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Cheri Bustos Elected DCCC Chair

Illinois Democrat was in charge of ‘heartland engagement’ during 2018 cycle

Illinois Rep. Cheri Bustos, center, is the new head of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)
Illinois Rep. Cheri Bustos, center, is the new head of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)

House Democrats elected Illinois Rep. Cheri Bustos on Thursday to chair the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee for the 2020 election cycle.

Bustos won in the first round of voting, finishing ahead of Washington Reps. Denny Heck and Suzan DelBene. The tally was 117 votes for Bustos, with Heck at 83 and DelBene at 32. 

New York Rep. Sean Patrick Maloney had originally been a candidate for the top DCCC job, too. But he was unable to travel to Washington this week as he recovers from a severe bacterial infection, for which he’d been hospitalized. On Tuesday, he asked the caucus to postpone the election for DCCC chair. 

But with the newly elected members only in town this week, the vote went ahead as planned, and on Wednesday evening, Maloney dropped out of the race. It was the caucus’s first open race to helm the campaign committee — the current chairman, New Mexico Rep. Ben Ray Luján, was elected assistant Democratic leader Wednesday. The DCCC chairmanship was an appointed position until 2016, when Democratic losses led to demands for changes at the committee. Luján ran unopposed two years ago.

Bustos is only the second woman to lead the committee after New York Rep. Nita M. Lowey, who was DCCC chairwoman for the 2002 cycle.

First elected in 2012, Bustos is a former reporter and health care public relations president who’s become a prominent Democratic voice in the media. She’s a familiar face at the DCCC, having held a number of leadership positions within the committee, and frequently campaigned with Midwestern and female candidates in their districts over the past two cycles. She raised and contributed nearly $3 million to more than 100 candidates during the 2018 midterms, she said Thursday. 

Bustos most recently served as chair of heartland engagement, a new position to which Luján appointed her in the summer of 2017. As one of the co-chairs of the Democratic Policy and Communications Committee, she’s currently the only elected member of leadership from the Midwest.

Bustos has championed herself as a Democrat who knows how to win in Republican territory, which her supporters think will be valuable to the party when it’s trying to defend its new majority in 2020. Democrats gained at least 39 seats in this year’s midterms — at least half of which were in districts Trump won two years ago.

“I know how to protect this House. I know how to build this House,” Bustos said Thursday. 

Trump narrowly carried Bustos’ 17th District in Illinois, and that was a big part of her pitch to the caucus. Heck and DelBene, both of whom also held past leadership roles at the DCCC, represent districts that Hillary Clinton carried in 2016.

Bustos won re-election in 2018 by 24 points — a larger margin than any other Democrat in a Trump-voting district. But she had an uncompetitive race against a Republican who had raised just $27,000 by mid-October. (Bustos banked $3.7 million). Bustos overperformed Clinton by about 14 points in her district in 2016, but she was running against another underfunded Republican who had only raised about $12,000 at the same point in the cycle.

Throughout the 2018 midterms, Bustos often spoke about the need for the party to stay focused on economic issues and health care and avoid getting mired in social issues or the Russia investigation. She’s emphasized the importance of showing up and talking to non-Democrats. She holds regular “Supermarket Saturday” and “Cheri on Shift” programs in which she engages with constituents in her district. She’s also piloted a boot camp in her district to train Democrats to run for local office.

“We’ve gotta take a look at every single district in this country — that’s what we intend to do. Every battlefield will be protected and contested,” Bustos said.

The Illinois congresswoman said one of her first orders of business as DCCC chairwoman will be going back to Democratic candidates who narrowly lost this year to see if they want to run again in 2020.

Bustos said she strongly believes in supporting incumbents in primaries. Asked about a proposed rules change that would require members of DCCC leadership to always back incumbents, she said she’d wait to see how the caucus votes. In the Democratic primary in Illinois’ 3 rd District earlier this year, Bustos stood with incumbent Daniel Lipinski. But fellow Illinois Democrat Jan Schakowsky, who served as the DCCC’s national chairwoman for candidate services, backed Lipinski’s challenger Marie Newman

Schakowsky nominated Bustos for the DCCC position on Thursday. California’s Lucille Roybal-Allard, Maryland’s C.A. Dutch Ruppersberger and Rep.-elect Lauren Underwood of Illinois seconded her nomination and spoke for her in front of the caucus. 

Bustos paid $600,000 in dues to the DCCC this cycle. During the previous cycle, she co-chaired the committee’s Red to Blue program for its strongest recruits and its Women Lead program for female recruits. She was was also a vice chair of recruitment during the 2016 cycle. She dropped out of the race for assistant leader earlier this month to pursue the top job at the DCCC.

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