Capping off a contentious two-year stint, Rep. Cheri Bustos, the head of House Democrats’ campaign arm, has decided against running for a second term in that role, she tells TIME.
Bustos had faced enormous criticism during her turn as chair of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, which is in charge of the effort to get Democrats elected to the House. Under Bustos’ tenure, rifts formed between the party’s members, and the Democrats’ House shrank by at least six seats and counting in the November election, a disappointment given public polling. Bustos’ colleagues, who generally have great affinity for her personally, seethed that the projections of an expanded majority left them all embarrassed and having misread the mood in America.
“At the start of this cycle, we understood that we had a very tough playing field and most of us expected we’d be on defense most of the cycle,” says Ami Bera, a California Democrat and one of Bustos’ deputies tasked with incumbent retention. “With the playing field that Chairwoman Bustos had to defend, it was going to be a tough cycle.”
On a call last week, Democrats vented that the polling had been wrong, the messaging a mess and their friends were packing their offices. Turnout was through the roof, making any sort of projections about Election Day turnout a jumble. Democrats were left on their heels over questions of defunding the police and Black Lives Matter. After the protests over racial injustice spread across the nation this summer, Republicans tagged Democrats as socialists who would couldn’t be trusted to keep neighborhoods safe. In the end, it turned out to be a potent message.
Bustos admitted on the call that the party’s polling was a mess that led to bad advice being executed, such as focusing on health care and ignoring Republicans’ incoming.
“I’m furious. Something went wrong here across the entire political world,” she told the caucus on that two-hour-plus call. “Our polls, Senate polls, [Governors] polls, Presidential polls, Republican polls, public polls, turnout modeling and prognosticators all pointed to one political environment — that environment never materialized.”
Even before the call, Bustos had begun telling her inner-circle that she was ready to leave the position, one she never truly wanted. By Monday, she told TIME she was ready to go back to simply serving her district in western Illinois.
“I first ran for Congress to get big things done for hardworking families. Now, for the first time during my tenure, I’ll serve in a House majority with a Democratic President,” she says. Employing President-elect Joe Biden’s infrastructure slogan, she adds: “After four years of chaos and broken promises, there is no limit to what we can achieve as we work to Build Back Better for the communities I serve.”
Reps. Tony Cárdenas of California and Sean Patrick Maloney of New York both suggested they would seek the role, one of the most thankless in Democratic politics for its high pressure and few rewards. Rep. Marc Vaesey of Texas is also considered a prime contender for the gig.
Bustos, a former journalist and hospital executive, won a surprising election in a Republican-leaning district in 2012. She was a fast climber, quarterbacking Democrats’ efforts in 2018 in the Midwest and leaning on her pragmatism to advise candidates in red and purple districts. The path she charted helped the Democrats retake the majority in the chamber.
After 2018, Bustos had planned to run for the Assistant Leader position but decided to cede that position to Ben Ray Luján, who last week won his election to a New Mexico Senate seat. Instead, Bustos received four protest votes last year for the Speaker of the House and eventually won a four-way race for the DCCC. Now, she says, she’s going back to the powerful Appropriations and Agriculture committees. She may yet, however, find himself appointed to a position inside the party.
The DCCC gig was never a natural fit for Bustos, who hails from a right-leaning district that borders Iowa. She tells crowds that her front yard is the Mississippi River and she’s not stretching the truth. She grew up steeped in politics — her father was a top political writer in Illinois and a press secretary to a Governor, and she babysat Sen. Dick Durbin’s kids as a teenager — and she quickly became the Democrats’ decoder of Heartland values. But she didn’t have the instinct to lob partisan attacks and instead urged cross-party collaboration.
Bustos stumbled out of the gate with some staffing choices. Members of her caucus made her early days in the job miserable due to that first wave of hires, which, to her critics’ minds, lacked sufficient diversity. She faced tremendous pressure to include minority-owned consultants and vendors on committee payroll.
Even her allies acknowledge their hyper-competitive friend is likely to be happier stepping out of the Leadership hustle.
“I don’t know how many good days she had on the job even where there was cause to celebrate,” says Rep. Grace Meng, a New York Democrat. “She always knew that this job would be hard. We had a really tough job of defending so many seats that President Trump won. We got excited with the Biden campaign and thought maybe we could expand our majority because we had so much renewed excitement all over the country.”
Some of those who were defeated in the Nov. 3 election also defended Bustos’ tenure. “There was a surge in Trump voters that folks under-estimated. You saw that in numbers,” says first-term Rep. Joe Cunningham of South Carolina who was defeated in a close race in Charleston. “A lot of this polling proved less than accurate. And when you’re operating off of that as a foundation, it’s a problem. But Cheri’s always been there for me.”
On Monday, responding to the news of Bustos’ decision, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi praised her colleague’s term. “Strengthened by the values of the heartland, Chairwoman Bustos shaped a mainstream message, mobilized effectively and attracted the resources to do so,” Pelosi said, nodding to the record fundraising Bustos led. “Chairwoman Bustos brought strategic thinking, political astuteness and boundless stamina to Hold The House, with the added challenge of the coronavirus.”
Instead, Democrats will have to settle for a majority — and a race for who steps into Bustos’ role.
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