Campaigns

Bustos to Democrats: ‘We know our job is different this time’

DCCC chairwoman counting on energy, focus, message discipline to ‘lock down’ majority in 2020

DCCC Chairwoman Cheri Bustos, D- Ill., outlined her 2020 strategy at the House Democrats’ 2019 retreat in Leesburg, Va. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)

LEESBURG, Va. — It’s no coincidence that the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee chairwoman was the closing act at House Democrats’ annual retreat Friday.

Three days of private meetings included strategies for winning 2020 elections and expanding the majority Democrats won last fall. And that means the DCCC has to do its job of protecting vulnerable members and recruiting challengers in winnable takeover districts. 

“We know our job is different this time,” Chairwoman Cheri Bustos of Illinois told her colleagues, according to excerpts of her remarks obtained by Roll Call. Democrats are largely on defense next year after a netting 40 seats to flip the House in 2018.

“With the sheer size of our battlefield, we know what we can control, and what we can’t,” Bustos said. “We can’t control the presidential primaries. We can’t control Senate races competing for national attention. What we can control is our energy, our focus and our determination to lock down our majority.”

There are 44 Democrats in the DCCC’s Frontline Program for vulnerable incumbents, and 41 of them are first-term lawmakers. Bustos touted the freshman class in a hype video styled after a sports introduction video. 

The video highlighted a handful of members who flipped deep-red seats, including Kendra Horn in Oklahoma’s 5th District and Joe Cunningham in South Carolina’s 1st. President Donald Trump carried both seats by double digits in 2016.

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Texas Rep. Colin Allred, who defeated former National Republican Congressional Committee Chairman Pete Sessions in the 32nd District, appeared last in the video and reminded his colleagues, “I actually played in the NFL.”

Bustos said her strategy capitalizes on lessons from the 2018 election, including an early emphasis on field organizing. The committee launched a “March Forward” program last month, with plans to hire 60 grassroots organizers in districts across the country.

The committee has also launched a Texas headquarters, similar its West Coast headquarters last cycle based in California’s Orange County, where Democrats flipped four seats in the traditionally Republican area. (One of those Democrats, Rep. Katie Porter, was also highlighted in the hype video, saying she was from the “Orange is the new blue” conference.) 

Bustos also said the DCCC is “doubling down” on its digital strategy. In 2018, the committee placed digital strategists on each of its regional teams for the first time and launched an in-house digital ad agency. It will again place digital directors on each team, and has been placing an early emphasis on helping incumbents develop online, grassroots fundraising strategies.

Bustos announced that the DCCC raised $32.5 million in the first three months of the year, a record high for the first quarter of an off-year. 

She also stressed “being disciplined in our message.” On Thursday, Speaker Nancy Pelosi had likened Democrats’ 2018 message discipline to a jackhammer, and throughout the retreat, Democrats vowed to focus on issues such as health care costs and infrastructure when they head out on the campaign trail.

In her speech, Bustos did not address an ongoing confrontation with liberal activists over the DCCC’s new vendor policy intended to prevent primary challenges to incumbents, according to a source familiar with her remarks.

The committee announced last month that it would not work with consultants and other operatives who assist primary challengers to sitting Democrats. The policy has enraged liberals, and some left-leaning groups have launched a “DCCC Blacklist” to gather names of vendors who are willing to work with primary candidates.

Leaders of the Congressional Progressive Caucus have met with Bustos, urging her to roll back the policy. CPC Co-chair Pramila Jayapal told reporters Thursday that the group does not have another meeting scheduled with the DCCC chairwoman.

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