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Why Rep. Cheri Bustos won’t seek another term as chair of Democratic House political operation

Bustos won another term last week with the slimmest margin since her first House bid in 2012.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi speaks to reporters alongside Rep. Cheri Bustos, chairwoman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, at the Democratic National Committee headquarters last week.
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi speaks to reporters alongside Rep. Cheri Bustos, chairwoman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, at the Democratic National Committee headquarters last week.
J. Scott Applewhite | Getty Images

WASHINGTON — After getting the biggest scare of her political career, Rep. Cheri Bustos, D-Ill., announced Monday she won’t seek another term as chair of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee and instead will stick closer to home.

Bustos said in a statement that rather than run again for DCCC chair, she will “focus my work on exciting legislative possibilities in the years to come.”

“As a member of the House Appropriations and Agriculture committees, I am well-positioned to turn my focus to strengthening infrastructure and health care in the cities, small towns and rural areas I serve.”

Two years ago, Bustos won her bid to be the new chair of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, a move quickly vaulting her into the top leadership ranks and the national spotlight.

The ascent also fueled some buzz that Bustos, a protégé of Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., would be at the top of the line of Democrats wanting to succeed him someday, or maybe even House Speaker Nancy Pelosi.

The DCCC is the main Democratic House political operation. With Bustos at the helm, the results last week were mixed. Bustos proved an able fundraiser, and the Democrats held the majority — that’s good — but lost at least seven incumbent seats when the expectation was they would increase their numbers.

Bustos might not have been able to remain DCCC chair if she wanted it for another cycle.

The position is determined by a vote of House Democrats and in a call last week, they vented about poor polling and being wounded by not being able to defend themselves effectively against the GOP tagging all House Democrats as socialists who want to strip police funding.

Member complaints aside, Bustos is facing a new reality. She is in some trouble at home, winning another term last week with the slimmest margin since her first House bid in 2012.

The surprisingly, tougher-than-expected challenge in her downstate 17th congressional district came from Republican Esther Joy King.

King is unknown in Illinois politics but got some help by Republicans who relished the prospects of defeating the DCCC chair.

President Donald Trump endorsed King in an Oct. 21 tweet, touting her as “a Strong Supporter of our #MAGA agenda and she’s running against a Total Fraud who the Democrats are now rushing to save.”

Trouble on the home front

While Illinois is a heavily Democratic state, most of those blue votes come from Chicago and the surrounding counties. Bustos’ district sweeps in parts of central and northwest Illinois and is heavily Republican.

In 2018, Bustos, from Moline, won reelection with a whopping margin of 24 percentage points, the biggest of any House Democrat running in a district won by Trump.

Part of the argument Bustos made to clinch the DCCC spot was that she understood the Trump voter. Her victories, she argued, showed she could make a persuasive split-ticket argument and let Democratic House contenders prevail in Trump territory.

That changed last week.

Republican King, an attorney with short roots in the district got 48.1% of the vote with Bustos winning with only 51.9% according to unofficial returns reported by the Associated Press. The AP called the contest for Bustos. The Bustos margin may change; mail-in ballot counting runs in Illinois until Nov. 17.

So let’s line this up. Here are Bustos’ winning percentages for her five congressional elections.

2012 — 53.8%

2014 — 55.4%

2016 — 60.3%

2018 — 62.1%

2020 — 51.9%

Bustos, a former reporter and health system executive, grew up in politics and has been mentored by Durbin. Her father, the late Gene Callahan, was a close Durbin friend and a political adviser to former Illinois Democratic Senators Paul Simon and Alan Dixon.

Pelosi said in a statement that Bustos in her DCCC tenure “shaped a mainstream message, mobilized effectively and attracted the resources to do so” while bringing “strategic thinking, political astuteness and boundless stamina” to hold the House especially with the “added challenge of the coronavirus.”

With a narrow win and the DCCC behind her — and now her next political steps uncertain — Bustos will be sticking closer to home.