John Boehner: Coming Soon to a TV Near You?

The House speaker is now as unpopular as Nancy Pelosi was in 2010. Will House Democrats make Boehner the bogeyman of their 2014 campaign?

U.S. Speaker of the House John Boehner holds a press conference on July 30, 2011 at the U.S. Capitol in Washington, DC.
National Journal
Scott Bland
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Scott Bland
Oct. 30, 2013, 4:03 a.m.

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.

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