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  • Writer's pictureThe San Juan Daily Star

Pelosi, Democrats’ billion-dollar woman, fights on with majority teetering

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi with Rep. Sean Casten, one of a handful of Democrats in Illinois running in tight races, at a reproductive rights roundtable in Downers Grove, Ill., Oct. 21, 2022.

By Carl Hulse

It has long been known that House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, the first woman to hold the post second in line to the presidency, does not sleep much. These days, as she races in and out of cities across the nation in a grueling, nonstop push for campaign money to hang on to her embattled House majority, even her bedtime hours are consumed with thoughts of how to win.

“I don’t count sheep at night; I count districts,” Pelosi, D-Calif., a longtime party leader, said during a closing blitz across the Midwest on behalf of battleground House candidates crucial to any remaining hope that Democrats have of surviving a Republican onslaught. “I go one by one by one.”

The big question is whether she can count to 218, the number required to maintain control of the House — and one that a growing number of independent handicappers believe is out of reach for Democrats.

Even as she follows every twist and turn on the House map, the reality is that this could well be Pelosi’s final trip around the track as party leader. The majority she has built and carefully nurtured — not once, but twice — is in jeopardy of falling under the weight of public fears about crime and inflation along with heavy Republican campaign spending and the traditional midterm drag on a president’s party in Congress.

But if this is her final race, Pelosi is running through the tape, trying to ensure her candidates have the resources to compete as Republicans pour on the cash. Pelosi is an 82-year-old juggernaut in Armani, behaving as if holding the House rests in her hands alone. In some ways it does; she is not only the well-established national face of the House majority, but is also by far its most prolific fundraiser.

“My time is money,” Pelosi said as she lamented the opportunity cost of talking to a reporter when she could be working her cellphone instead.

The lifetime returns on Pelosi’s investment of time and energy are staggering. Since assuming the party’s House leadership in 2002, she has brought in $1.25 billion for Democrats, according to a party tally, including $42.7 million in the third quarter of this year alone. Her haul so far this election cycle is $276 million, reaped at more than 400 events. Just this month, she has visited more than 20 cities. (After a three-day, four-state Midwestern swing last week, she departed Sunday for a quick trip to Croatia for meetings on Ukraine.)

The tour that touched down last week in Michigan, Ohio, Minnesota and Illinois generated $380,000 that went directly into the accounts of Democrats in some of the toughest races in the nation, must-wins that could benefit from a final burst of cash. Pelosi — sometimes better known for the legislative acrobatics she has often performed to keep her party’s agenda on track and Democrats united behind it — is now in constant campaign mode, regularly holding Zoom calls with candidates and briefings for thousands of volunteers.

Her energy level amazes and inspires her troops.

“When I wake up in the morning and feel a little bit tired, I think of Nancy Pelosi,” said Rep. Brenda Lawrence, 68, a retiring Michigan Democrat who introduced the speaker at a private fundraising reception with labor and civic leaders along Detroit’s riverfront. “I put the lipstick on and say, ‘We’ve got to go.’ ”

To Republicans, the speaker remains a favored weapon to deploy against vulnerable candidates, although they have done so with mixed results. They lace their campaign ads and fundraising appeals with calls to “fire Pelosi” as they try to link the liberal congresswoman from San Francisco to targeted Democrats in conservative-leaning districts, such as Rep. Abigail Spanberger in north-central Virginia.

“Abigail Spanberger votes 100% with Pelosi,” said a recent attack ad from a Republican group with ties to Rep. Kevin McCarthy of California, who hopes to succeed Pelosi next year. “It is like having our very own Pelosi mini-me.”

Among Americans at large, Pelosi remains a polarizing figure who can provoke a sharp backlash, one Republicans constantly try to capitalize on. She is not the most charismatic speaker and can be abrupt and impatient with the media. But on the campaign trail, she exhibits a single-mindedness that has won her the deep allegiance of most of her colleagues.

On the ground, Democrats enthusiastically embrace the speaker during her visits, welcoming not only the financial help but also the attention she can bring to local projects and the benefits of party policies. Her folk-hero status among Democrats was only elevated by a recently revealed behind-the-scenes video from the Jan. 6 assault on the Capitol showing her pressing for more help from the military to put down the attack, threatening to punch out Donald Trump, and checking on the well-being of Vice President Mike Pence — all while opening a sausage snack with her teeth.

As she campaigned last week, she carried in her purse a sausage wrapped with a bow presented to her by a fan.

In Illinois, Pelosi flew in for a handful of candidates she needed to get over the finish line, including Reps. Sean Casten of Illinois and Frank Mrvan from a nearby Indiana district, and candidates Nikki Budzinski and Eric Sorensen, both running for open seats in Illinois.

Posing for cellphone pictures with anyone who sought one, Pelosi used the venue of a sleek workspace in a downtown skyscraper to make the case for her contenders and warn of the threat posed by a Republican takeover.

“The urgency of saving our democracy is real,” Pelosi said, adding that she hated to be a “fearmonger,” but that the moment required it.

Then she traveled to this western suburb represented by Casten to meet with health care professionals at a sprawling medical complex and hear about the dangers posed by new restrictions on abortion, even in a state where the procedure is still allowed. Pelosi frequently emphasizes that Republican goals go beyond limiting access to abortion to restrictions on contraception, noting that just a handful of House Republicans supported a Democratic measure this summer guaranteeing access to birth control.

“What right does a judge or a member of Congress have to come to the kitchen table of America’s families and weigh in on size and timing of the family?” she asked during her appearance at Advocate Good Samaritan Hospital, portraying women as the key to the election.

“Your right to choose is on the ballot,” she told the group of doctors, medical workers and abortion rights advocates. “If women vote, women will win.”

In an interview, Pelosi disputed the idea that abortion was fading as a driving issue after giving Democrats a lift following the Supreme Court’s decision to overturn Roe v. Wade in June. But she hopes that view lulls Republicans into complacency.

“You think that. You go think that,” she said of Republicans. “I can tell you, it is not in the rearview mirror.”

What is to become of Pelosi should Democrats fall short? Will she step aside and conclude an iconic 35-year career in office, sparking an internal power struggle? In securing the speakership in 2019, she pledged she would not pursue that post after her term ending in January, but she has recently balked at questions on the subject, saying she is focused first on the midterms.

“Do you think I would respond to that question?” the speaker asked when pressed about whether she harbored any feeling that she was on a valedictory tour.

For Pelosi, the frenzied journey to Nov. 8 is not a last hurrah — it’s just her latest sprint to the finish.

“Conventional wisdom says we might want to go to the beach,” she said. “No, you go to the fight.”

“There is one answer,” she added. “Win.”

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