TOPEKA, Kan. — Paul Davis kicked off a promising Democratic campaign to flip a GOP-leaning Kansas congressional district with a pledge to oppose Nancy Pelosi's return as House speaker. It didn't change the GOP's strategy for keeping the seat: Republicans have branded him a "Pelosi liberal."
Davis is among dozens of Democratic candidates across the U.S. who have backed away from Pelosi, including in Democratic strongholds such as California and New York. And Republicans are lobbing similar attacks against them, using the veteran California liberal's name as code for what's supposed to make GOP-leaning and centrist voters nervous about the left, including support for big government — and more recently, a desire to impeach President Donald Trump.
In Kansas, a GOP super PAC tied Davis, a former state lawmaker, to Pelosi in an ad because of his propensity to vote with his own party in the Legislature when he was the state House leader.
Pelosi, the U.S. House speaker when Democrats controlled the chamber in 2007-11, has been among Republicans' go-to attacks for more than a decade, with consultants from both parties estimating that the GOP has spent tens of millions on ads linking other Democrats to her. The spotlight on her has intensified with former President Barack Obama and 2016 presidential nominee Hillary Clinton no longer front-and-center.
"It's just kind of this tired of old playbook, I think, that they have been using for years and years," Davis said in an interview.
Democrats need to pick up at least 23 new House seats for a majority in the 435-member House. With a narrow majority, a small group of recalcitrant freshmen could leave Pelosi short of the 218 votes necessary to become speaker.
But Republican operatives and candidates argue that such Democrats can't avoid being associated with Pelosi because she's the most likely Democrat to become the new speaker if her party regains the majority. Pelosi recently told The Associated Press that she's not going anywhere and has a strong national political following.
"It's probably a motiving factor for Republican-leaning voters," said Pat McFerron, a Republican political consultant in Oklahoma. "Here's your risk of a Paul Davis in office: You're not just electing Paul Davis."
Davis is vying for retiring five-term Republican Rep. Lynn Jenkins' seat and raised $1.6 million before the state's August primary, when he was unopposed for the Democratic nomination. GOP nominee Steve Watkins, a first-time candidate, engineer and Army veteran, emerged from a six-person primary with 26 percent of the vote.
Watkins called Davis a "safe" vote for Pelosi and "a vote for Donald Trump's impeachment hearings."
Davis said the legal problems of former Trump associates Paul Manafort and Michael Cohen are "concerning" but added that it is not responsible to "prejudge" special prosecutor Robert Mueller's investigation. Davis also said he has differences with top Democrats on issues such as environmental regulation and is willing to buck them in Washington.
But he ducked the question of exactly whom he would support instead of Pelosi.
"I have to win a race first, and I'm not spending a great deal of time thinking about what happens after Election Day," he said.
The Congressional Leadership Fund, a super PAC backed by House Speaker Paul Ryan, sponsored the ad that called Davis a "Pelosi liberal." It also features Pelosi in attack ads in a neighboring Kansas district, Kentucky, New Jersey and New York.
In upstate New York, the PAC linked Democratic nominee Anthony Brandisi to Pelosi in an ad, suggesting he'd be a "rubber stamp" for tax increases. Brandisi hasn't declared his support for Pelosi, adding, "Where leaders have been in power for long periods of time, I believe change is good thing."
In southern Kansas, Republican Rep. Ron Estes' campaign tweeted that Democrat James Thompson would vote "with Pelosi in lock step."
Thompson said he opposes Pelosi for speaker because, "it's time to move in a new direction." He also called the GOP attacks on her "awfully misogynistic in some aspects."
Other congressional Democrats have been GOP foils. In Missouri, Republican Senate nominee Josh Hawley rarely misses an opportunity to attack Senate Democratic Leader Chuck Schumer in his bid to unseat Sen. Claire McCaskill. In Kansas in 2014, a crucial re-election tactic for veteran Republican Sen. Pat Roberts was attacking then-Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid.
But Pelosi's hometown of San Francisco is an ideal symbol when Republicans seek to portray Democrats as out of touch in GOP-leaning areas.
"Nancy Pelosi is absolutely toxic across the country," said Congressional Leadership Fund spokeswoman Courtney Alexander.
Pelosi has defenders. She remains an effective fundraiser and has kept her party relatively unified in the minority. Passage of the Affordable Care Act in 2010 hurt Democrats as they lost the House majority that year, but some of its changes have become popular with voters over time.
"We let them demonize her and make her this big negative when she's ushered in life-changing successes for this country," said Democratic Rep. Cedric Richardson, of Louisiana, chairman of the Congressional Black Caucus.
Barrow reported from Atlanta.