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Nancy Pelosi’s Republican challengers score nationwide backing

Dana Walsh boasts of a donor list most congressional candidates can only envy: 33,000 people in 50 states.

It’s not that Walsh enjoyed much success the last time she ran; a Republican in this overwhelmingly Democratic city, she placed third in 2008, with less than 10% of the vote.

What attracts the money and support — more than $1.4 million so far — is Walsh’s target: Nancy Pelosi, the House speaker and an arch-villain to conservatives like Karl Schlueter.

“Nancy’s got to go,” said the 65-year-old retiree, who lives in the Milwaukee suburbs and last month sent Walsh a $200 check. “She’s far too liberal.”

Pelosi is no easy target, even in this surly anti-incumbent environment. In the history of the country, only two House speakers have been deposed by voters back home, and Pelosi is unlikely to become the third.

By all indications she remains quite popular among her left-leaning constituents, who typically return Pelosi to Washington with 80% or more of the vote. She doesn’t even bother to poll or hire an election staff.

But that hasn’t stopped Pelosi detractors nationwide from showering money on her Republican opponents — there are two fighting for the chance to face the speaker and almost certainly lose in November.

“If she was just representing the people who elected her, that would be fine,” said Helen, 60, a Georgia resident who gave $200 to Walsh’s opponent, John Dennis. “But I do not approve of this woman, do not approve of how she’s pushed things through the House,” said the part-time actress, who did not want her last name used for fear of receiving angry phone calls and e-mails. “To me it’s not local. This is a national situation.”

It’s highly unusual for so much money to pour into such a lopsided race. The flood of donations speak to the passions Pelosi generates, experts say, and to the power of technologies like cable TV and partisan websites that spur people to act on their impulse. Most contributions have come from outside the state: $20 from Macomb, Ill.; $200 from Sulphur, Okla.; $500 from Temple, Texas; $2,400 from East Setauket, N.Y.

“If people are mad enough, they’re investing in their emotional expression, even if they realize it’s not going to have any impact,” said UC San Diego’s Gary Jacobson, a longtime student of campaign finances.

Schlueter sees his contribution as such a statement. “It’s important to let her know not all of us are happy,” he said of Pelosi, adding that even if Walsh fails to unseat her, “I appreciate what she’s trying to do for our country.”

Pelosi has represented San Francisco in Congress since she won a special election in June 1987. Reelected 11 times, her lowest subsequent percentage — 72% — came in 2008, when antiwar activist Cindy Sheehan won 16% of the vote as an independent. Aides can’t even remember the last time Pelosi ran a TV or radio spot.

Still, she remains a prime target of Republicans nationally, with good reason. Polls indicate that more than half of Americans view her unfavorably and that a sizable majority hold the Democratic-run Congress in even lower regard. Typical was a recent e-mail from the National Republican Congressional Committee, seeking contributions for a special House election next month in Pennsylvania coal country. The subject line: Fire Nancy Pelosi.

However, the national GOP is unlikely to spend a dime in San Francisco, regardless of which candidate emerges from the improbably fierce primary fight.

Walsh, 57, is a fairly standard-issue Republican, favoring tax cuts, less regulation and a leaner federal government. She remains, however, a politician in progress. Speaking of her opposition to the federal Defense of Marriage Act, she cited her background in interior design and volunteered, “The vast majority of my best friends are gay.”

Dennis, 46, a real estate investor and first-time candidate, has raised more than $425,000, partly by tapping support from acolytes of Texas Republican Rep. Ron Paul. A volunteer in Paul’s renegade 2008 presidential campaign, Dennis shares many of the congressman’s libertarian views, including hostility to the Federal Reserve and support for an immediate withdrawal from Iraq and Afghanistan.

Walsh says Dennis’ positions, including legalizing marijuana, are kooky even by San Francisco standards. Dennis says Walsh is spending most of the money she collects on campaign consultants rather than on the fight against Pelosi.

The last House speaker ousted by folks back home was Democrat Tom Foley of Washington state, who was swamped in the 1994 Republican wave. But he was running in a much more conservative district than Pelosi’s, and had angered many constituents by joining a court fight to overturn voter-imposed term limits.

The other speaker to lose reelection was William Pennington, a Whig representative from New Jersey who was defeated in 1860 after a single term.

Some Pelosi critics take heart from the election of Republican Scott Brown, an exceeding long shot who won a Senate seat held by Massachusetts Democrats for more than half a century.

“People were saying he didn’t stand a chance either,” said Phaedra Fisher, 42, a libertarian-turned-Republican from the city’s Castro District. She showed up outside a recent debate wearing a John Dennis T-shirt and waving a “Defeat Pelosi” sign. “This district doesn’t belong to any one party.”

But San Francisco is not Massachusetts, which has had four Republican governors in the last 20 years. The city has not elected a GOP member of Congress since 1972. The last Republican it sent to Sacramento, back in the 1980s, became a Democrat before retiring. Today, fewer than 1 in 10 registered San Franciscans are Republican.

That, however, doesn’t deter people like Jana Bartlit.

“I understand it’s tough,” said the 62-year-old Denver-area resident who sent Walsh a $1,000 check. “But at least her message gets out there.”

mark.barabak@latimes.com


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