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Why Is Pelosi Losing Sleep Over Bustos’ Re-Election Bid?

Just one of many desperate fundraising pleas from a safe member

Illinois Rep. Cheri Bustos is not in any danger of losing her safely Democratic House seat, despite Nancy Pelosi's alarmist rhetoric, writes Nathan Gonzales. (Al Drago/CQ Roll Call file photo)
Illinois Rep. Cheri Bustos is not in any danger of losing her safely Democratic House seat, despite Nancy Pelosi's alarmist rhetoric, writes Nathan Gonzales. (Al Drago/CQ Roll Call file photo)

House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi still believes Democrats have a chance to take back the majority, but she’s somehow simultaneously worried about her colleague from Illinois losing re-election in a safe race. 

“I’m sorry to email you so late, but I’m not sleeping,” Pelosi wrote in a Sept. 19 mass email. “Cheri Bustos has a PUBLIC fundraising deadline in just 2 weeks — and right now she’s WAY behind her ‘minimum’ fundraising goal.”

As reporters, we’re told to fact check what candidates say but to ignore the rhetoric in fundraising emails and to accept a standard that often falls well short of the complete truth. Fundraising emails are a punchline inside the Beltway because the claims are so ridiculous. But who is telling that to the thousands of people around the country who are contributing their money based on the content of these emails?

Bustos isn’t the first, last, or only candidate to use alarmist rhetoric in fundraising emails. But her creative way of hyping her supposed demise is remarkable for a candidate running in a race that no dispassionate observer believes is competitive. Neither The Rothenberg & Gonzales Political Report/Roll Call nor The Cook Political Report lists Bustos on their lists of competitive House races

“Don’t be fooled — if Cheri misses even a single step, she could be a sitting duck for the GOP,” Pelosi wrote.

[Democrats Aim to Reduce 30-Seat House Deficit With Help From Trump]

Bustos’ rationale for sending this type of email appears to be a combination of old data, paranoia and deception.

The two-term member is running for re-election in a Democratic district drawn by Democrats to elect a Democrat in a presidential year in a Democratic state. President Barack Obama won her 17th District by 17 points in 2012 and 22 points in 2008. This year, Bustos faces an underfunded challenger in a race where national Republicans are hard-pressed to name their own nominee.

But don’t let facts get in the way of a good fundraising email.

“I’d hate to see Cheri’s voice be shut out of Congress simply because we didn’t give her the resources to win,” Pelosi continued.

Money is not a problem for Bustos. She had stockpiled nearly $2.1 million through the end of June while Republican Patrick Harlan was $95 in debt (after raising less than $6,000). The fuel truck driver looks like an earnest candidate who comes to the political war armed with a Facebook page as his campaign website. 

But Bustos continues to escalate her rhetoric (from being the most vulnerable congresswoman in Illinois to one of the most vulnerable in America) and frequency. Emails from Pelosi, Illinois Rep. Jan Schakowsky, and New York Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand were followed by confrontational follow-up emails to donors who hadn’t responded.

[Empty Inbox? Join Gillibrand’s Campaign Email List]

“Here’s the bad (seriously, TERRIBLE) news,” according to a Sept. 22 email, “Even though Nancy Pelosi and Kirsten Gillibrand BOTH emailed you in the past week, we’re still MILES from our goal. If our numbers went public right now, we’d have to admit we came up $9,210 short.”

“The GOP isn’t about to let a strong Democrat like Cheri keep her seat in Congress without a fight to the finish,” Schakowsky wrotes in a Sept. 12 email. Actually, Republicans are giving her a pass this cycle.

“To say this race is over is giving it credit for it even starting, which it never did,” admitted one GOP operative.

“Cheri is not taking anything for granted,” said Bustos campaign manager Stacy Raker. “We’re in a post-Citizens United world.”

“Money can come in at any time,” Raker continued, citing casino magnate Sheldon Adelson’s recent $40 million donation to GOP groups as evidence of a potential flood of money against Bustos even though there is no reason to believe that Adelson or the Republicans have her in their sights.

[Six Weeks To Go: Roll Call’s Election Forecast]

How does she claim to be one of the most vulnerable members, as Gillibrand wrote in a Sept. 16 plea? The Bustos campaign cites her inclusion on the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee’s Frontline program, a January 2016 Washington Post article, and her past races. She defeated GOP Rep. Bobby Schilling by 6 points in 2012 and by 11 points in a rematch two years later, even in the face of strong GOP headwinds.

Democratic donors may agree with Bustos or may not care that she’s crying wolf, but some of them could be surprised that her desperate pleas don’t match her electoral reality this year.

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