The Secret Weapon Democrats Don’t Know How to Use


Ignore the headline, look at the results:

No Democrat in the House of Representatives did what Cheri Bustos did last November. She wasn’t the sole member of her party to win in a congressional district Donald Trump also took—there were 11 others—but she was the only one to post a 20-point landslide, and she did it in agricultural, industrial, blue-collar northwestern Illinois. In the kind of place where Hillary Clinton lost big last fall and where Democrats have been losing in droves for the last decade, Bustos has done just the opposite. A former newspaper reporter, the wife of a county sheriff and the mother of three grown sons, the 55-year-old third-term representative has won by wider margins every time she’s run. And this past election, she notched victories not only in the urban pockets she represents—Rock Island and Moline of the Quad Cities, plus pieces of Rockford and Peoria—but in all her rural counties, too. If Democrats are going to wrest control of the House from Republicans, argue many party strategists, it’s going to happen in large part by doing more of whatever it is Bustos is doing three hours west of Chicago in her nearly 7,000-square-mile district of small towns and soybean fields.

“We ought to be studying Cheri Bustos,” Democratic consultant Mark Longabaugh, a senior adviser in Bernie Sanders’ presidential campaign, told me recently.

So twice in the first four months of this year, I traveled to her district to watch her work. In January, on a frigid Saturday the week before Trump’s inauguration, I accompanied her in a silver, staffer-driven Ford Taurus, as she donned a yellow hard hat and installed an air filter in a locomotive in Galesburg (the latest in a regular series of appearances she calls “Cheri on Shift”), stationed herself in a grocery store produce section to introduce herself to customers at a Hy-Vee in Canton (“Supermarket Saturdays”) and swung by a pub in Peoria to talk with a group of activist women. And last month, on a rainy Wednesday, I joined her again, when she put on a pair of safety goggles for a tour of an aerospace factory in Rockford and met with the mayor of Rock Falls, population 9,266.

The Bustos blueprint, she told me in January as the Taurus dodged raccoon road kill outside a speck of a village called Maquon, is rooted in unslick, face-to-face politicking. She shows up. She shakes hands. She asks questions—a lot of questions. “Don’t talk down to people—you listen,” she stressed. When she does talk, she talks as much as she can about jobs and wages and the economy and as little as she can about guns and abortion and other socially divisive issues—which, for her, are “no-win conversations,” she explained. And at a time when members of both parties are being tugged toward their respective ideological poles, the more center-left Bustos has picked her spots to buck such partisanship. She’s a pro-choice Catholic and an advocate for limited gun control, but she has supported the Keystone pipeline and called for improvements to Barack Obama’s “imperfect” Affordable Care Act. It’s worked. She’s the only Democratic member of the Illinois’ congressional delegation from outside Chicagoland.

Rick Jasculca, a Chicago-based Democratic political consultant who worked in the administrations of Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton, told me he considers Bustos “the future of the party.”

“She offers something the party needs, in a region of the country where it needs it desperately,” said Robin Johnson, a political science professor at Monmouth College in Monmouth, Illinois, and one of Bustos’ closest confidants. “If you’re going to get back to a majority in the House, you’re going to have to win some rural areas—and all this comes through the Midwest.”

Democratic leaders seem to acknowledge this—that Bustos could help them build back a geographically broader electoral appeal. In the aftermath of the party’s crushing defeats of 2016, House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi chose Bustos to be a co-chair of the Democratic Policy and Communications Committee, after which she was elected by her peers. Her assignment is to teach other members of her caucus essentially how to talk to people like the shoppers she encounters by the bananas at the Hy-Vee. In some ways this was a confirmation of an existing though less formal role. Bustos, the single Midwesterner in House Democratic Leadership, already was a co-chair of the “Red to Blue” initiative of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, and now she’s ramping up her role in the organization’s rural and heartland outreach efforts. Her national television and radio appearances have spiked. She’s been dubbed one of the party’s rising stars.

You can read the rest at Politico.

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