By Paul Kane and Karen Tumulty
Washington Post Staff Writers
Sunday, September 19, 2010; 8:57 PM
MCGREGOR, TEXAS - Little more than two years after she touted him for the vice presidential nomination, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi cannot count on the support of Rep. Chet Edwards.
Edwards, a conservative Democrat trying win an 11th term representing this area southwest of Dallas, said he has not made up his mind whether he would support Pelosi (D-Calif.) for another term as speaker, as he comes under fire back home for his close ties to the Democratic leader.
"No, I've made no commitments for speaker. Until we see the outcome of this election, I don't even know who will be running for speaker," Edwards said in an interview while campaigning Saturday in this small town of 5,000 southwest of Waco.
Democrats from a number of states, including Texas, Ohio and North Carolina, are running away from Pelosi in a harsh political climate. Distancing one's self from the speaker is nothing new for many Democrats, including Edwards, but the number of incumbents criticizing the party House leader is larger than it has been in past election cycles - and the volume of their criticism is louder.
More than a few Democrats have said they are wavering on supporting Pelosi as their leader next year. At least four House Democrats are running ads stating their opposition to the speaker's agenda, and one Democrat running in Tennessee called for her resignation.
Edwards, rated by independent political analysts as one of the 10 Democrats whose seat is most endangered, goes further than most of his colleagues. He openly critiques his party's entire agenda, saying its leaders "overreached" after the 2008 elections.
Now that the Democratic majority hangs in the balance, so, too, does Pelosi's hold on power. No Democrat is challenging Pelosi for speaker - or minority leader, should the party lose power - and there is no plan underway for a leadership succession if she were to resign after an electoral rout.
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Publicly and privately, Pelosi rejects any talk of losing the majority. Instead, she is focusing on a furious fundraising effort this fall to ensure that the very lawmakers openly running away from her have enough campaign cash to win reelection.
"We are going to win in November, so I don't even accept your first question or premise and all the rest of that," she said at her weekly news conference, when asked about potentially giving up power.
She added that criticism comes with the territory, and that she does not fear the attacks from either end of the political spectrum.
"To tell you the honest truth, I don't really even have the time to pay attention to what they are saying about me," she said. "We like the contest. So up the ante if you wish; we're going to be victorious come November."
Republicans have decided to double down on their anti-Pelosi campaign, making her a central figure in their campaign this fall. Among the dozen TV ads released by the National Republican Congressional Committee over the weekend, eight prominently featured Pelosi, even in two districts in Michigan and Illinois where the Democratic candidates have never served with her.
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By some Democratic estimates, Republicans and their outside interest-group allies will spend through Election Day more than $20 million on advertisements attacking Pelosi.
This kind of effort has failed many times, even in the most conservative political terrain. In the spring of 2008, Republicans ran a campaign that focused on attacking Pelosi in special elections in Louisiana and Mississippi but lost both races.
In November 2008, Democrats picked up more than 20 seats for the second straight election cycle despite a blizzard of ads tying Democrats to Pelosi. In May, Republicans lost another special election, in a Johnstown-based district in rural Pennsylvania, after a campaign that featured a heavy dose of Pelosi attacks.
Despite those past failures by the GOP, some Democrats go out of their way to separate themselves from their vote for House speaker, which is always the first vote for each new Congress.
"I don't know if Nancy Pelosi is running for speaker, and I don't know if somebody's going to challenge her. Who knows what's going to happen?" Rep. Zack Space (D-Ohio) said while campaigning in Coshocton, Ohio, in late August.
As a sign of his independence from Pelosi, Space said he wears a blue Huntington's disease awareness wristband, a gift from a constituent who lobbied him last March for more funding to fight the rare genetic disorder.
Space was hesitant to take the gift at first because he opposed the health-care bill, but the constituent also opposed the complicated legislation. "For me, it was meaningful in the sense that, you can still be compassionate and vote no on this bill," Space said.
Along the southern coast of North Carolina, Rep. Mike McIntyre (D, trying to win an eighth term, boasts to his voters that "I don't work for Nancy Pelosi." Voters in western Pennsylvania see a similar appeal from supporters of Rep. Jason Altmire. "I like that Jason Altmire is not afraid to stand up to the president and Nancy Pelosi," constituents say in a new ad.
Now Edwards has joined the fray, launching an ad this weekend that touted how he "stood up to" Pelosi and President Obama by voting against health-care legislation. This is a sharp turn for Edwards, who spent the summer of 2008 basking in the glow of Pelosi's repeated proclamations that he should be Obama's vice-presidential pick.
Representing the most Republican district held by a Democrat for 20 years - former president George W. Bush's Crawford ranch is in Texas's 17th Congressional District - Edwards was hailed two years ago by Pelosi as someone with "extraordinary credentials." They served together on the Appropriations Committee, where Edwards now oversees the veterans' budget.
"The mistake has been just going too far and too fast, and it's been more than Americans can digest," Edwards said in McGregor. "They're good people from all persuasions, but I think some of the more liberal Democrats in Washington have a hard time understanding the everyday concerns of citizens in more moderate to conservative districts."