NY-22 Minute: Should Anthony Brindisi Distance Himself from Nancy Pelosi? By Luke Perry
One of the major implications from Conor Lamb’s recent victory in PA-18 is that running as a moderate in a Republican district was effective in this political climate. Donald Trump won PA-18 by 20 points in 2016. The margin was even slimmer in NY-22 (15 points). This is great news for Democrats, hopeful this election cycle about retaking the House, while also presenting a challenge as divisions between progressives and centrists deepen.
Part of what Lamb did was protect himself from criticisms surrounding Nancy Pelosi by not supporting her in leadership. “I think it’s clear that this Congress is not working for the people,” Lamb explained, “I think we need new leadership on both sides.” Given Lamb’s improbable victory, the question is: will other Democratic candidates follow suit? This question now faces Anthony Brindisi.
The strategic argument in favor of Brindisi supporting new leadership is premised on neutralizing a major mode of attack by Republicans. Aggregate polling demonstrates that Leader Pelosi is not popular nationally with a net favorability of around -20 points. This is similar to other longstanding House leaders, but still not ideal.
The same goes for National Republican Congressional Committee (NRCC). Chris Martin, for example, has employed similar rhetoric against Conor Lamb and Anthony Brindisi, calling both a “rubber stamp” for Pelosi (examples regarding Lamb & Brindisi).
The NRCC justified their strategy in light of the PA-18 defeat. Jesse Hunt, a spokesperson for the group, claimed Lamb would not have distanced himself from Pelosi unless their strategy was working. “That’s campaign politics 101,” Hunt explained, “you don’t respond to an attack unless you feel it’s really having an impact on your candidacy.”
Still, there is much to gain by Brindisi supporting new leadership and little to lose. Pelosi-related attacks would likely continue, but their logic and coherence would be diminished.
These attacks would increasingly emphasize Pelosi’s fundraising ability, one of her greatest strengths, but fellow partisans raising money for each other is not new or controversial. Moreover, party leaders, including Pelosi, would likely continue to help Brindisi’s campaign, as we saw with Lamb’s campaign.
Rather than just pointing to his past record in seeking to demonstrate his independence from party leaders, Brindisi could make a clear commitment to the present and future, solidifying himself as a more centrist Democrat.
The strategic argument against Brindisi supporting new leadership is that Republican efforts to re-frame this election to be about Democratic Congressional leaders, and not a referendum on President Trump, runs counter to historical trends. The president’s party consistently loses seats during his/her first midterm. President Bush after 9/11 is the only exception in the last 40 years.
First Midterm Presidents
Dem -63 Barack Obama (2010)
GOP +8 George W. Bush (2002)
Dem -52 Bill Clinton (1994)
GOP -26 Ronald Reagan (1982)
Dem -15 Jimmy Carter (1978)
Lower approval ratings correlate with higher losses. There has not been a modern president as consistently unpopular as President Trump. This will be a challenge for Republicans this midterm, particularly new incumbents in more vulnerable seats, like Claudia Tenney.
From this vantage point, one could dismiss NRCC produced Pelosi attack ads, like this cartoon “Nancy Has a Little Lamb,” rather than view it as something to be concerned about.
Still, the embodiment of Democratic identity beyond rebuking Donald Trump remains uncertain in terms of policy, gender, and age. There is much enthusiasm this cycle, but a large presidential field taking shape for 2020 will likely define leadership in the years to come.
Anthony Brindisi may cautiously avoid taking sides, but as with any strategy, there are potential risks and rewards with this approach.
Luke Perry (@PolSciLukePerry) is Chair and Professor of Government at Utica College.
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