Maloney vows to overhaul a House Democratic campaign machine ‘stuck in the past’

The polling is antiquated. Money is being frittered. Diversity is lacking. And digital outreach lags far behind the times.

These are the warnings from Rep. Sean Patrick Maloney, a four-term New York Democrat who’s vying to lead the party’s campaign arm in the next Congress. 

Democrats are expecting a tough environment in the 2022 midterms, and Maloney’s message is a foreboding one: Modernize the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee (DCCC), he says, or President-elect Joe Biden will be battling a House under Republican control come 2023.  

“The success of our next DCCC chair will determine whether we can support this new president,” Maloney, 54, said Thursday in a lengthy telephone interview. “There are solutions all around us that we are not taking advantage of, because we are stuck in the past.”

To move the party into the future, Maloney is vowing to listen to younger progressives when it comes to social media and digital outreach; to shift away from “stuffy old traditional crappy polling” and adopt community-based focus groups; and to reject the idea that big fundraising hauls are synonymous with election success — a formula that didn’t play out this year, when Democrats raised historic amounts of campaign cash but still lost House seats.

“When I look at the amount of money that the major committees on both sides and independent groups deployed this cycle, I think there must be a big room in Washington somewhere where they bring big bags of money and burn it. Because I don’t know what the hell anybody got out of it,” Maloney said.  

“We have been seduced by this notion that big money and big TV wins elections, and I just don’t see the evidence for that,” he added. 

Maloney will square off with Rep. Tony Cárdenas (D-Calif.) in an internal, secret-ballot election that will decide who becomes the next DCCC chairman. That vote is scheduled after Thanksgiving. 

Cárdenas, 57, who’s run the Congressional Hispanic Caucus’s (CHC) campaign arm Bold PAC for the past six years, has pitched himself as a proven fundraiser and someone who can help Democrats make up lost ground with the tens of thousands of Hispanic voters who backed President Trump this year in places like Texas and Florida. 

Maloney noted he recruited two key CHC members to his whip team: former CHC Chairwoman Linda Sánchez (D-Calif.) and Rep. Veronica Escobar (D-Texas), who is running to be the next CHC chair. 

“Tony’s a friend and a classmate and I’m not surprised that there are people who support his campaign. He’s done a good job at Bold PAC and he deserves credit for that,” said Maloney. But he added: “There are a more comprehensive set of skills that this job requires and I think I’m a better fit.”

Maloney’s pitch hinges on the notion that he’s particularly well-suited to win tough elections, having done so five times as an openly gay man in a conservative-leaning Hudson Valley district that was carried by Trump in 2016. Maloney won comfortably this cycle, and expects his district to get bluer with redistricting heading into 2022, but says his past experience in tougher races would guide his strategy atop the DCCC. 

“I don’t expect to be in a highly competitive district any longer, but I will not forget … what it takes to win in places where people don’t already agree with us,” he said. “And that’s a hard thing to do.”

The battle for control of the DCCC comes after Rep. Cheri Bustos (D-Ill.) decided she would not seek a second term as campaign chief following House Democrats’ unexpected drubbing on election night. Despite predicting they would pick up seats deep into Trump territory this cycle, Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), Bustos and the Democrats saw nearly a dozen of their vulnerable front-line members defeated, failed to unseat a single incumbent Republican and barely hung on to their majority.

Bustos’s brief tenure at DCCC suffered a major setback last year when Black and Hispanic lawmakers criticized her for failing to appoint any minorities to senior management roles on her team; five of her top staffers were forced to resign.

Maloney, who is married and has an interracial family, has vowed not to make the same mistake, saying that diversity will be a centerpiece of the DCCC organization. One idea he has: ask the Black, Hispanic, Asian and LGBT caucuses to pick his deputy, a vice chair, at DCCC. He also wants to develop a diversity fellowship program that offers a housing stipend and trains young, diverse Democrats for future senior executive roles, including campaign managers and heads of independent expenditure groups. 

And Maloney has pledged to create a new program to protect front-line candidates of color, including Reps. Lucy McBath (D-Ga.), Antonio Delgado (D-N.Y.) and Colin Allred (D-Texas).

“You have to enshrine diversity as one of the highest principles and build the culture around that,” Maloney said.

An early challenge for Democratic leaders next year will be in easing internal tensions between the caucus’s factions in the wake of demoralizing election results. 

In the aftermath of Democrats’ shellacking this month, moderates accused progressives of alienating voters by embracing calls to redirect funds from police departments and democratic socialism. Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) and other liberal firebrands fired back, accusing moderates like Rep. Conor Lamb (D-Pa.) of running a lackluster digital-advertising campaign.  

Maloney, a member of the centrist New Democrat Coalition, is trying to stay above the intraparty warfare, and he pledged that his door will be open to diverse, progressive upstarts who’ve been shut out of the DCCC operation in the past. Indeed, he’s vowing to seek their counsel on digital outreach and organization, and he’s urging fellow moderates to do the same. 

“What I can tell you is that when you’ve got a narrow majority, you don’t have the luxury of not listening to any talented member of our caucus, and so you bet I’m going to listen. I don’t agree with [Ocasio-Cortez] about Conor Lamb’s race in particular, but I completely agree with her broader point about digital,” Maloney said. 

“Our committees have been too slow to embrace the most dynamic and interesting strategies in digital that are often being undertaken by the most diverse professionals in politics,” he added. “And I think we’re nuts not to embrace that.”

Maloney had briefly considered a run for the DCCC chair following the 2016 elections, abandoning the idea after being offered the chance to lead the party’s post-mortem review of what went wrong that cycle. To conduct the so-called autopsy, Maloney spent several months digging through numbers and interviewing more than 200 candidates, strategists and pollsters. 

It’s the same examination he’s vowing to launch next year if he wins the DCCC job. And until then, he says he won’t know what factors drove the Democrats’ underperformance in House races this cycle. 

“Anybody who says they do [know] without looking at all the evidence and the data is offering you an opinion, not an analysis. And it’s often an opinion tilted towards someone’s ideological preferences,” Maloney said. “I don’t have any interest in that. I want to go find out.”

“I can do it,” he added, “because I’ve done it.”

Tags 2020 election Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez Antonio Delgado Cheri Bustos Colin Allred DCCC Donald Trump Joe Biden Linda Sanchez Lucy McBath Nancy Pelosi Veronica Escobar

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