After three decades in Congress, San Francisco Democrat Nancy Pelosi, 77, makes an unlikely general to lead the troops into another change election. Her party, deemed elite and out of touch in 2016, is struggling to win back Midwestern working-class voters. And, once again, Pelosi is once again in control.

The woman who became America’s first female speaker is now her party’s top fundraiser, senior midterm-election strategist and top legislative negotiator, in partnership with Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.).

“Nancy is key to maintaining our unity,” said Rep. Nita M. Lowey (N.Y.), the ranking Democrat on the House Appropriations Committee. “She knows the process, she knows the policy, and she knows the politics better than anyone.”

Pelosi’s big task

The big task before Pelosi, the one that will ultimately seal or undermine her legacy, is the Democratic preparation for 2018. Her plan is much the same as in 2006: Keep her members focused on an economic message — “better jobs, better wages, better future” — raise a ton of money, recruit candidates and endlessly repeat her revolving databank of alliterative catchphrase trifectas.

“Money, message and mobilization,” she says to describe Democratic priorities. “Cronyism, corruption and incompetence” is another, which she invokes to describe the party of Trump, echoing a phrase she deployed against President George W. Bush.

“Democrats have a growing number of takeover scenarios, but we won’t know until later next year which races develop into serious opportunities,” explained Nathan Gonzales, who runs the political handicapping operation Inside Elections. The takeover potential looks far stronger for Democrats in the House than in the Senate.

But Pelosi is convinced the effort will work only if Democrats stay disciplined. Her friend and Democratic donor Tom Steyer recently started airing television ads to demand Trump’s impeachment, creating a clear risk to Pelosi’s economic message.

Fundraising queen

No one doubts that Pelosi can put points on the board. Through the end of September this year, she held 165 fundraising events in 35 cities, raising $38.9 million for House Democrats — helping top the committee fundraising haul of Republicans, according to her aides.

She also has made herself a constant national media presence, including with four hour-long CNN prime-time specialsthis year alone — more airtime than many of the network’s paid contributors. “If you know the name of any legislator who knows how (and wants to) do that job, please give it to me so my children can have their grandmother back!” said her youngest daughter, Alexandra Pelosi, in an email.

On Trump

She has for months led a rolling battle with President Trump’s agenda, setting a disciplined, pugilistic tone for her caucus and casting herself as the official face of the resistance. With substantial help from the opposition, she has been winning more than not, at least as measured by a growing number of competitive seats, her ability to outmaneuver Republican leaderson Capitol Hill and Trump’s low approval ratings.

“There are a lot of ways to skin a cat,” she likes to joke about the president. “And he is skinning himself.”

She jokes that her nicknames for the president are “Rock Bottom” and “Difficult Circumstances.” But she also holds back. “I am respectful of the people that voted for him,” she said. “They are way down the road with me already because they vote.”

Her work

  • In recent months, she has strategized with Republican governors over preserving key parts of the ACA.
  • She also has led her caucus to negotiating victories in Washington. The budget agreement this past spring failed to fund most Republican priorities, including a new border wall, while providing billions for medical research, disaster funding and college grants.
  • Last month, she joined Schumer in winning Trump’s support for a three-month budget extension, set to create a December showdown over the 2018 budget. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) later argued that the deal was not as bad as it seemed. “He was trying to pin a rose on it, poor baby,” Pelosi said. “We now have more leverage.”
  • Next she is leading the campaign to turn the American public against Republican tax legislation, which she calls “our Armageddon.”

The remaining senior woman

She also maintains an unflinching focus on her historic achievement. One of the reasons Pelosi did not follow through with her plan to step aside after the last election, she said, was the realization that without Hillary Clinton in the White House, she remained the only senior woman in government.

“I am a master legislator. I just love it,” she said of her inherited appetites. “I consider myself a weaver, like I have a loom. And I bring all these different threads together.”

While Pelosi said she has never experienced sexual harassment in the workplace, she also believes that the unacceptable level of sexism in the culture has changed little since the 1980s. “No, it’s about the same: nick, nick, nick, nick,” she said, pointing with her hands to demonstrate how women’s power is undercut by the men. This is one of the reasons, she said, that she is so unabashed about pointing out her own abilities.

When former White House strategist David Axelrod, a longtime champion, recently asked her in an interview for his podcast whether she would serve out her term, she declined to answer and snapped back: “How many men have you asked that question to?” It’s really a girl question.”

After the interview, Axelrod spoke of Pelosi with unerring admiration. “She is tough as nails,” he said.

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