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GOP sees chance to take out Democratic House campaign chief

Rep. Cheri BustosCheryl (Cheri) Lea BustosCapitol's COVID-19 spike could be bad Thanksgiving preview GOP Rep. Dan Newhouse tests positive for COVID-19 Democrats nominate Pelosi to keep Speakership MORE (D-Ill.), the head of House Democrats’ campaign arm, is facing an increasingly competitive reelection bid to represent Illinois’ 17th District.  

Bustos, the chair of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee (DCCC), represents a congressional district that then-candidate Donald TrumpDonald John TrumpBiden to nominate Linda Thomas-Greenfield for UN ambassador: reports Scranton dedicates 'Joe Biden Way' to honor president-elect Kasich: Republicans 'either in complete lockstep' or 'afraid' of Trump MORE narrowly won in 2016. And while she trounced her GOP competitor in 2018, winning by more than 24 percentage points, Bustos is now facing what may be her most expensive and heated battle yet against GOP candidate Esther Joy King.

The Cook Political Report on Wednesday moved Bustos’ race against King from likely Democrat to a lean Democrat district. And internal GOP polling has also elevated Republican hopes that they can win the seat from the woman leading the House Democrats’ campaign effort.

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Bustos, in a Zoom call with reporters on Wednesday, projected confidence heading into the final stretch, while also acknowledging that she has always expected tough races with her Trump-leaning district.

“We are well prepared to finish strong and I live the advice that I give to all of our frontliners and red to blue candidates, which is run your race like you’re running for mayor…everything is hyperlocal,” Bustos said in part. “You show up, you listen, you fight for the people at home, and everything you do is for the people you represent.”

Asked why the race was tightening, Bustos said it is a “Trump district” and noted that her campaign has had to figure out ways to campaign in her district’s 14 counties amid the pandemic. 

“I show up in all of them. Even during a pandemic, we’ve figured out ways to show up,” Bustos said. 

Bustos’ campaign has attacked her GOP opponent for wanting to repeal the Affordable Care Act and for only living in the district for about a year, claiming King filed to run in the election shortly after moving.

“[H]er opponent, who supports the lawsuit that would raise health care costs and take away protections for people with preexisting conditions, just moved to the district from Chicago right before filing to run for Congress,” said Bustos campaign manager Tom Bryant. 

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“We're confident in our strategy heading into November.”

Some reports have also raised questions about King's claims about starting various social media and media-focused companies, which have little presence online. King, in response, has blasted Bustos for the scrutiny, claiming she is attempting to distract from her record representing the district.
 
"This is what Washington politicians like Cheri Bustos do when voters have had enough of them - they attack and distort their opponent's record as a distraction from the fact that Bustos is helping create jobs in China, not here Illinois," King said.
 
King’s campaign has also dismissed accusations of being a carpetbagger, noting she moved for military training and opted to remain in the area. 

“Esther has been in the district for nearly two years. She came here for Army training at the Rock Island Arsenal, and fell in love with the area, and the people who live here. Esther is involved in the community, and has made this her home,” a King campaign spokesman said in a statement. 

King and other GOP critics, meanwhile, are claiming that Bustos is absent from the district, which is helping her campaign gain traction.   

“It's a commonly known thing that Miss Bustos is not representing us well,” King told The Hill in an interview on Thursday. “For example, last night I spent some time talking with a group of union guys and they're like, ‘Man, she only comes around when she needs a picture with us.’ So there is this sense that we deserve better representation.”

King, a reserve captain in the U.S. Army’s Judge Advocate General (JAG) Corps and former aid worker in Afghanistan, has also credited the tightening of the race to her campaign’s grassroots efforts.

King said that her operation has knocked on more than 100,000 doors since she launched her bid, and despite some pollsters indicating that Trump could have a negative impact on candidates down ballot, she argues the president remains popular in the district. 

Rep. Rodney DavisRodney Lee DavisGOP Rep. Dan Newhouse tests positive for COVID-19 Colorado Democrat Ed Perlmutter tests positive for coronavirus Biden's gain is Democratic baseball's loss with Cedric Richmond MORE (R), who represents Illinois’s 11th District, says he has been telling colleagues in the Beltway for months that the Illinois 17th District is in play for Republicans this election cycle.

“It just shows you that you can't forget about your home district -- thinking about what your next step is in Washington — because it may be a surprise if you've got to come spend millions to defend yourself against a very good candidate like King,” added Davis, who himself is facing a highly competitive reelection race.

The Cook Political Report shows Davis in a toss-up race, and it moved the Davis race to toss-up this week from lean Republican. It was one of 12 races that Cook shifted this week. Eleven of those races shifted toward Democrats, underscoring how the political winds appear to be moving in their favor. Bustos’s race was the exception, as Cook moved that race toward the GOP.

The Tarrance Group, a GOP polling company, sent King and the National Republican Congressional Committee (NRCC) a survey last week that found King was within five points of Bustos, with Bustos at 49 percent, King at 44 percent, and 7 percent undecided. 

“The race for the 17th Congressional District of Illinois is close,” a memo the NRCC provided to The Hill stated. 

Should King beat Bustos, it would be a significant win for Republicans, particularly as some polling groups are projecting that the House GOP may sink deeper into the minority after the election. 

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Bustos’ campaign is challenging the GOP narrative that she has lost touch with her district.

“Cheri's focus has always been on listening to the people she serves and delivering real results that matter to them — that's why she's continued to earn their support,” Bryant said in a statement to The Hill. 

Bustos’ campaign has already spent more than $1.5 million on the race, while King has spent about half that, at roughly $810,000, according to Federal Election Commission filings. 

“I feel good going into Nov. 3.” Bustos said on the Wednesday call. 

Jonathan Easley contributed.