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Rep. Cheri Bustos is the new face of the DCCC

Bustos will focus her attention on Middle America ahead of 2020.

Rep. Cheri Bustos (D-IL), speaks during a news conference about the opioid crisis.
Bill Clark/CQ-Roll Call Inc.

Rep. Cheri Bustos (D-IL) will be the new face of the campaign arm of House Democrats.

After a contentious four-way race for Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee chair, Bustos was elected on Thursday, and will be in charge of guiding House Democrats through the 2020 campaign season. It’s going to be a tough job; Democrats must defend the 40 seats they just flipped in more conservative districts.

Although the race wasn’t as high-profile as yesterday’s caucus elections for speaker, it is still hugely consequential for the party. Democrats just came off one of their best midterm years ever, picking up 40 seats in a blue wave that decimated the California GOP and expanding ground in more conservative suburban districts — one largely powered by women candidates.

Bustos, in particular, aggressively made the case that the DCCC needed a leader from Middle America with the knowledge to defend suburban seats in the Midwest and other right-leaning areas of the country. She’s from a conservative district in Illinois and has steadfastly talked about the need for bipartisan cooperation in Congress.

“Over the next two years, our charge is to build on this progress to fortify our new Democratic Majority so we can deliver bold change for the American people,” she said in a statement. “We will do this by placing a new emphasis on incumbent protection while going on offense in the districts where we came up short this year — we must do both.”

The race was initially among four candidates: Bustos and fellow Reps. Denny Heck (WA), Suzan DelBene (WA), and Sean Patrick Maloney (NY), though only three names appeared on the ballot, as Maloney was recently hospitalized in New York for a bacterial infection. The 52-year-old New York Congress member had initially asked for the vote to be delayed, but leadership under the newly elected Democratic Caucus Chair Rep. Hakeem Jeffries (NY) continued with the election on Thursday as planned. Maloney eventually dropped out.

Bustos ultimately won with 117 votes, Heck picked up 83, and DelBene received 32.

Democrats will be defending a lot of new territory in 2020

House Democrats had an incredibly good year in 2018, flipping a total of 40 Republican seats. But they need to get serious about developing a strategy to keep those seats during 2020.

As Vox’s Dylan Scott wrote, Democrats suffered devastating losses in the Midwest in 2016, as Trump swept states like Michigan and Wisconsin. But two years later, Democrats suddenly looked strong in the Midwest:

“The Midwest is the most consistently competitive region of the United States, and it oscillates between the two parties,” Kyle Kondik, who follows elections at the University of Virginia’s Center for Politics and wrote a book on Ohio politics, told me. “Trump’s election may suggest a longer-term realignment toward Republicans given how white the Midwest is, but for the time being it remains hard to classify as being solidly in either camp.”

Some Democratic gains in the Midwest in 2018 were to be expected. Democrats look dominant in the Illinois governor’s race and in Minnesota’s Senate and governor elections, poised to score important victories in the bluest Midwestern states.

But there seems to be more happening than history repeating and blue-leaning states staying blue, according to Democratic and Republican operatives across the region. Democrats aren’t just shoring up the elections they were already expected to take.

The path to a big Democratic wave in the Midwest in 2018 runs through three voting blocs: Suburban Republican-leaning women who don’t like Trump, the white working-class Democrats who voted for the president, and black voters who are less likely to vote in off-year elections.

Bustos, an Illinois native, is serious about holding on to the seats Democrats won in the Midwest and trying to expand on that territory. Her strategy: have Democrats focus on sweeping, bipartisan bills like infrastructure, lowering prescription drug prices, and shoring up the Affordable Care Act — and staying away from hot-button topics like the Russia investigation and impeachment.

“While I am hopeful that we can make some progress in this next Congress, we need to win back the White House and the Senate while defending our House Majority to completely deliver on our promise,” Bustos said in her statement. “Failure is simply not an option; we will protect this house.”

Health care and the economy were the bread-and-butter issues that helped Democrats win in 2018, and Bustos shows no signs of diverging from that path.