic candidates in competitive races have been asked whether they’d support Pelosi, the House minority leader, to remain the leader of the Democratic Caucus, Roll Call’s analysis found. The answers candidates provided to those questions varied.

That dynamic, perpetrated by reporters, stems from the fact that national Republicans have made Pelosi a major theme in their attack ads, attempting to tie Democratic candidates to the progressive leader in hopes that it will help repel moderate voters and fire up the GOP base, for whom Pelosi is persona non grata. 

Democrats, with a few notable exceptions, have not run ads connecting Republican candidates to McCarthy, the House majority leader from California, or Jordan, the co-founder of the Freedom Caucus from Ohio. 

There are a couple of assumptions at work. If Democrats win big in November and Pelosi runs for speaker, it could change the dynamic for Republicans, who would be left to sort out who would best function as a minority leader. If Republicans retain the majority, the size of it would set the tone of the speaker race between McCarthy and Jordan, and Democrats would be left to re-evaluate who should lead them for another two years in the wilderness.

Regardless, Pelosi gets more attention out on the campaign trail than either Republican, whether the discussion is about the speakership or being minority leader. 

Speaker Paul D. Ryan does get some mentions in relation to Republicans’ policy agenda, but since he is retiring, candidates’ ties to him might matter less.

No names?

Of the many explanations for why Democrats are leaving the race to replace Ryan out of campaigns, name recognition seems to be the most common. 

“Nobody knows who the hell they are,” Democratic campaign strategist Achim Bergmann said of McCarthy and Jordan. 

Former Virginia Republican Rep. Tom Davis, who chaired the National Republican Congressional Committee from 1998 to 2002, had the same assessment. 

“You don’t waste a bullet on someone no one really knows,” he said. 

And Democrats say they have better ammunition to launch against Republicans, like their votes to repeal the 2010 health care law and to cut taxes for the wealthy. 

Kitchen table issues like health care and taxes are the ones that count, said one Democratic strategist, who requested anonymity to discuss party tactics candidly. Some voters’ eyes will glaze over when you start talking about leadership.

That’s why Republican attacks on Pelosi will fall flat in a lot of races, the strategist said. And when it comes to the guilt-by-association argument, it’s President Donald Trump, not GOP congressional leaders, who will be on voters’ minds. 

Least important issue

Indeed, a CNN poll conducted Aug. 9-12 found that only 34 percent of 1,002 respondents identified Pelosi as an issue that is very or extremely important to their vote. Twice the amount, 68 percent, said the same of Trump.

Pelosi ranked the lowest in importance among the 10 issues presented to voters in the poll, which had a 4-point error margin. Health care, the economy and immigration were the top matters voters said are very or extremely important to their vote.

Those responses put a stake in the heart of the anti-Pelosi strategy, her spokesman Drew Hammill said. The fact that Republicans are sticking with it illustrates how little else they have to run on, he said.

“They’re really in a desperate state, and I think it shows how precarious their majority is,” Hammill said.

Republicans disagree, arguing that Pelosi and the policies she represents are divisive.

“Unlike our congressional leaders, Nancy Pelosi is the most unpopular politician in every single district we poll,” NRCC spokesman Matt Gorman said, noting that’s not hyperbole. 

“Whether it’s Speaker Ryan, Leader McCarthy, or even President Trump — they all go, in person, to competitive districts to hold public events,” he said. “When was the last time Nancy Pelosi did that? I can’t remember.”

‘It will come’

Davis, however, said the top congressional leaders of both parties always get villainized. The GOP is currently benefiting from the fact that Ryan is retiring and his preferred successor, McCarthy, is not yet a household name.

“The short answer is the Democrats have not had enough time to demonize him yet,” Davis said. “It will come.”

In a sign of what could be coming, the Pelosi-aligned House Majority PAC on Aug. 20 started airing an online ad that questioned Republicans’ choices for speaker. 

Jim Jordan, remind you of Joe Paterno?” the ad asks, referring to allegations that Jordan, during his time as an assistant wrestling coach at Ohio State University, ignored a team doctor who was sexually abusing athletes. Paterno is the late Penn State football coach who ignored abuse by the team’s defensive coordinator, Jerry Sandusky.

Kevin McCarthy, Paul Ryan’s protégé with a lot of baggage,” the ad continues as it flashes a newspaper headline from 2015:  “Kevin McCarthy Quits Speaker Race Amid Allegations of Affair.”

“And Steve Scalise, linked to KKK leader David Duke,” the ad concludes. “No wonder they aren’t looking out for you.” (Scalise, the House majority whip, is not running for speaker against McCarthy but would enter the race if McCarthy dropped out or failed to get enough votes.)

Jordan denies knowing about the sex abuse at Ohio State, which the university is investigating. Rumors of a McCarthy affair with former GOP Rep. Renee Ellmers were never substantiated. Scalise confirmed he spoke at a 2002 convention hosted by the European-American Unity and Rights Organization but said he didn’t know at the time about the group’s white nationalist views or that it was founded by Duke.

‘Voters deserve to know’

The scandals surrounding GOP leadership hopefuls are just another sign that “the circus of corruption runs deep among House Republicans,” House Majority PAC spokesman Jeb Fain said in a statement.

“Every Republican running for Congress has a choice they need both to make and to answer for — which scandal-ridden GOP leader is their pick to replace Paul Ryan?” he said. “Jim Jordan? Kevin McCarthy? Steve Scalise? Voters deserve to know.”

Before the House Majority PAC ad hit, American Bridge, a progressive super PAC, ran a similar ad ahead of the special election in Ohio’s 12th District noting that Troy Balderson — the Republican candidate and eventual winner of the race — refused to say whether he would back Jordan for speaker. The ad questioned whether Balderson stands with Jordan or the Ohio State victims.

It’s still early in the ad wars, so it’s hard to say how the leadership attacks ultimately play, said Hammill, who argues that the relentless focus on Pelosi smacks of “undeniable” sexism. In his mind, though, Pelosi prevails over the GOP speaker options.

“A philanderer, a guy who enabled sexual assault, a guy who spoke to the Klan and an Italian-American grandmother of nine — there’s no contest here,” Hammill said.

‘Double standard’

The Democratic strategist who requested anonymity agreed sexism is a factor and said Republicans are trying to make Pelosi something different or unusual, when, unlike most GOP speakers, she’s been an effective leader unmarred by scandal.

“What a double standard that Pelosi has had to deal with over the years,” the strategist said.

The imbalance, however, is not likely something Democrats will spend a lot of money to fix.

Bergmann said attacking the relatively unknown Republican speaker candidates wouldn’t factor into his paid communications strategy, but the question of who GOP candidates support is still a weapon Democratic campaigns can add to their arsenals.

“It’s a totally valid question for Republicans to have to answer,” he said. “What are they going to do when presented with these people?”

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