In 2010, Republicans made unpopular Democratic House Speaker Nancy Pelosi the face of their massive advertising campaign to take back the House of Representatives. Three years later, the Democratic leader has company in America's doghouse. Current Speaker John Boehner's poll numbers are as bad as Pelosi's were when the GOP turned her into a TV villain, possibly heralding another midterm election with the speaker splashed across the country's airwaves — but this time with the roles in reverse.
"There's a good part of the country where [Boehner's] numbers suggest he can be a good symbol for what's wrong with Congress and D.C.," said Democratic consultant Jef Pollock, the president of Global Strategy Group.
In the most recent CNN/Opinion Research Corporation poll conducted last week, 55 percent of the adults surveyed said they viewed Boehner unfavorably — a record high for the speaker. Only 27 percent said they had a favorable opinion of the Ohio Republican. Those results mirror Pelosi's report card just before the end of her speakership. In CNN's final preelection poll of 2010, just 26 percent of respondents viewed her favorably compared with 53 percent who had unfavorable opinions of her.
Pelosi's persistent unpopularity in 2010 — at least 50 percent in every national CNN poll that year — led the GOP to feature her heavily in its House campaign. According to the leaders of the National Republican Congressional Committee's independent expenditure effort, Pelosi appeared in nearly two-thirds of the committee's TV ads that year. Multiple ads began like this one in southern New Jersey: "John Adler says he's independent. But Adler has voted with Nancy Pelosi over 90 percent of the time." On the other side of the Delaware River, the Republican ad said then-Rep. Patrick Murphy, D-Pa., "helped Pelosi, but his votes hurt Pennsylvania families." Further south, a washed-out Pelosi loomed as a narrator described 700 Florida Panhandle jobs "lost because Allen Boyd sided with Nancy Pelosi."
Republicans disliked Pelosi more strongly than Democrats dislike Boehner now, and Boehner's own party doesn't back him as well as Democrats backed Pelosi, according to the CNN polls. But independents render basically the same verdict, with 54 percent viewing the Ohio Republican unfavorably compared with 56 percent who said the same about Pelosi in September 2010. Boehner also matches his predecessor among people age 50 and over, among whom the speaker sinks to 60 percent disapproval, and other groups.
Across the nation and multiple important subgroups, Boehner's current position mirrors Pelosi's in 2010. Last year, House Democrats used Mitt Romney and Paul Ryan to paint some Republicans, like swing-district Rep. Chris Gibson of New York, as too beholden to their national party, but neither member of the Republican ticket was ever as unpopular as Boehner is now. And Boehner may be the best-known face of the recent government shutdown, which Democrats are poised to make a centerpiece of their 2014 campaign. A number of vulnerable Republicans who questioned the party's shutdown strategy ultimately went along with it when Boehner adopted the principle that no funding for Obamacare would be included in bills to fund the government. Democrats may use votes in line with the speaker, who was front-and-center during the half-month shutdown, as a tool to break down the independent reputations of some swing-district Republicans in 2014.
"When it comes to Americans' anger and frustration with Congress, no one personifies that more than Speaker John Boehner," said Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee spokeswoman Emily Bittner. "Speaker Boehner's reckless agenda has created the most irresponsible Congress that Americans can remember, and voters revile Speaker Boehner because he is jeopardizing their financial stability."
Still, some Democrats already see limits to Boehner's potential usefulness in 2014 advertising, despite his low numbers. One obstacle is time: Boehner could repair his image over the next year, especially if Congress manages to reach agreement on some of the major issues facing the country.
Also, while Pelosi was closely tied to Democratic policies that voters soured on over the course of 2010, such as cap and trade and the health care law, motivations for disliking Boehner are less focused. The speaker takes criticism from all sides these days, with some blaming him for acquiescing to tea-party forces and others disliking him for not giving more power to that wing of the GOP. That doesn't help Boehner's popularity, but it also makes using him to represent Congress's failures more difficult, since not everyone sees him as a driving force behind them. And it may make Boehner's unpopularity less intense than Pelosi's, who was also easily stereotyped as a San Francisco liberal.
Republicans invested time and resources in making Pelosi a Democratic symbol before 2010, something Democrats haven't spent much energy attempting with Boehner, though some have discussed it in the past. According to one Democratic media strategist, that might be a waste of effort.
"I think that's just letting the local Republican off too easy," said Travis Lowe, who directed the DCCC's independent expenditure program in 2012. "These guys voted for everything horrible that's going on in D.C., from the shutdown to attacking the various popular tenets of Obamacare. Everything voters hate that's coming from here, these guys voted for it. So to put someone else's face on TV and assign blame to them is missing an opportunity. These guys own these votes. We don't want to take that away."
The current electoral map could also dissuade Democrats from using Boehner broadly. Democrats held a number of House districts that leaned Republican in national politics by 2010, but Republicans only control a handful of liberal-leaning seats now. The GOP captured 36 districts in 2010 that had Democratic representatives even though John McCain won the area's presidential vote, and Republicans focused their attacks on the national Democratic Party (in which Pelosi often featured prominently) in those areas. In the current Congress, only 17 Republicans represent territory that President Obama carried in 2012. (Democrats would need to net 17 seats in order to retake the House, but they also have to defend some conservative-leaning territory next year.)
There is a chance that Boehner isn't well-known enough in some particular areas to feature in a broad anti-Republican ad campaign. Andy Stone, the spokesman for the leading House Democratic super PAC, House Majority PAC, said members of a recent focus group in Republican Rep. Gary Miller's liberal-leaning California district drew blanks on the House speaker's name. "It was a low-information group of voters," Stone said. "But not a single person had any idea who he was." That barrier may have lowered due to the shutdown, but it remains a possible sticking point.
Another Democrat advised watching the special election to replace the late Rep. Bill Young, R-Fla., for clues about how Boehner might play nationally in 2014. Special-election results are often overhyped, but strategists on both sides do use the contests to take cues on strategy based on testing in a live environment. House Democrats and House Republicans shaped their Medicare messages in 2012 partly based on what they saw working in two 2011 specials.
Obama won Florida's 13th District twice, though by smaller margins than his national victory. If the DCCC or other groups use Boehner to tag a local Republican with the national party's low ratings early next year, that might be a signal to expect a bigger dose of Boehner in Democratic target districts in the fall.
Strategies for 2014 are still under construction, the political environment is prone to changes, and — even as Republicans continue to deploy Pelosi's image on occasion — Democrats may even decide that they would rather not feature a Republican bogeyman widely next year. But Boehner's scary numbers provide them a ready-made opportunity.