The Republican ads have been unsparing: Conor Lamb would be just one more congressional sheep — pun intended — behind that San Francisco liberal, Nancy Pelosi.
Now Lamb, the 33-year-old former Marine trying to pull an upset in a southwest Pennsylvania special election, is fighting back. Ahead of his March 13 matchup with Republican state lawmaker Rick Saccone, Lamb is disavowing Pelosi and making clear he'll go his own way.
"My opponent wants you to believe the biggest issue of this campaign is Nancy Pelosi," Lamb says in his latest television spot. Looking directly into the camera, Lamb adds, "It's all a big lie."
Lamb has pledged not to support the 77-year-old former speaker for another term as her party's House leader and casts Saccone as the real lackey in the race, certain to cut Social Security and Medicare.
The back-and-forth is a preview of upcoming midterm election campaigns. Republicans believe Pelosi, whom they've bludgeoned as an out-of-touch liberal for more than a decade, is the most effective millstone they have to weigh down Democratic candidates in swing and conservative-leaning districts.
The familiar strategy may have new potency this year, as Democrats appear to have a real shot at taking control of the House. They must flip at least 24 GOP-held seats for a majority, and a Lamb victory in Pennsylvania's 18th Congressional District, where President Donald Trump won by almost 20 percentage points in 2016, would raise their national hopes considerably.
A Lamb loss could fuel concerns that the national party — long dominated in Washington by leaders from big cities and coastal states — will have trouble reversing its slide outside of liberal strongholds, even amid Trump's struggles and the unpopularity of the Republican-run Congress.
Lamb has said from the outset of his campaign that both parties need new congressional leaders and that he wouldn't back Pelosi for another term as leader. Even before his latest ad, he's attempted to turn the issue on Saccone, who has eagerly accepted fundraising and campaign help from House GOP bosses, including Speaker Paul Ryan.
"I've already ... taken a position against the leadership of my own party," Lamb said at a recent campaign stop. "It's nothing personal, but it's time. They haven't gotten the job done."
Saccone "can't say that about himself," Lamb added. "Not only does he support Paul Ryan, his entire campaign is being funded by him, and all of his ideas come out of Paul Ryan's book."
But until Lamb's latest television offensive that argument had been overshadowed by a $4 million-plus ad blitz from Republicans. Lamb's campaign hasn't said how much it is spending on the ad, which is one of two running this week in the Pittsburgh market.
Chris Martin, a spokesman for national Republicans' House campaign committee, argued that the prospect of Pelosi as speaker again is "a major motivating factor for the Republican base" nationally. Corry Bliss, who runs the Congressional Leadership Fund, a political action committee aligned with Ryan, confirmed that his group will replicate the anti-Pelosi strategy across the country. The group has opened offices in at least 27 GOP-held districts and hopes to raise more than $100 million for the cycle.
At least one other Democratic congressional candidate, Paul Davis in the 2nd Congressional District of Kansas, has disavowed Pelosi. Davis, like Lamb, is trying to persuade the eastern Kansas district to shift from its GOP leanings after Republican Rep. Lynn Jenkins opted against a re-election bid.
Ryan, just as Pelosi, consistently has high negatives among voters, as does Congress generally. The speaker has also endured steady criticism from his own conservative base.
Pelosi remains popular among Democratic donors. She's raised almost $50 million ahead of the November campaign, nearly all of it for other Democrats, Pelosi spokesman Drew Hammill said. The haul came from 204 events in 43 cities.
But the statements from Democrats like Lamb in Pennsylvania and Davis in Kansas show what a complex figure Pelosi is for a party whose power is anchored in the nation's urban centers.
For her part, Pelosi remains unbowed. Hammill blasted "petty and pathetic" attacks as proof of a majority on the defensive. He dismissed the internal Democratic criticism as routine party politics and noted that Pelosi was easily re-elected as leader after the 2016 elections despite a challenge from Ohio Rep. Tim Ryan.
Rep. Cheri Bustos, an Illinois Democrat who represents a small-town district that Trump won, said candidates know to expect the "tired" Pelosi attacks. She recalled as a first-time candidate in 2012 being linked to Pelosi "before I ever met her."
She now praises Pelosi, particularly for securing passage of 2010 health care law, but Bustos also shied away from absolute support in the future. Asked whether she'll vote for Pelosi for speaker or minority leader, she said: "It's going to be up to the new Democrats in Congress. ... I don't know what the slate's going to look like."
With Pelosi's blessing, Bustos is advising candidates on how to run in districts like hers in southern Illinois. The key, she said, is economic arguments, including attacks on Ryan and his designs on a Social Security and Medicare overhaul.
"If we stick to the facts that their policies are not reflective of the districts we are trying to win, then we are fine," Bustos said.
That's Lamb's script in Pennsylvania.
"The real issues are the ones that affect your lives," Lamb says in his latest ad. "My opponent will work for the special interests that are spending millions to elect him. I'll work for you."
Lamb's backers, meanwhile, express resentment over the Republican tactics.
Bill Walter or North Huntingdon, Pennsylvania, was among the local Democratic Party figures who nominated Lamb in a district convention after Republican Rep. Tim Murphy resigned to open the seat. "Nancy Pelosi didn't pick Conor," Walter said. "We did."