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Bustos works the phone at her office on Capitol Hill in May 2017
M. Scott Mahaskey—Politico

Cheri Bustos shows her opponents no mercy. Even in Skee-Ball.

The hypercompetitive three-term Congresswoman from northwest Illinois is walking with a fellow Democrat at a union picnic in the Cincinnati area when she spots the arcade game. “Aftab,” she calls to Aftab Pureval, a former prosecutor who is looking to unseat an 11-term Republican in this southwest corner of Ohio. “How are you at Skee-Ball?” Soon both are shoving tokens into the machine. But as the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee’s chair of heartland engagement, Bustos is a professional multitasker. Between turns she talks about the bigger competition she’s focused on now: helping House Democrats win a bloc of seats that stretches from Omaha to the Philadelphia suburbs.

Democrats have struggled in these working-class districts in recent years, but Bustos has ideas for how to win them back. First, don’t lead with the controversial issues that are popular with the party’s fringe. High-cost, pie-in-the-sky proposals for a guaranteed universal wage and single-payer health care can be toxic with voters who think government is already doing too much, and little of it well. “You don’t go into a room starting there,” Bustos says.

She knows whereof she speaks. Bustos won her 2016 re-election race by 20 percentage points in a district President Donald Trump narrowly carried. And she’s quick to point out that while primary victories by far-left candidates may have captured headlines, the best pickup chances this election cycle come because moderate candidates are poised to lure Republican and moderate voters to pull the lever for Democrats. Now, as the de facto leader of a 12-state Democratic campaign, Bustos is looking to unleash the fierce urgency of centrism across America’s heartland.

That’s one reason she’s become a campaign mentor to several of the Democratic Party’s top House recruits. In Michigan, former CIA officer and Pentagon official Elissa Slotkin is within striking distance of unseating a Republican in her Lansing district. Iowa state representative Abby Finkenauer, 29, recently snagged the influential Des Moines Register’s endorsement, and polls suggest she’s favored to become the youngest woman ever elected to Congress. Amy McGrath, the first woman to pilot an F/A-18 on a Marine combat mission, is running strong in a conservative Kentucky district. Others, like Theresa Gasper in Dayton, Ohio, face tougher prospects, which is why Bustos spent part of an August Sunday in the district, trying to help Gasper attract voters by talking up meat-and-potatoes issues like infrastructure and military spending at nearby Wright-Patterson Air Force Base.

Bustos’ efforts may prove pivotal in November. Democrats could net the 23 seats they need for a majority just through the states under Bustos’ purview. More important: victory is impossible without them. That means control of the House of Representatives–and all that comes with it–may hang on the pitch that the 57-year-old former newspaper reporter is delivering across the region to voters and Democratic candidates alike.


America’s heartland wasn’t always painted red. There was a time when Democrats could win House races in places like Evansville, Ind.; Waterloo, Iowa; and Janesville, Wis. Yet it’s gotten tougher to carry such places with a D after your name. The number of moderates in the House Democratic caucus has dwindled in recent years: the coalition of conservative Democrats in the House now numbers just 18. Being a Democrat in a red district requires a feel for cultural issues and a willingness to defy party orthodoxy. “When I was going into union halls when Hillary [Clinton] was running, the first question was ‘Is Hillary going to take our guns?'” Bustos says as she walks through the union picnic. Bustos knows how to dispatch that question: “I have three sons. They all hunt.” If that doesn’t do it, she mentions that her husband is a captain with the local sheriff’s department.

Beside Bustos walks Pureval, the Democratic candidate running in a district that has been represented for 11 of the past 12 terms by Republican Steve Chabot. Pureval, a 36-year-old first-generation American, has worked to prosecute federal crimes against children and represented local behemoth Procter & Gamble. In 2016, he became the first Democrat to win the Hamilton County clerk of courts job in a century. The district is gerrymandered to the GOP’s advantage, but Pureval has been outraising Chabot and nipping at the incumbent’s heels.

Listen to Pureval chat with voters and it’s clear that he’s a different kind of Democrat. Asked about Trump, he says he agrees with the President on the need for infrastructure investment. Asked about the anti-Trump resistance movement, he says some people are more interested in screaming than listening– and that’s not of interest to him. Asked about the odds of a Democrat’s prevailing here, he notes Barack Obama twice won Hamilton County. “We can’t expect change if we keep sending the same person and same leadership to Washington, D.C., year after year,” he tells union members who have rented out the amusement park on this Saturday in August.

For candidates like Pureval to run this way in 2018 cuts against headlines. Progressive candidates are capturing the imagination of the party’s motivated activists, especially the younger cohort. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, for instance, unseated House Democratic Caucus chair Joseph Crowley in June in New York City, triggering media coverage that suggested Ocasio-Cortez embodied the Democrats’ future. The focus on the party’s left-wing insurgents worries moderates, who know Republicans will use the positions of one candidate to caricature the rest. “That is not where the party is heading,” Bustos says of the socialist positions favored by Ocasio-Cortez and Senator Bernie Sanders. “That fit for Queens, O.K.?” Instead, she wants candidates talking about creating jobs through infrastructure, keeping health care costs low and stamping out corruption–three unmet Trump promises.

Some of her peers feel the same way about the emerging push to abolish Immigration and Customs Enforcement in the wake of the Trump Administration’s family-separation policy. “I understand the emotions, the moral vacuum that is involved in splitting up families,” says Jim Himes, a Connecticut Democrat and the chairman of the House’s 68-member moderate New Democrat Coalition. “But when you go out there and say, ‘This is who we are,’ you’ve now made life harder for the 60 or 70 Democrats fighting in districts where we need to win if we ever want to be in the majority.”

To reorient the party, centrist groups like Third Way have been pushing candidates to read up on history and polling. “The party is not going to go in the direction of Sanders-style socialism, because it’s not winning on the issues and it doesn’t win politically except in a very, very limited number of places,” Third Way president Jonathan Cowan tells TIME. “It’s going to go in the direction that won it two presidencies. The last two two-term Democratic Presidents were mainstream Democrats. [That’s] what’s going to get the House back.”

The data supports Cowan’s argument. According to an analysis of the 2018 primaries by the Brookings Institution, “establishment”-minded Democratic candidates fared better than their progressive brethren, notching 139 primary wins to the progressives’ 101. When the Brookings researchers looked at where these progressives are winning, they found they tended to cluster in districts where no Democrat stands a chance in a normal year. For all of the talk of the Democratic Party’s leftward lurch, when the next Congress is seated, it’s unlikely the Democratic caucus will be substantially more liberal than in years past.

The same is true of some liberal policy proposals. In Colorado, a ballot measure to enact a single-payer health system failed, 79% to 21%, on the same day Clinton carried the state over Trump; in left-leaning Boulder County, it won support from just 38% of voters. Liberal Vermont, which had such a system for three years, ditched it in 2014. In California, a ballot measure regulating drug prices fell in 2016 by 8 points. A similar measure was voted down in Ohio a year later by 58 points.

To make gains beyond the House this year, moderates say, Democrats will need crossover appeal. Third Way, the centrist think tank, crunched the numbers for competitive Senate races and found reliable Republicans are more likely to vote in them this November. Just 27% of the projected electorate in battleground races was expected to be reliable Democrats. More than half the voters in West Virginia are expected to split their ticket. “If you look throughout the heartland, there’s a silent majority,” Bustos says, that “just wants normalcy, just wants to see that people are going to go out to Washington and fight for them in a civil way and get something done.”

For Bustos, the union picnic is part of a two-day tour through Ohio’s battleground districts that includes stops at a bingo parlor near Cincinnati, an infrastructure panel in Dayton and a bartending shift in Columbus that doubles as an informal voter focus group. But before slinging pints of draft beer, Bustos has some time to kill and decides she wants some ice cream. During a July visit to Columbus for a Third Way summit, she discovered an Ohio-based company whose founder just happens to be a good Democrat. As she polishes off her bowl of sweet corn and blueberry ice cream, she turns the talk back to the local race she is here to check out.

In 2016, Trump won the Buckeye State’s 12th district by 11 percentage points. But in August 2018, Republican Troy Balderson eked out a special-election victory here over Danny O’Connor by just 1,680 votes–a race so close it took more than two weeks after the election to determine who had won. O’Connor and Balderson have a rematch lined up in November, and this time the Republican won’t have the benefit of the undivided focus and campaign cash of the entire GOP establishment.

It’s clear why O’Connor is a formidable opponent in a district like this, which stretches from Columbus’ north side toward Zanesville and has not elected a Democrat since 1982. Unlike some other Democratic candidates, the 31-year-old county recorder spends little time talking about Trump or appealing to hard-left activists. Instead, his campaign is designed to attract voters who may not agree with him. “You need to go anywhere at any time to talk to anyone about anything. I’ve knocked on doors where people are 3% likely to support a Democrat. But all of these people deserve to have their voices heard,” he told TIME. “Democrats have to be willing to go to places that haven’t voted Democratic for a long time or even heard from Democrats for a long time.” And while he supports abortion rights and LGBT rights, O’Connor doesn’t make them cornerstones of his campaign messages.

Democrats have their work cut out to win their share of races like this on Nov. 6. But the path back to the House majority runs through them. Bustos knows the numbers: four targeted pickups in Ohio; another four apiece in Minnesota, Michigan and Illinois; five in Pennsylvania. The success of her team of Midwestern moderates could shape the next two years of Donald Trump’s presidency.

This appears in the October 29, 2018 issue of TIME.

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