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Pelosi and Boehner's Opponents Back Home

The Eighth Congressional District of California couldn't be more different from the Eighth Congressional District of Ohio. One boasts Fisherman's Wharf, the Transamerica Pyramid and the Golden Gate Bridge. The other features AK Steel, miles of corn and soybean fields, silos and dozens of quaint, Midwestern villages with names like Fletcher and North Star.

And depending on which party wins the midterm elections, it's likely the next Speaker of the House will come from either California's Eighth or Ohio's Eighth.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) and Minority Leader John Boehner (R-OH) represent these divergent locales. They are two of the most-powerful officials in the country. But first and foremost, Pelosi and Boehner are U.S. Representatives. And before their respective parties can place the names of either into nomination for Speaker on the House floor next January, both first have business to take care of back home.

That's where John Dennis and Justin Coussoule come in.

Dennis is the Republican nominee for Congress in Pelosi's district. Coussoule is the Democratic nominee for the House in Boehner's district.

In California's Eighth, tourists cluster at the bottom of San Francisco's most-fabled roadway, Lombard Street. They gawk at cars negotiating Lombard's renowned series of switchbacks, imposed by the hill's staggering 27 percent grade.

But tourists get a glimpse of something else when visiting Lombard Street. It's a placard posted prominently in the window of a home at the base of the hill. It reads "Fire Pelosi."

Signs like that are rare in San Francisco. But more prominent elsewhere.

Republicans are engineering a national strategy to relieve Pelosi of her duties as speaker if they can capture the House this fall. But the only person in the country who has the ability to singlehandedly pink slip Pelosi is John Dennis.

"Of course it's a challenge," conceded Dennis. "But hopefully we'll creep up on her and she'll realize it isn't the cakewalk that it usually is."

Dennis is under no illusions he can easily topple the Speaker, who won her 2008 re-election bid with 80 percent of the vote.

For Dennis, the route to defeating Pelosi is as steep as climbing to San Francisco's Coit Tower on foot. Pelosi has never scored less than 63 percent of the vote. And that was in her first race in 1987. But that hasn't diminished Dennis's enthusiasm. Dennis presents himself as a libertarian who wants the U.S. to get out of Afghanistan. He's critical of Pelosi for what he describes as a "flip-flop" on the Patriot Act.

"We've broken down the precincts. We know where the swing votes are," says Dennis, who believes people in San Francisco are "a little afraid" to challenge Pelosi.

He's raised well about $1.5 million and expects to bank around another $1 million before the election.

Still, it's tough to unseat a sitting Speaker. Former Rep. George Nethercutt (R-WA) did just that by defeating former Speaker Tom Foley (D-WA) in the 1994 Republican avalanche. Before Foley, voters last felled a speaker in the early 1860s.

Of course, the question for San Francisco voters is why would they trade in the most-powerful figure on Capitol Hill for a freshman backbencher? But Dennis says he wouldn't be the average, neophyte Congressman.

"She'll be marginalized as the former Speaker," said Dennis. "Who has more political capital? Her or the guy who pulled off the biggest upset in political history?"

To make his case, Dennis has concocted a series of creative TV ads which parody cinematic icons like the Wizard of Oz or James Bond flicks.

"People just glaze over with the typical, political ad," Dennis said, noting that Pelosi is portrayed as a Hollywood villain in each commercial.

For instance, Dennis depicts Pelosi as the Wicked Witch of the West in the Wizard of Oz spoof. She flies above San Francisco in a plane. Meantime, the Scarecrow says he wishes "there was a political party I could vote for with a brain."

Finally, John Dennis enters, picks up a bucket labeled "Freedom" and tosses that on the Pelosi character, who promptly begins to melt.

The ad is making the rounds nationally. Jay Leno even showed it on the Tonight Show.

But the video garnered lots of criticism. Some decried it as "sexist." Pelosi spokeswoman Jennifer Crider scoffed at Dennis's take on the Land of Oz.

"How silly. Lions and tigers and bears! Oh my!" smirked Crider.

Plus, Dennis says those who practice Wicca have called him out for casting witches in a poor light.

"This was nothing more than an attempt at humor," Dennis said. "We were just trying to reach outside the box."

What's interesting is that Dennis lives just a few blocks from Pelosi in the San Francisco neighborhood of Pacific Heights. A few weeks ago, I asked the speaker if she knew her neighbor.

"No. But I know where all the Democrats live," Pelosi responded.

Though their homes are less than a mile apart, kismet brought Dennis and Pelosi together this week, 3,000 miles away in Washington.

Dennis visited the capital for some media interviews. And Thursday night, Dennis swung by the Dubliner, a popular Capitol Hill watering hole, for a beer. That's when the speaker came by the pub to attend an event for Young Democrats.

One of Dennis's aides saw Pelosi and pointed her out to the GOP hopeful.

"He said ‘She's the one in the blue.' Like I wouldn't recognize her," Dennis laughed.

Dennis says Pelosi walked up to him and said "I know you. You're my guy. You're not a Young Democrat, are you?"

Dennis and Pelosi posed for a picture which he's now posted on his campaign website.

"It's always a pleasant surprise for the Speaker to run into a constituent in Washington," said Pelosi spokesman Brendan Daly about the chance meeting.

In Southwestern, Ohio, Justin Coussoule hasn't been as fortunate as John Dennis. He's never met his Congressman, John Boehner.

"I live less than a mile from Boehner's home," said Coussoule, Boehner's 2010 Democratic challenger. "If he was ever here, I'd see him in the grocery store. Maybe we'd run into each other on the golf course."

Boehner is generally popular in southwestern Ohio. But like the "Fire Pelosi" sign at the base of Lombard Street, a left-leaning advocacy group recently purchased a huge billboard along I-75, minutes from Boehner's house.

The sign touts the website BeatBoehner.com and shows the GOP leader, a scratch golfer, on the links.

First elected in 1990, Boehner usually defeats his Democratic opponent opponent two-to-one. The district is considered to be a safe Republican seat, even though there are 220,000 registered independents. Registered Democrats hold a 5,000 voter margin over registered Republicans.

Boehner hasn't had a competitive race since his first contest 20 years ago.

"Historically, the Democratic challenger has been nothing more than a name on a ballot," said Coussoule. He points out that the Democrats' nominee in 2008, Nicholas von Stein raised a scant $13,000, ran a nominal campaign and still commanded 33 percent of the vote.

"I'm not delusional. But there is a path to get there" said Coussoule. "Could we get to 12 or 13 percent more (than von Stein commanded in 2008)?"

Coussoule asserts that voters are used to not seeing a viable alternative to Boehner.

"It comes down to choice and a lack of choice," Coussoule said. "You vote for the devil you know."

"What Justin is trying to do is destroy the myth of Boehner's invulnerability," said Coussoule backer Don Daiker.

Coussoule knows his challenge is not unlike the hurdle facing John Dennis. A graduate of West Point, Coussoule says he was taught to fight to win. He's on track to raise several hundred thousand dollars in the race, the most any Democratic candidate has pocketed there in years. And Coussoule is also doing prepping radio and TV commercials, another rarity for Democrats in this district.

But don't expect Coussoule's advertisements to be as theatrical as Dennis's anti-Pelosi messages.

"Our ads are generally positive," Coussoule said. "I don't think that hitting (Boehner) over the head with a two-by-four or throwing a bucket of freedom on him is the way to go. (Jay) Leno won't be playing my ad."

Coussoule is skeptical of the conventional wisdom that Republicans will win the House and anoint Boehner speaker.

"They have so oversold this narrative," Coussoule said. "If they don't take the House, I think he's out of there."

The thought is that if Republicans don't win, they could seek new leadership show Boehner the door. Coussoule is careful not to look ahead. But he knows that this contest could be a building block. Especially if a special election were to ever materialize.

The victories of Reps. Joseph Cao (R-LA) and Charles Djou (R-HI) are recent examples of unlikely candidates securing surprising wins under special circumstances. Both won seats that hold substantial Democratic advantages.

As Coussoule campaigns, he finds himself explaining to people how to pronounce his name. His webpage features a prompt that reads "pronounced kuh-SOO-lee."

What's ironic is that a little-known politician running for Congress 20 years ago did the same thing. His press releases always featured an asterisk next to the candidate's' name, followed by a pronunciation key.

"Say BAY-nerr," the key would instruct.

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John Dennis and Justin Coussoule share a common bond. Neither Pelosi nor Boehner will debate them.

During his chance encounter with the speaker at the pub, Dennis said Pelosi told him she wouldn't be in the district much between now and November. Dennis's website features a clock ticking off the time that's elapsed since he asked Pelosi to debate.

On his site, Coussoule takes Boehner to task for not debating.

"He already thinks he doesn't have to advocate for us. Now he thinks he doesn't even have to report to us, either," Coussoule writes.

Boehner spokesman Don Seymour rejects that assertion.

"John Boehner is working hard to stop the tax hikes on small businesses, cut government spending and help create new jobs in Ohio and across the country," Seymour says.

Pelosi and Boehner won't debate. This prompted one Hill observer to offer this novel suggestion to Dennis and Coussoule.

"Maybe they should debate each other," he said.