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2020 lessons, Democratic divisions define race for DCCC chair

Maloney, Cárdenas vie as party assesses disappointing election

House Democrats will have to beat the odds, and history, if they are to keep the majority in 2022. 

Before they get there, they have to choose who will lead that fight. And the battle between Reps. Sean Patrick Maloney of New York and Tony Cárdenas of California to chair the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee comes as the party debates what led to unexpected losses in 2020, and how to keep internal divisions in a shrunken caucus from breaking open wider.

Both Maloney and Cárdenas believe it’s possible for Democrats to not only hold but also grow their majority in 2022 with Joe Biden in the White House, despite the president’s party losing an average of 33 seats in recent midterm elections

“I don’t give a damn about the past. I’m not a historian,” Maloney said in an interview Monday. “My job is not to whine about it, my job is to win. If I get this position, we’re going to break that curse. And we’re going to win seats. Write it down.” 

Cárdenas, a four-term Democrat from Los Angeles, said in a recent interview that districts in California, Iowa, Kansas and Florida may be fertile ground for Democrats. 

“We will defend every single seat that we’ve been able to have in the Congress, but at the same time, we’re always looking at opportunities,” he said.  

The exact date of the DCCC election to replace Chairwoman Cheri Bustos is still being determined, but it is expected to take place the week after Thanksgiving. This is the second contested race for the post since it became an elected position after the 2016 elections, another disappointing year for Democrats. 

Former New York Rep. Steve Israel, who chaired the DCCC for the 2012 and 2014 cycles, said making the position an elected one was “the right thing to do,” but the DCCC chair also has to make tough decisions about recruitment and spending that can alienate colleagues. 

“It’s not the job for someone who simply wants to make friends with everybody,” Israel said. “It’s the job for someone who just wants to win.”

Bridging the Democratic divide 

Going into November, House Democrats had expected to gain seats. Instead, they lost members, and the party’s moderate and left flanks have pointed fingers at each other. 

Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, who represents a safe Democratic seat in New York City, said members in GOP-leaning districts should blame their losses on poor organizing and digital campaigning. The more moderate Reps. Conor Lamb of Pennsylvania and Abigail Spanberger of Virginia said liberal messages of “defund the police” and socialized medicine damaged Democrats in more conservative districts.

“As far as I’m concerned, we are Democrats in the House of Representatives, we are family,” Cárdenas told CQ Roll Call. “And so I have a brother, his name is Conor, and have a sister named Alexandria, and they’re both brothers and sisters to me and I value and cherish their opinion and their perspectives.”

Ocasio-Cortez told reporters last week that some in the party appeared open to hearing her concerns and that she had spoken with Maloney separately and with Cárdenas on a Congressional Hispanic Caucus call.

“In a shift for the [Democratic] caucus, there’s some listening going on,” she said.  

Maloney said Ocasio-Cortez was right about Democrats broadly being behind on digital operations. He said he would balance the concerns of the various Democratic factions by conducting “an inclusive and rigorous after-action report” on the 2020 elections. 

Ocasio-Cortez also criticized the DCCC for not working with consultants who worked for candidates challenging incumbents in primaries. Both Cárdenas and Maloney appeared open to reversing that policy. 

“What I’m going to make sure that we do is that we work with every consultant who has the talent and the ability and the heart and the commitment to make sure that we increase our Democratic representation in Congress,” Cárdenas said. He added that if those consultants’ values “are in line with us retaining and expanding our majority, then we’re going to be looking forward to working with those consultants.”  

Maloney said the policy “needs to be carefully reexamined,” and he would want to be sensitive to members’ concerns. 

“But I think blanket rules in this space are ill-advised, and I think we should be careful not to needlessly separate ourselves from the most sophisticated and diverse talent working in politics today,” Maloney added.  

Latino voter outreach

Both men said that the party will need to improve its outreach to Latino voters. Democrats lost two seats in South Florida and failed to flip several diversifying suburban districts in Texas. 

The Hispanic Caucus endorsed Cárdenas on Tuesday. The California Democrat, who recently led BOLD PAC, the caucus’ campaign arm, said one misstep during the 2020 campaigns was viewing the Latino community as uniform. 

“The Latino community comes from all parts of the world, and they have different nuances, and that’s where cultural competency works,” Cárdenas said, “not just in the Latino space but in the Black communities and rural communities and big cities, et cetera.” The party should tap into its own diverse caucus to better make its pitch to voters, he added.

California Rep. Tony Cárdenas touts his success leading BOLD PAC, the campaign arm of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus, as he seeks to chair the DCCC. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photo)

Maloney said lawmakers such as California’s Linda T. Sánchez and Texas’ Veronica Escobar, who are both whipping support for him in the DCCC chair race, “will be front and center as we retool our Latino strategy.” 

“But we must first stop thinking of Latinos as one line on a crosstab,” Maloney said. “It’s about 12 lines, representing many different communities.”

Sánchez is co-chairing Maloney’s whip team with Texas Rep. Marc Veasey. The whip team includes three lawmakers who recently co-chaired the DCCC’s Frontline program for vulnerable members: California’s Ami Bera, Illinois’ Brad Schneider and Washington’s Suzan DelBene

Two freshmen who flipped House seats in 2018, Illinois’ Sean Casten and Minnesota’s Angie Craig, are also on the team, as are several members in safe Democratic districts, including Missouri’s Emanuel Cleaver II, Rhode Island’s Jim Langevin, Florida’s Al Lawson and Vermont’s Peter Welch

Cárdenas’ whip team includes fellow Californians Katie Porter and Lucille Roybal-Allard; Pennsylvania’s Susan Wild, who represents a swing district; Texas’ Filemon Vela; Arizona’s Ruben Gallego; Nevada’s Steven Horsford; and two members who won’t be in the House next year: Donna E. Shalala, who lost her seat in Florida’s 27th District, and New Mexico’s Ben Ray Luján, who was elected to the Senate. 

Different backgrounds

Both men are leveraging their different backgrounds as they make their cases to lead the committee. Cárdenas has proved his ability to raise money at the helm of BOLD PAC. The PAC brought in $13 million in the 2020 cycle, its most to date. The DCCC raised a record near $300 million for the cycle. Cárdenas said the campaign committee needs to evaluate whether it spent its money wisely. 

“I watched my parents raise 11 children on one income, so it’s not a matter of having massive resources. It’s about making sure that every penny that we have, every dollar that we have is used effectively and efficiently,” he said. “Now, at the same time, when it comes to BOLD PAC , when it comes to the DCCC, that’s at a completely other level, but the fundamentals are still the same: Don’t waste, make sure you’re effective, make sure that you do everything you can to use those resources as effectively as possible.”

Maloney, the first openly gay person elected to Congress from New York, is backed by the Congressional LGBTQ+ Equality Caucus. He has stressed his experience running in a Hudson Valley district that President Donald Trump carried by 2 points in 2016. Maloney’s own race has not yet been called, thanks to a ballot counting process he characterized as “stuck in the Stone Age.” But he projected he would win a fifth term by double digits. 

“I think my days of being on a frontline district are behind me, both because I’ve turned it blue, but because of redistricting,” Maloney said. “But I have not forgotten what it’s like to be in a Trump district.”

Maloney has also said he is the right fit to lead the DCCC after conducting an analysis of the committee’s operations after the 2016 elections. Maloney’s report has not been released publicly, but he said the main takeaway was that traditionally GOP suburbs presented better opportunities for Democrats than they realized at the time, while they were working harder to win traditionally Democratic rural districts. 

Asked whether he still views GOP-leaning suburban districts as top targets for Democrats, even after 2020 losses, Maloney said, “I don’t know. But I know how to find out.”

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