Republicans will face a massive gender gap at the polls this November, but they’re still betting big on an ad strategy that demonizes two of the most recognizable women in American politics.
Over the last 30 days, close to 100 Republican-funded TV spots casting Hillary Clinton, House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi — or both — as villains have aired more than 34,000 times, according to data compiled for POLITICO by Advertising Analytics. In three battleground Senate races alone — Indiana, Missouri and West Virginia — ads featuring Pelosi or Clinton blanketed TV screens, running more than 1,100 times in each state.
All told, Republican campaigns or affiliated groups sunk $28.4 million into the Clinton and Pelosi messaging over the last month.
“It’s all about energizing the Republican base,” said Republican strategist Ana Navarro. “If you are a Republican — man, woman, child or house plant — you are genetically predisposed to detest Nancy Pelosi, and Hillary is not far behind.”
Pelosi’s face often appears in grainy, black and white ads featuring buzz words aimed at inflaming Republican voters. The House minority leader is frequently described as a liberal with “San Francisco values” who wants to impose sanctuary cities and “massive tax hikes.” She’s then placed side by side with Democrats running at every level — from statewide to Congress and even state legislature.
“Montclair Mikie,” blares one of the ads targeting Democrat Mikie Sherrill in New Jersey’s 11th Congressional District. “A Pelosi liberal behind closed doors.” The spot, which nods to the affluent township where Sherrill resides, features audio in which Sherrill praises Pelosi even though the candidate has said she won’t support Pelosi for speaker if Democrats take back the House.
The Clinton ads, which aren’t as prevalent as the ubiquitous Pelosi commercials, are equally scornful. In one spot running in Arkansas — her onetime home state — the Democrat running in the 2nd Congressional District is whacked for “following the Hillary playbook” by taking money from Hollywood donors.
“Liberal Hollywood elitists who don’t share our values are pouring money into Clarke Tucker’s campaign,” the ad, titled “Hillarywood,” warns. “Why? Because Clarke Tucker is a HIllary-supporting Democrat for higher taxes and bigger government. Clarke Tucker, Hillary and Hollywood. We’ve seen this movie before. Who really wants to see it again?”
Hillary and Pelosi-bashing is a tried and true strategy for the GOP, but one that carries more risk in an election cycle marked by historic gains by women candidates and a gender gap that’s hit record highs.
According to a CNN poll released this week, 63 percent of women said they intended on voting for Democratic candidates. The poll also showed that women are among the most motivated groups expected to vote this November.
Republicans say their reason for not backing off attacks on Pelosi and Clinton is simple: it works.
Congressional Leadership Fund, which is financing ads featuring Pelosi in at least 15 battleground districts, said its polling shows there’s no better Democratic scapegoat than Pelosi, whose name ID and negatives are through the roof.
“Nancy Pelosi and her agenda are absolutely toxic in all battleground districts across the country,” said spokeswoman Courtney Alexander. “Both Republicans and Democrats view Pelosi as a reminder of everything they dislike about the Democratic Party, whether it be calls to abolish ICE or higher taxes.”
A September Gallup poll reports that Hillary Clinton’s popularity is equally low, and she continues to be a deeply polarizing figure nearly two years after losing the 2016 presidential race. The survey reported her favorability rating at 36 percent — among Republicans, it’s a rock-bottom 4 percent.
Still, Democrats — and even some Republicans — question whether the familiar blueprint will backfire since it doesn’t account for 2018’s unique conditions or new motivations stirring women in a post-Brett Kavanaugh election.
“We’ve got 30,000 women running nationwide and they’re still running against Nancy Pelosi and Hillary Clinton,” said Sue Dvorsky, former Iowa Democratic Party chair. “Is that the best they’ve got?”
Dvorsky accused Republicans of turning to a one-size-fits-all ad strategy because they failed to connect with voters on real issues and now in the run-up to the election are facing a depressed base.
“These are their perennial villainesses,” she said. “This is such a tired trope.”
John Thomas, a California-based GOP consultant, said his own testing this cycle shows there’s little risk to Republicans who attack Pelosi and Clinton because their negatives are so high — even among women.
“If it ain’t broke don’t fix it, right?” Thomas said. “Pelosi and Clinton are still incredibly unpopular figures.”
But that could depend on who shows up to vote.
Janine Parry, director of the Arkansas Poll, said that in a year deemed to be ‘the year of the woman,’ Republicans risk voter backlash over an onslaught of ads targeting two powerful women. But that’s predicated on a massive turnout among groups that historically don’t post major turnout numbers in the midterms, she said.
“They’re betting that anyone who is turned off is already voting Democrat or are less likely to vote in this election anyway,” Parry said. “Single women, minority women, young women might feel annoyed, irritated, even infuriated by ads like that. But they’re less likely to vote in this election than white married women. And that’s who’s being targeted.”
Some Republicans fear that even if the strategy works, it isn’t doing enough to engage with voters in today’s environment, where an unprecedented number of women are not only running for office but have demonstrated in special elections and primary contests that they are the critical bloc of voters that can swing an election.
“I’d rather be forward-thinking and thinking about the future,” Kim Reem, member at large of the National Federation of Republican Women, said of the Pelosi and Clinton ads. “Personally, I’d like to see candidates run on their own merit. I don’t think there’s a lot of value to lump everything into one basket.”
Reem sees the reasoning for having Pelosi in ads but she questioned using Clinton this cycle.
“There’s no doubt about it that they’re polarizing,” Reem said. “But where is Hillary on the ballot? She’s not.”