Illinois Rep. Cheri Bustos, already active in candidate recruitment and policy messaging, has a new role helping her party try to win the House majority in 2018.
New Mexico Rep. Ben Ray Luján, chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, appointed Bustos chairwoman of heartland engagement for the Democrats’ campaign arm on Tuesday. In that role, the third-term congresswoman will be mentoring Democratic candidates and helping shape an economic message in rural areas — both of which she’s already been doing.
Bustos, who represents Illinois’ 17th District, currently serves as one of three co-chairs of the Democratic Policy and Communications Committee and has served in various leadership roles at the DCCC.
“Cheri is a key member of our leadership team, and her efforts to help recruit and mentor candidates and carry our economic message is critical to our strategy this cycle,” Luján said in a statement Tuesday.
Democrats must gain a net of 24 seats next year to win back the House. Last week — the day after Democrats lost a closely contested special election in Georgia’s 6th District — Luján declared, “The House is in play.” In a memo, Luján said that with the right candidates and message, Democrats can pick off GOP-leaning districts that are less Republican than the Georgia district.
Bustos, a former journalist, has been adamant that health care — not the Russia investigation — is at the top of her constituents’ minds and that the party needs to focus on the bread-and-butter issues that drove many rural voters to vote for President Donald Trump. (Trump narrowly carried Bustos’ district last fall.)
“The heartland is critical to winning back the majority and we must do a better job listening to the hardworking families from small towns and rural communities if we hope to earn their support,” Bustos said in a statement Tuesday.
“As Democrats, we believe in making sure everyone has a chance to find a good-paying job, raise a family and live the American dream — regardless of where they call home. As the Chair of Heartland Engagement, I’m looking forward to helping lead our efforts to build a lasting partnership with the hardworking men and women of America's heartland,” she said.
Bustos is the only Midwestern member elected to House Democratic leadership. She ruled out a bid for governor earlier this year, citing the important regional perspective she hoped to bring to leadership.
The National Republican Congressional Committee put Bustos on its initial target list for 2018, and she’s in the DCCC’s Frontline program for its most vulnerable incumbents. But despite Trump carrying her district by less than a point, Bustos won re-election by 21 points in November.
She’s put a premium on constituent engagement through heavily publicized programs such as “Supermarket Saturdays,” when she greets constituents in the aisles at local grocery stores, and “Cheri on Shift,” when she puts herself in the place of workers in her district.
In her new position for the DCCC, Bustos will be heavily involved in candidate mentoring, which she’s already done as a former chairwoman of the DCCC’s Red to Blue program and a former vice chairwoman of recruitment. This year, she’s piloted a boot camp to train Democrats in her district to run for local office, and last cycle, she and a network of female lawmakers took an active role in mentoring female candidates.