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House Democratic campaign arm looks for new leader after losing several seats

House Democrats are looking for who can lead them after their poor election performance this November, choosing between at least two congressmen after Illinois Rep. Cheri Bustos announced she would not run again as chairwoman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee.

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Alex Rogers
Lauren Fox, CNN
CNN — House Democrats are looking for who can lead them after their poor election performance this November, choosing between at least two congressmen after Illinois Rep. Cheri Bustos announced she would not run again as chairwoman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee.

Democrats are stunned by their showing and grappling for answers. Their leaders had predicted up until Election Day that they would expand their House majority, but Republican candidates gained several seats from California to Florida. California Rep. Tony Cárdenas and New York Rep. Sean Patrick Maloney quickly announced bids to lead the DCCC after Bustos announced her decision on Monday.

Whoever wins will have to unite a divided Democratic Party. In the past week, Democrats have blamed pollsters for inaccurate data, activists for promoting unpopular proposals like defunding the police, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi for not taking enough responsibility and their own supporters for funneling money to candidates rather than organizations on the ground.

Two young members from opposite ends of the ideological spectrum — New York Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, a liberal firebrand, and Pennsylvania Rep. Conor Lamb, a moderate from a district Trump won in 2016, have fought in The New York Times over messaging and campaign tactics.

Meanwhile, Democratic leaders have hosted phone conferences that have allowed members to vent their frustrations.

In a call with House Democrats on Tuesday, candidate Cameron Webb, who lost his race in southern Virginia, said that he had run on kitchen table issues and health care but his opponent only talked about three words: "Defund the police."

"This notion that we all have to shift to some far-left message is not true," New Hampshire Democratic Rep. Annie Kuster told CNN. "We would have gotten crushed."

"Listen, I respect my colleagues to run in their own districts," she added. "If Alex wants to run far left in her district in the Bronx, go at it. But she has never led the life I have lived in a district that was deep red. It has taken me six cycles to turn this district a darker shade of purple."

The race to lead the DCCC now features Cárdenas and Maloney, two men in their 50s elected to Congress in 2012, who respectively represent the central San Fernando Valley and the lower Hudson Valley.

In a letter to his colleagues, Maloney touted that he has outperformed his own swing district as a married gay man with an interracial family. He noted that he personally raised nearly $500,000 for the House Democratic campaign arm this cycle and said his DCCC "Deep Dive" after the 2016 election helped put the organization on its path to gain 40 seats in 2018.

In an interview, Cárdenas said that Bustos did "a lot of amazing things," but emphasized that Democrats had not done a good enough job in digital campaigning, a point Ocasio-Cortez has made, while acknowledging that the "defund the police" slogan that Lamb opposed had hurt Democrats.

"I think that slogans that your opponents use more often than you use them, at the end of the day are probably not a smart way to communicate," said Cárdenas.

Cárdenas also pointed to his work as chairman of the Hispanic Caucus' BOLD PAC, raising more than $31 million in six years, endorsing over 150 non-Hispanic and over 60 Hispanic candidates, and picking sides in primaries.

Cárdenas told CNN that if he's elected DCCC chair and presented with "a very unique situation," the organization could "possibly" intervene in primaries in 2022.

While he said that the top priority remains protecting incumbents, Cárdenas also appeared to take issue with the DCCC's policy under Bustos to blacklist campaign consultants who worked for candidates challenging them, which upset some members on the left.

"I will talk to everyone and work with those who share our vision for a stronger Democratic majority," said Cárdenas. "That will be done and we will have diversity in all ranks; member leadership, staff, vendors and consultants. We will utilize the wide array of amazing Democratic talent available, and that's how we will win big."

The youngest of 11 children of Mexican immigrant parents, he portrayed the House Democratic conference as a family, calling Lamb his "brother" and Ocasio-Cortez his "sister."

"We might disagree, said Cárdenas. "But we are brothers and sisters for family."

Bustos defended the Democratic spending efforts in a call with House Democrats on Tuesday, saying that they had put Republicans on defense and forced them to spend millions more than they had anticipated. She claimed that the DCCC's Independent Expenditure spent more than $10 million in digital advertising, nearly doubling its 2018 campaign, and that Democratic candidates outspent Republicans on Facebook by at least 2-to-1 in some of their toughest races.

"By building a big battlefield, triggering Republican retirements and going on offense, we stretched Republicans thin and forced them to spend over $173 million on defense," said Bustos.

But it's clear that Democrats' expectations did not meet reality. They announced a new headquarters in Texas, and targeted 10 Republicans in the state. The DCCC spent more than $10 million to advertise in Texas races, out of about $86.7 million overall, according to Kantar's Campaign Media Analysis Group, but failed to pick up a House seat in the Lone Star State.

To be sure, Republicans failed to take the House. Minnesota Rep. Tom Emmer, the National Republican Congressional Committee chairman, said in September 2019 that Democrats would lose the majority after impeaching President Donald Trump.

But by November 2020, the expectations had shifted.

When asked to comment about the race to chair the DCCC, NRCC spokesman Chris Pack asked, "Who is Cheri Bustos?"

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