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Democratic campaign chair Sean Patrick Maloney faces toughest job in politics

He has a blunt message for his party: ‘The problem is not the voters. The problem is us.’

Rep. Sean Patrick Maloney (D-N.Y.) speaks during the House Democratic Caucus Issues Conference. (Hannah Beier/Bloomberg)
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An earlier version of this story attributed comments made by Rep. Jamaal Bowman (D-N.Y.) to Rep. Mondaire Jones (D-N.Y.). This version has been corrected.

PHILADELPHIA — Rep. Sean Patrick Maloney (D-N.Y.) has spent years preparing to helm the Democratic political operation.

Maloney led an investigation into the disappointing 2016 campaign. In late 2018, he ran to become chair of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee (DCCC) but was stopped by a brief hospital stint. Just after the 2020 election, the job was finally his.

Now, with Democrats at risk of losing their majority this fall, Maloney is trying to answer one critical question about how voters view his party. “If they agree with us on the issues,” the DCCC chairman asked, “why don’t they like us more?”

Maloney, 55, is in his 10th year representing parts of the Hudson Valley north of New York City, which voted for Donald Trump in 2016 and President Biden in 2020, and has found some “answers that aren’t comfortable” for his party to hear. He has taken on the role of truth teller, trying to get his caucus shifted away from issues that he thinks repel swing voters.

“They think that we’re divisive and too focused on cultural issues. They think that we’re preachy. They think that we act like we know better than parents when it comes to their kids in schools,” Maloney said in an interview here during a conference designed to try to forge some unity. “The problem is not the voters,” he added. “The problem is us.”

Not all members agree with his assessment. Many “front liners,” or those lawmakers facing tough midterm races, skipped the conference, sending the message that they trust their own instincts over those of national party operatives and Maloney.

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Rather than coaching incumbents to distance themselves from the politically unpopular president, Maloney wants these Democrats to embrace Biden’s style.

“He is that person that in many ways we need to become,” Maloney said, explaining Biden’s interactions with voters. “If there’s a kid with a stutter, the president’s gonna fall all over him. If there’s a cop or a firefighter whose had a tough time, Joe Biden’s gonna wrap his arm around him.”

Republicans will enjoy hearing this because they believe Biden will serve as a political sinker for Democrats this year unless he can dramatically change his standing with voters. When Biden paid a more than 90-minute visit to Democrats here Friday, he encouraged lawmakers to get into their communities more now that the pandemic was receding, even if it risks some ugly confrontations.

“I’ve seen these Trump signs that say ‘F--- you, Biden’,” he told the Democrats, according to the notes of one attendee and confirmed by two other Democrats in attendance. “Little kids giving me the finger. You guys probably don’t get that kind of response.”

“I do,” House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) interjected, drawing laughter. Biden told Democrats they need to find places where the $1 trillion in infrastructure money is flowing, like an old bridge connecting a fire house and a shopping center.

“Stand there and hold a press conference and talk about how you are going to rebuild the bridge,” he said, according to the Democrats who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss the private portion of the meeting.

The overall mood in Philadelphia was bleak and based in reality. House Democrats know their chances of holding the majority are not great and they need a course correction. This sets them apart from House Republicans at this stage of 2018 and Democrats in 2010, who were both slow to recognize they would suffer blowout defeats that cost them their majorities.

Patience pays off as infrastructure deal crosses the finish line

Rep. Jamaal Bowman (D-N.Y.), one of the liberal newcomers to the caucus, agreed with most of Maloney’s “preachy” assessment, although he thinks the party is more popular than Maloney suggests.

“I do think we can get soap-boxy from time to time, and I think we need to do a lot more listening and engaging and connecting with people who may not agree with us initially,” Bowman told reporters after joining more senior members of the Congressional Black Caucus at a news conference.

Maloney’s appreciation for political style is a departure from his first foray into the inner workings of the DCCC. Heading into the 2016 election, Pelosi predicted gains of 15 or more seats, only to just pick up six seats as Trump won the presidency and Republicans retained total control of Congress.

Maloney got assigned to do a “deep dive,” as he labeled it, almost an internal affairs probe of what went wrong. His team focused heavily on data and analytics, identifying 350 characteristics that applied to each House race. Instead of worrying about previous presidential performance in districts, he wanted the DCCC to analyze their rural-urban breakdown and education levels, devoting resources to highly educated suburbs.

“Our tools need to get out of the past,” Maloney told The Washington Post at the 2017 Democratic retreat in Baltimore. He felt validated when Democrats swept through the suburbs in 2018 and claimed the majority, prompting a brief run for the DCCC post that he abandoned when a bacterial infection sent him to the hospital for a few days.

Then, in the 2020 House races, Democrats ran up against the unexpected and powerful force of Republicans tarring their candidates with some of the most liberal ideas such as defunding the police and an embrace of socialism.

While Biden won by more than 7 million votes, Republicans scored a net gain of 11 seats in November, in addition to two seats they picked up earlier in 2020, a historic anomaly. Democrats suffered painful losses in the suburbs around Los Angeles and Miami, while Republicans held firm in more than a half dozen seats in the suburbs of Philadelphia, Houston, Dallas and Omaha.

After narrowly winning the race to take over the DCCC in late 2020, Maloney launched another “deep dive.” Polling missed a slight surge in Republican voter turnout, but the Republican attacks “carried a punch,” he found.

So, when Biden declared in his State of the Union address earlier this month that it was time to “fund the police,” a rebuke of calls to “defund” which Biden has never supported, Maloney could not have cheered louder. “A cold glass of water on a hot summer day, it was a relief and clarifying,” Maloney said.

Biden makes his midterm message clear on funding the police

He’s now preaching about intangibles like the “Maloney brothers test.” One of seven children growing up, his father a lumberjack, those siblings kept him grounded in working-class values even as he soared into elite circles as a senior White House aide during the Clinton administration and then as a partner in Manhattan law firms.

At Thanksgiving 2012, just after he returned from his first congressional orientation, Maloney said he showed off his member pin, and one of his brothers threw it into the woods. “It’s the difference between giving them a Power Point and showing up to shovel their driveway when it snows,” Maloney said.

Maloney is the highest-ranking openly gay House member and has adopted three children of color with his husband. He has won his last three races by more than 10 points each time. Trump narrowly won his district in 2016, but Biden won by a comfortable margin of five points in 2020, which Maloney says illustrates his theory.

The DCCC chairman does not want candidates focusing on the former president’s past antics, but rather what he calls the “consequences of Trump” and a Republican Party that is largely still beholden to him, from states passing restrictive voting laws to a couple dozen House Republicans voicing tacit support for the rioters who stormed the Capitol.

Maloney insists there is hope for his party. The decennial redistricting of House seats has gone well for Democrats, and their incumbents hold a combined $80 million fundraising edge over their Republican opponents. Mostly, however, he worries how voters will grade Democrats on the “Maloney brothers test.”

“They like what we’re doing,” Maloney said, “but they’re not sure about us.”