Bustos, representing a swath of rural northwest Illinois, had easily outperformed Trump in 2016. Following Democrats’ historic 2018 gains, she pledged to hold on to those Trump-friendly seats and push Democratic gains farther into the suburbs — adding to the Democrats’ 15-seat majority.
But last week’s results instead appear to have cut deeply into that majority, with a net loss of four seats to Republicans so far and with more races yet to be called. Bustos herself was nearly a victim of the GOP surge, eking out a four-point victory after winning by more than 20 percentage points in 2016 and 2018.
Bustos has faced angry recriminations from fellow Democrats who were blindsided by the losses, and the underwhelming results have turbocharged long-simmering infighting between moderate Democrats and liberal members who have been critical of the DCCC’s centrist messaging and recruiting practices.
The latter faction had previously battled with Bustos over her decision to blacklist campaign vendors who work to unseat Democratic incumbents in primaries as well as a lack of diversity in her initial staff hires — an effort that prompted the replacement of several committee officials, including Bustos’s handpicked executive director.
On a conference call with Democratic lawmakers last week, Bustos blamed bad polling that underestimated GOP turnout for the misguided 2020 expectations and promised to launch a thorough postmortem review to identify missteps. But it now appears that Bustos will not see that review to its conclusion.
In a statement, she said she will “instead focus my work on exciting legislative possibilities in the years to come” rather than seek another term leading the campaign committee.
“Now, for the first time in a decade, our caucus will serve in a House majority with a Democratic president. After four years of this administration’s chaos and broken promises, there is now no limit to what we can achieve as we work to Build Back Better for the communities we serve,” said Bustos, a member of the Appropriations and Agriculture committees.
Bustos will remain as DCCC chair until a new chairman is chosen by the Democratic caucus later this year, said a Democratic aide, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss internal planning.
Significant Democratic gains were expected to propel Bustos further up the party leadership ladder, perhaps into the assistant speaker post vacated by Sen.-elect Ben Ray Luján (D-N.M.). Now Bustos appears to be out of the competitive Democratic leadership derby for the time being.
Hours after Bustos made her decision public, Rep. Sean Patrick Maloney (D-N.Y.) announced that he would run to succeed her, touting his own experience winning in a swing district and his fundraising prowess.
Maloney led a postmortem review of the DCCC’s similarly underwhelming performance in 2016, when party leaders thought they would be in contention for the majority but instead only made modest inroads. That familiarity with the organization, Maloney said in his letter Monday, “will shorten the learning curve and allow me to hit the ground running immediately.”
Also joining the race to succeed Bustos on Monday was Rep. Tony Cárdenas (D-Calif.), who pushed for greater diversity inside the DCCC staff ranks last year and leads BOLD PAC, the political arm of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus. Cardenas dropped a bid for assistant leader to instead pursue the campaign post.
In a letter to colleagues, Cárdenas said he felt an “unshakeable sense of loss and frustration for all our colleagues that will not be returning” and warned that Democrats faced a tough battle ahead in 2022.
“The upcoming midterm elections will not be easy and I won’t sugarcoat the truth — it will be a hell of a fight — but families in all corners of America are counting on us to win again in two years and I refuse to let them or this Caucus down,” he wrote. “I am confident that I have the experience, commitment, and passion needed to lead us successfully over the finish line.”
Leadership of the party campaign committee stands to be a crucial job ahead of the 2022 elections. Democrats are likely to have the narrowest House majority in 20 years in the 117th Congress, and they will be facing the political head winds that have typically hampered the president’s party in congressional midterms.
“We must defend vulnerable front-line members while working to expand our majority in what will almost assuredly be a difficult environment,” Maloney said in his letter.
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) paid tribute to Bustos in a statement Monday, calling her “a leader of great integrity and inspiration.”
“Chairwoman Bustos brought strategic thinking, political astuteness and boundless stamina to Hold The House, with the added challenge of the coronavirus,” Pelosi said.