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The Early 202

An essential morning newsletter briefing for leaders in the nation’s capital.

Former DCCC Chair Cheri Bustos on how Democrats should talk about abortion

The Early 202

An essential morning newsletter briefing for leaders in the nation’s capital.

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In today's edition …  Tobi examines the abortion ballot initiatives that will be voted on in several states … Biden hits the trail on final weekend before election … In Virginia, candidates in tight congressional races make closing pitches … but first …

The campaign

Bustos: The midterms have ‘had as many ups and downs as I've seen in most any election cycle’

Eight questions for … Rep. Cheri Bustos (D-Ill.): We chatted about the midterms with Bustos, who led the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee during the 2020 cycle. Bustos isn’t running for reelection after nearly a decade in Congress. This interview has been edited and condensed for length and clarity.

The Early: Midterms are rarely easy for the president’s party. How do you think this one is going?

Bustos: It's had as many ups and downs as I've seen in most any election cycle. There will be a few weeks where I will feel great, and there will be a few weeks where I'm thinking, “Oh, shoot, I'm not sure how this is going.” It has been that way literally this entire election cycle. Early voting’s looking good. Depending on what [polls] you want to believe — not all of those are so great.

The Early: Democrats’ hopes of holding the House rose in August when Kansans defeated a proposed constitutional amendment limiting abortion protections. They climbed even more after Democrats Pat Ryan and Mary Peltola won special elections this summer. Do you feel like those hopes have deflated at all?

Bustos: Well, there are some folks who think that we peaked early. But I think [abortion is] an issue that is front of mind for a lot of voters. I try to be as visual as I possibly can be when I'm talking about these issues: Do we really want Uncle Sam getting an invitation to our doctor's appointments? That is the way I talk about this.

Frankly, in downstate Illinois, I don't use the word “abortion” a whole lot. If somebody wants to be antiabortion, that's okay. But do we really want to have Uncle Sam making our medical decisions? I think most people would agree that these are decisions that women should be able to make on their own.

The Early: You don't hear too many Democratic candidates saying in ads that if you want to be antiabortion, it's okay. Do you wish the Democratic message on abortion was more nuanced?

Bustos: I can only speak for myself. I'm a Democrat in a Trump district. The people who I'm surrounded by — they don't appreciate extremes. If somebody chooses that they don't want to have an abortion, then that’s their choice, and they should be allowed to make that choice. But women who believe that the best choice for their own health or for their own well-being or their family's well-being is to not go through with a pregnancy, that is their choice. And that is how I prefer to talk about this.

The Early: You led the DCCC in 2020, when Democrats unexpectedly lost 11 House seats. What went wrong in 2020, and how much has the DCCC done to correct for it this cycle?

Bustos: Well, I would push back on that premise altogether. It is not a matter of framing it as what went wrong. It's a matter of framing it as we held on to the majority. When I sought my colleagues’ support [while running for DCCC chair], I said goal No. 1 is to hold onto this very fragile majority in what ended up being a very tough election cycle.

We were living through a worldwide pandemic where our lawyers said, “Do not go door to door, do not hold rallies.” Where we've got foreign countries who are sowing disinformation. We had to set up an entire disinformation unit at the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee for the first time in the history of our organization. Where we were living through civil unrest because of the George Floyd murder. It was an unprecedented election cycle where we had so many external forces that none of us saw coming. And we dealt with that, and we held onto the majority. I don't go along with that premise that something went wrong.

The Early: I asked because DCCC Chairman Sean Patrick Maloney has argued the DCCC’s biggest mistake in 2020 was spending too much money trying to oust Republicans and not enough defending Democratic incumbents. “If you had a crystal ball, you would have surged resources around incumbents that we now know were in more danger than the polling suggested, and you would have felt less enthusiastic about some red-to-blue opportunities,” he told The Post last year. Do you agree with that assessment?

Bustos: No. I think it's very, very easy on the day after the election to start armchair-quarterbacking. I'm proud of the fact that we held onto the majority.

The Early: You represent a swing seat that Republicans targeted in 2020 while you were DCCC chair. Now Republicans are pouring millions of dollars into trying to defeat Maloney. Does being targeted for defeat affect your thinking at all as a DCCC chair?

Bustos: I can tell you how I managed that. I'm a Democrat in a Trump district. I knew that I could not ask the [DCCC] to come in and help me, because I had to make sure that those resources were being used in other races. When my race tightened toward the end, I had to raise a lot of money very quickly. I raised that into [the Democratic super PAC] House Majority PAC so they could come in and make sure that I was successful. When the election was said and done, I beat my opponent by 12,148 votes.

The Early: The DCCC has invested in Maloney's race. (Maloney has said he recused himself from spending decisions in his own race.) Do you have any thoughts on whether that's appropriate for a DCCC chair?

Bustos: Well, that's his call. I don't choose to sit here in Illinois judging what he's doing.

The Early: The Cook Political Report moved 10 House races in Republicans’ direction on Tuesday. Democratic Rep. Katie Porter's race in California and the race for retiring Democratic Rep. Kathleen Rice's seat on Long Island are now considered tossups. These are districts that Biden won by more than 10 points. Why do you think these races are competitive?

Bustos: We're now down to less than a week from Election Day. This is what happens. It happened last cycle. It is the natural course of the political process that these races tighten toward the end.

In the states


The final installment of our pre-Election Day series will focus on one of the biggest issues put to voters this year: abortion.

There are six abortion-related ballot measures this year — the most on record. Voters will vote on five of them this month. The wave of abortion-related ballot amendments follows the fall of Roe v. Wade.

Leaders of groups that advocate for abortion rights — including EMILY’s List, NARAL and Planned Parenthood — have spent the week barnstorming the country in an effort to keep the issue front and center in the minds of voters. Their tour will culminate this weekend in Michigan, where abortion is on the ballot and Democratic Gov. Gretchen Whitmer is running on protecting abortion access.

Voters in Kansas rejected a measure in August that would have stripped abortion rights from the state’s constitution. Voters in California, Vermont, Michigan, Kentucky and Montana will vote on their own measures on Tuesday.

Here are the states we’re watching: 

In support of abortion rights: Ballot measures in California, Vermont and Michigan ask voters to decide whether to amend their states’ constitutions to protect abortion access. Vermont made history when it became the first state to put forward a constitutional amendment of its kind in February.  Seven in 10 Californians support the measure, crafted by the state’s Democratic-controlled legislature.

  • Michigan’s Proposal 3, also known as the Reproductive Freedom for All proposal, is one of the most closely watched ballot measures this election cycle. That’s because Michigan — a swing state — is a national bellwether for future abortion-related ballot initiatives.
  • But questions remain over how the state’s Supreme Court could affect the implementation of Proposal 3. Michigan’s 4-3 Democratic Supreme Court currently has two vacant seats that are up for grabs this fall.
  • “If voters reject Proposal 3, it will likely fall to [the] justices Michigan voters elect to their state Supreme Court to decide whether abortion remains legal in the state,” per the Detroit Free Press’s Clara Hendrickson and Arpan Lobo.

Antiabortion movement: Meanwhile, in Republican-controlled state legislatures, lawmakers are asking voters to decide the future of abortion rights in their states.

  • Kentucky: Constitutional Amendment 2 eliminates the right to abortion. If Kentuckians vote “yes,” the state’s constitution can’t be interpreted to “to secure or protect a right to abortion or require the funding of abortion,” according to a text of a sample ballot. This prohibits future ballot initiatives from asking voters to expand access.
  • Montana: If Montana voters pass the Born-Alive Infant Protection Act (LR-131), health care providers must use lifesaving measures on any infant born alive, including those born alive after an abortion and those born too early to survive. Health care providers who refuse to comply could face up to 20 years in prison and a $50,000 fine. Opponents say the measure is misleading because infanticide is already illegal in Montana.

Far from over: The fallout from the Supreme Court’s decision to strike down Roe is expected to continue through 2024. “Discussions around whether to pursue an abortion rights ballot measure are occurring in states including Ohio, Florida, Arizona, Oklahoma, Colorado and Missouri,” our colleague Rachel Roubein reported earlier this month. “One person familiar with the discussions said at least a dozen states are exploring — or are expected to soon explore — whether a citizen-led petition is a viable path to restoring or protecting abortion access in their state.” 

The campaign

Biden hits the trail on final weekend before election

President Biden and national Democrats are out on the campaign trail in the final weekend ahead of the midterms.

“Democrats across the country scrambled Thursday to bolster candidates in places President Biden carried safely in 2020, the latest sign of panic that they could face major losses in next week’s midterm elections,” our colleague Toluse Olorunnipa reports.

After stops in New Mexico for Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham and in California for Democratic Rep. Mike Levin (D) — territory Biden carried in 2020 — Biden and Vice President Harris “plan to spend part of the weekend in Illinois, boosting House candidates in suburban districts that have been trending back toward Republicans since 2020,” Olorunnipa notes.

Biden and former president Barack Obama will rally in Philadelphia on Saturday for Lt. Gov. John Fetterman, the Democratic nominee for Pennsylvani’s open Senate seat, and Pennsylvania Attorney General Josh Shapiro, the Democratic nominee for governor.

Former president Donald Trump will also be in the state the same night, setting up a grudge match in a state where Democrats have the best chance to pick up a Senate seat but where it’s highly likely will turn into a contest of which president has the larger crowd size.

In Virginia, candidates in tight congressional races make closing pitches

Pitch perfect: “In the final sprint of the campaign, Virginia’s most vulnerable incumbent Democrats are making their closing arguments as their Republican opponents keep the pressure on, whipping up enthusiasm with almost daily pep rallies mostly headlined by Virginia Gov. Glenn Youngkin (R),” our colleague Meagan Flynn writes.

  • “With no one else at the top of the ticket to energize voters, all eyes will be on Reps. Abigail Spanberger and Elaine Luria, who are vying to hang onto their seats in a pair of the nation’s most competitive (and expensive) races.”
  • “The toss-up contests are as good of bellwethers as anywhere, with Democrats depending on battle-tested incumbents like those in the 2nd and 7th districts if they want to retain any hope of keeping Congress, and Republicans chomping at the bit to oust them. With major investments from the national GOP, Republicans are hopeful of a red wave the size of the blue one that carried Spanberger, Luria and Rep. Jennifer Wexton (D-Va.) into office four years ago.”
  • What they’re saying: “Luria, the lone vulnerable Democrat serving on the House committee investigating Jan. 6, chose to spotlight that service in her closing one-minute ad. Spanberger, with a heavy focus on small businesses, is trumpeting an endorsement from the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, which has traditionally more often backed Republicans. And all three Virginia Democratic incumbents in more contested races — Luria, Spanberger and Wexton — have joined a nationwide pivot among Democrats to a closing message accusing Republicans of wanting to gut Social Security and Medicare.”

The Media

Weekend reeeads: 

Coffee Break(s)

In case anyone anyone is stress eating the weekend before the election, this is for you.

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