For the first time, House Democrats are competing in an open race to lead the party’s campaign arm next cycle. And the new leader’s responsibilities will include something no predecessor has faced in a decade: protecting their chamber majority.
The race to chair the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee is currently a four-way contest between Reps. Cheri Bustos of Illinois, Sean Patrick Maloney of New York, and Denny Heck and Suzan DelBene of Washington. The DCCC chairmanship was an appointed position until 2016, after Democratic losses led to demands for changes at the committee. Current DCCC Chairman Ben Ray Luján is running for assistant Democratic leader.
Having made historic midterm gains, especially in some tough districts, the candidates are making their cases through the next two weeks for why they can protect — and even expand on — this year’s successes. They previewed their arguments in brief interviews with Roll Call on Wednesday.
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All four candidates were elected in 2012, and they’re all members of the moderate New Democrat Coalition. Although several have touted their ability to win in tough districts, each member’s 2018 re-election race was rated Solid Democratic by Inside Elections with Nathan L. Gonzales.
Bustos is a familiar face at the DCCC. She most recently served as chair of heartland engagement, a new position to which Luján appointed her in the summer of 2017. She formerly chaired the committee’s Red to Blue program for its strongest recruits and was a vice chair of recruitment during the 2016 cycle. She’s known for mentoring candidates, often traveling to campaign for female and Midwestern recruits.
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. She dropped out of the race for assistant leader to pursue the top job at the DCCC.
Maloney dropped a challenge to Luján after the 2016 election, instead conducting an extensive review of the DCCC’s inner workings.
After losing the primary for state attorney general in September, he went on to win a fourth term in a district north of New York City.
Heck and DelBene both had top roles in the DCCC in 2018. Heck led the committee’s recruitment effort, while DelBene was its finance co-chair.
DelBene, a former Microsoft executive, came to Congress in a special election. She’s also the vice chair of the New Democrat Coalition.
Both Bustos and Maloney represent districts that President Donald Trump won in 2016, and a major part of their pitches is that they know how to win in Republican-leaning areas.
“That’s what I lived and breathed since I’ve been elected,” Bustos said Wednesday. “I’ve increased my margin from 6 to 10 to 20 to 24. … It’s the biggest margin in the country for a Democrat in a Trump district.”
While Trump won her 17th District by less than a point, Bustos hasn’t had a competitive opponent the last two cycles. Last week, she defeated a Republican who had raised $27,000 by mid-October. (Bustos banked $3.7 million). Her 2016 opponent had raised about $12,000 at the same point in the cycle.
Bustos stressed that there shouldn’t be a uniform approach to holding Trump districts, but basic things such as constituent services and outreach to non-Democrats was important. Bustos is known for her “Supermarket Saturday” and “Cheri on Shift” programs in which she engages with constituents. She’s also piloted a bootcamp in her district to train Democrats to run for local office.
Her geographic appeal may be enough to win over some members who’d like to see more representation in leadership beyond the coasts.
“I will default to my region,” said Ohio Rep. Marcy Kaptur, who’s often been critical of her party for not paying enough attention to the heartland.
Maloney similarly argued that his status as a Democrat in a Trump district means he’s well-equipped to lead the DCCC. After winning close races in 2012 and 2014, he has easily won his next two terms, vastly outspending his GOP opponents.
But that’s only part of his pitch. Maloney also said he knows the committee best after completing a monthslong review of the DCCC’s inner workings. And he said he has the best relationship with New York City and national donors.
Heck and DelBene, the first candidates to jump into the race, have both touted their roles in the DCCC.
Heck said Democrats would still target races they came close to winning in 2018, but also recognized that they needed to shift to a defensive posture. He cited recruitment, field operation, and Luján’s ability to work with members as key to the Democrats’ success.
“I’m essentially pledging to my colleagues that I will continue in that tradition — double down on it in many regards,” he said.
Heck also said it was important for the DCCC to coordinate with the caucus’s official messaging and leadership to bolster first-term members. HE said he was “fully committed” to conducting a review of the DCCC’s 2018 activity to evaluate what could be improved.
DelBene alluded to her experience in the private sector as a manager and suggested she’d be able to help the party utilize new technology to connect with voters who don’t watch TV or answer their phones as much as they used to. DelBene was a member of the DCCC's Frontline program for vulnerable members during her first re-election in 2014, and said her experience in a “swing district” qualifies her for the role. DelBene won a fourth term by 18 points last week.
Shifting from the minority to the majority also means the campaign committee will be focusing more on defending its members — many of whom were just elected in competitive districts.
Several incoming freshmen surveyed Wednesday remained undecided on who should lead the DCCC. But some offered advice on how the committee should approach 2020 — mainly that the new chair should listen to them.
“The most important thing is … that they articulate how they’re going to help newly elected members and learn the lessons that they learned from winning their races,” Rep.-elect Elissa Slotkin of Michigan said.
California Rep.-elect Katie Hill also said the new DCCC leaders should listen to the class of 2018, while adding that she would lean toward supporting a female candidate in this race and other leadership contests.
Former Rep. Steven Horsford, who won a comeback bid in Nevada’s 4th District, said he wants the new DCCC chair to continue to prioritize turning out low-propensity minority voters, who were key to his victory.
While Democrats will have a presidential race boosting turnout in 2020, Horsford noted there wouldn’t be a gubernatorial or Senate race in Nevada doing the same — a similar scenario to when he lost his 2014 re-election.
“I don’t want to repeat that experience ever again. Neither do I want any of my colleagues after winning the majority to have to go through that either,” Horsford said. “So we need a chairman who understands that and who has a strategy and who has a commitment to put the resources in early.”
Correction: A previous version of this story stated DelBene was a member of the DCCC's Frontline program in 2018.