Bustos’s advice for swing-district Democrats: Focus on local issues and avoid progressive slogans.
Message discipline. Focus on local issues. Find ways to work with Republicans. And show up. Everywhere.
That is some of the advice offered to swing-district Democrats for winning in conservative areas in a new report written by Representative Cheri Bustos of Illinois, a former leader of the House Democrats’ campaign arm.
The report comes as Democrats in competitive districts are growing increasingly anxious about holding onto their seats. Many point to falling polling numbers and argue that the party must sharpen its economic and public health messaging around the pandemic.
Ms. Bustos interviewed 25 national and local Democratic lawmakers who won areas carried by former President Donald J. Trump in 2020. She had help from a longtime adviser — Robin Johnson, a political scientist at Monmouth College, which is in Ms. Bustos’s district.
Democrats who won districts where Mr. Trump got a majority of votes are a distinct minority in Congress: There are only seven in the House.
Most of the advice in the report revolves around an intense focus on local issues, as a way of aggressively differentiating the political profile of members representing redder areas from the Democrats’ national brand, which Ms. Bustos argues can be “toxic” among rural and working-class voters.
Representative Cindy Axne became the first Democrat to win her seat in southwestern Iowa in 2018, beating out David Young, and then she won a rematch last year.
“Even when every ounce of you wants to stray from the messaging, especially when you’re in a safe Democratic room, DON’T,” Ms. Axne advised. “Everything is on the record and can be used against you by the other side.”
Some of the advice is based on the Democrats’ experiences in 2020, an election that started with confident predictions of increasing their ranks but ended with the loss of 13 House seats and the slimmest majority in decades.
Ms. Bustos blames the losses on the constraints of the pandemic, which prompted most Democrats to abstain from door-to-door campaigning out of concern about public safety. That hampered the ability of swing-district Democrats to counter messaging from the progressive wing of the party — slogans like “defund the police” — that remain unpopular in conservative areas, Ms. Bustos argues.
“We were responsible from a health perspective but from a political perspective it hurt us,” she said. “Some of these attacks that were thrown up there, they took hold and we were not able to fight back.”
The defeats were an embarrassment for Ms. Bustos, who had been considered particularly skilled at devising strategies for Democrats running in conservative-leaning districts, and kicked off a round of recrimination between the moderates and progressives in the party.
“Take any of us away and the majority is shot,” said Ms. Bustos. “I do not want to pick an intraparty fight but it has to be a whole party approach to serving in the majority.”
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