In 2019, after Democrats saw a handful of incumbents ousted by progressive opponents in the House in 2018, including Squad members Reps. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Ayanna Pressley, Rep. Cheri Bustos formalized a new policy: the DCCC would ban any political consultants or vendors working with candidates running primary challenges against incumbent Democrats.
Since then, progressives have railed against the blacklist, saying the policy protects the status quo of the Democratic Party while discouraging women and people of color from running for office. The ban also had the unintended consequence of accelerating the progressive movement’s efforts to build its own political infrastructure.
Just days after the party’s disastrous performance in House races this year, Bustos stepped down from the DCCC position. The blacklist, it seems, will go with her. New York Rep. Sean Patrick Maloney, who won the vote this morning, says he wants to end the ban. Maloney told Axios over the weekend that the blacklist “separated ourselves from some of the most creative and diverse people working in politics, particularly in the area of digital and social media.” His opponent, Rep. Tony Cárdenas of California, had also vowed to reverse the blanket ban.
No progressive candidate ran for the position.
In a recent Twitter thread about the Democratic Party’s underperformance in 2020, New York Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, who easily won her first re-election, pointed to an “awful execution on digital” and “underinvestment across the board,” including some campaigns that didn’t spend a dime on digital the week before the election. “Ironically,” she continued, the DCCC banned the firms that are “the best in the country at Facebook” because they work with progressives.
In many ways, Maloney, a conservative Democrat representing a district Trump carried in 2016 and a member of the billionaire-backed Problem Solvers Caucus and New Democrat Coalition, does not represent a significant departure from Bustos. The New York Democrat has crossed party lines to back a local Republican. Last year, Maloney, the state’s first openly gay member of Congress, endorsed a Republican who had previously expressed opposition to same-sex marriage and abortion rights.
Maloney has criticized the party’s digital operations and reliance on “stuffy old traditional crappy polling.” In 2016, Maloney led an investigation into the party’s problems in the House, though made sure that the report itself never got out. In an interview with the Washington Post in 2017, however, he laid out some of the details. The competitiveness of a district could be judged, he said, by “350 unique characteristics” that indicate how it’ll vote. Three of those characteristics, he said, were the most important: the racial makeup of the district, the number of voters with college degrees, and how rural the district is. By that measure, the Post article singled out two successful candidates that fit the model going forward: Josh Gottheimer of suburban northern New Jersey and Stephanie Murphy of suburban Orlando. It’s difficult to gauge which of the two, Gottheimer or Murphy, is more openly hostile to the progressive wing of the Democratic Party. Gottheimer is the co-chair of the Problem Solvers Caucus and routinely organizes with Republicans to undermine Democrats on the House floor. Murphy, co-chair of the conservative Blue Dog Coalition, calls herself the “velvet hammer” and has also bucked Pelosi publicly from the right.
In the interview, Maloney also singled out districts he said Democrats made a mistake thinking they could win, specifically Iowa’s First and Minnesota’s Second. Yet in 2018, Democrat Abby Finkenaeur won the Iowa race, and Angie Craig won in Minnesota. In 2020, Finkenauer lost by roughly 10,000 votes as Iowa swung Republican. Craig, meanwhile, won re-election.
DCCC’s leadership election, which Maloney won 119-107, was decided in a secret-ballot vote at a closed-door virtual meeting on Thursday. Cárdenas currently leads the Congressional Hispanic Caucus’s campaign arm, BOLD PAC. The California lawmaker, who was favored by many progressives, withdrew from the race to be Assistant Speaker, which is considered the No. 4 position, to compete for this lower position.
“A strong Democratic majority in 2022 will be essential to our fight,” Maloney said in a statement. “I will work every day to improve our campaign operations, connect with voters across lines of difference, protect our incumbents, and expand our majority.”
Aside from seeing the blacklist policy reversed, Rep. Ro Khanna, a progressive California lawmaker, told The Intercept that he would also like to see the new chair of the House Democrats’ campaign arm, and party as a whole, adopt a “stronger economic message” and agenda.
“A $15 minimum wage passed in Florida and yet we couldn’t win that state, paid family leave won in Colorado but we didn’t emphasize that nationally,” he said last month. “We need to have a bold economic agenda that is talking about how to improve people’s lives, that fills the void to overcome some of the sloganeering.”
Democrats managed to hold on to their majority in the chamber but got wiped out in key states, losing a dozen seats and leaving Republicans in a better position to retake control in the 2022 midterms. All the Democratic incumbents who lost were moderates, and nearly all of the Democrats vying to flip Republican-held seats, including progressive candidates, fell short. Before reality hit, Democrats were hoping to pick up competitive seats in states like Texas and California, and maybe even win the Senate. Even Bustos, the person responsible for expanding the party’s majority, nearly lost re-election, beating her Republican opponent by about 4 points after winning by more than 20 percentage points in 2016 and 2018.
“I am gutted at the losses we sustained,” Bustos wrote in a letter to her colleagues last month. She added that the DCCC would conduct a “transparent after-action-review to better understand why the national polling and modeling environment failed to materialize — not just for House races, but also up and down the ballot.”
Last year, Black and Latino lawmakers privately clashed with Bustos, expressing frustration with the party committee’s efforts to retain staffers of color in top positions and hire firms run by people of color. Despite the DCCC’s diversity standards for political vendors, and other Democratic initiatives, political consultants of color say they’re still routinely overlooked. Maloney promised to make diversity a priority, and has pledged to create a program specifically to protect front-line candidates of color, The Hill reported.
But, while Cárdenas bid represented the party’s slow awakening to the importance of Latino voters, Maloney also doesn’t promise any major soul-searching on the messaging of the party. “I don’t give a damn about the past. I’m not a historian,” Maloney told Roll Call in November. “My job is not to whine about it, my job is to win.”
As for the rest of the party’s leadership elections, the now-octogenarian trio that has sat atop the caucus for at least 15 years — Speaker Nancy Pelosi, Majority Leader Steny Hoyer, and Majority Whip Jim Clyburn — all cruised to another term uncontested last month.