Democrats try to draft Cardenas to run campaign arm after disappointing night

Greg Nash

Democrats are encouraging Rep. Tony Cárdenas (D-Calif.) to drop out of the race for assistant Speaker and run to lead the House Democrats’ 2022 campaign operation following a disappointing election night for the party, multiple sources told The Hill.

“I think Tony would have a lot of support for DCCC. Maybe not automatic but a very clean shot,” Rep. Filemon Vela (D-Texas), a close friend and fellow Hispanic Caucus member, said in an interview Thursday, referring to the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee.

Current DCCC Chairwoman Cheri Bustos (D-Ill.) has not said whether she’ll seek a second term leading the campaign arm. She’s focused on “getting every vote counted” in a number of close House races across the country that haven’t been called yet, DCCC spokesman Cole Leiter said.

Election night proved to be a huge disappointment for Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), Bustos and their fellow House Democrats. Bolstered by positive polling and record fundraising, they had hoped to pick up anywhere from five to 15 seats, winning districts deep in Trump country. Instead, they watched as at least seven vulnerable members went down to defeat and are now on track to have a net loss of seats.

Many Democrats said they don’t envision Bustos, a centrist, leading the DCCC after Tuesday night’s results, particularly as her own district’s politics become more complicated and she is forced to focus more energy on defending her own seat in western Illinois. The Associated Press on Thursday projected Bustos, who was leading her GOP challenger 52 percent to 48 percent, would win her race.

“What got under members’ skin is the fact that she had to get bailed out. Why did we spend $1 million to bail out the DCCC chair? That’s the bur under their saddle,” a former Democratic leadership aide said of Democratic super PAC spending in the race. “If this was a bad cycle for her, imagine 2022.”

Cárdenas, 57, is currently locked in a three-way race to replace the assistant Speaker, Rep. Ben Ray Luján, a former chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee (DCCC) who won an open Senate seat in New Mexico on Tuesday night. The California Democrat is running against Rep. Katherine Clark (D-Mass.), the vice chairwoman of the Democratic caucus; and Rep. David Cicilline (D-R.I.), who heads up the party’s messaging arm known as the Democratic Policy and Communications Committee.

But the DCCC job could be a better fit for Cárdenas, one of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus’s leaders and a prolific fundraiser, some Democrats say.  

At the campaign organization, the former Los Angeles city councilman would follow in the steps of Luján, who engineered the 2018 Democratic sweep that gave the party the House majority. Some party insiders and members were initially miffed at Bustos for putting her imprint on the job, rather than just building on Luján’s work.

Cárdenas is currently chairman of Bold PAC, the Congressional Hispanic Caucus (CHC) campaign arm, a post that Luján had previously held.

Bold PAC was a relatively minor operation before Luján, mostly focused on supporting CHC incumbents in tough races. Luján overhauled the operation — in the 2014 campaign cycle, Bold PAC raised nearly $1 million, twice what it raised two cycles prior.

But Cárdenas changed the face of Bold PAC entirely, raising more than $6 million for 2016, $11 million for 2018 and more than $13 million for 2020, and expanding the group’s reach to support vulnerable members beyond the CHC.

Democrats who are wary of the 2020 House results see Cárdenas’s job at Bold PAC as a supercharged version of Luján’s role there, and hope that could translate to a DCCC expected to face a huge challenge in protecting its majority in what almost certainly will be a difficult midterm election for Democrats.

“Cárdenas is the name that keeps coming up by members [who think] he would be the right guy because of what he’s done with Bold PAC,” the former Democratic aide said.

Democrats are especially concerned about lost ground with Hispanic voters in areas like the Rio Grande Valley of Texas, where Hispanic support for Republicans grew aggressively in 2020.

Democrats were also caught off guard in two key Miami-Dade seats poached by Republicans, where Trump’s consistent messaging on Latin American socialism essentially erased gains Democrats had made among South Florida Hispanics, particularly the powerful Cuban American voting bloc.

House campaigns throughout the country also suffered because favorite tactics — door knocking and in-person get out the vote efforts — were discarded by Democrats in response to the coronavirus pandemic.

Many Democrats view Cárdenas, an advocate of the early-and-often approach to Hispanic outreach used in 2018, as uniquely poised to bring back that strategy.

Bustos, who early in her DCCC tenure was criticized for a lack of diversity in her leadership team, has said she runs the committee with a mindset of permanent engagement with voters, responding to criticism that minority voters are approached late in each cycle.

But the shock of a disappointing 2020 House election, plus concerns about Bustos’s own job security amid impending redistricting, have Democrats calling Cárdenas en masse to consider the campaign job.

Whether that’s enough for Cárdenas to mount a challenge against Bustos remains to be seen. 

Cárdenas, who has made no secret of his leadership ambitions, said earlier in the summer that he did not challenge Bustos out of respect, and decided to go for the assistant speakership.

Cárdenas considers Bustos a friend and is unlikely to formally announce any designs on the DCCC role unless Bustos steps aside, sources said.

The former Democratic leadership aide said there’s a group of members actively trying to recruit Cárdenas for DCCC chair, though this source said there’s been no indication that Cárdenas is ready to make a jump. 

“I haven’t heard that Cárdenas is moving. I know that members are trying to convince him that he should get into that race,” the former aide said Thursday by phone, adding that many members are waiting to hear Bustos’s side before outright calling for her ouster.

While a number of outstanding races remain to be called, there’s already grumbling from a number of moderate Democrats that leadership botched the party’s campaign message. Some have called for a leadership shake-up from Pelosi down, though the former leadership aide said those voices represent a small, if restless, minority.

“There’s the usual rumbling, but I don’t know if anyone’s going to be willing to say, ‘Hey, we need new leadership top to bottom.’ I haven’t heard that part,” the source said. “I have heard that Bustos is sort-of the center of their energy right now.”

Updated: 10:10 p.m.

Tags 2020 election Cheri Bustos David Cicilline DCCC Filemon Vela Florida Hispanic voters House elections Katherine Clark Nancy Pelosi Texas

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