A few days before the midterm elections, Illinois Rep. Cheri Bustos — an up-and-coming Democratic leader who was campaigning for one of her party’s House candidates — walked into a dimly-lit pizza shop for lunch and a break.
It didn’t take long for her to shift back into campaign mode.
At the next table was Roger Anthis, a 53-year-old railroad worker who voted for President Trump and proudly doesn’t like politicians, especially Democrats. That didn’t faze Bustos, who first chatted him up about what’s good on the menu — the white pizza sauce — before shifting to his political concerns.
He worried that Democrats want to curtail his gun rights, which she deflected by telling him about her own state-issued gun-permit card and about her husband, a police officer. They bonded over their shared support for unions. By the time the last slice was gone, Anthis had agreed to support the local candidate Bustos was there to help, vowing to put a Brendan Kelly pin on his red Make America Great Again hat.
“She’s a ninja,” Anthis said with a Southern drawl, crediting Bustos with talking him into bucking years of voting for the GOP.
Bustos, who represents a northern Illinois congressional district that Trump narrowly won, is now betting she can parlay that skill of winning over Trump voters into the upper ranks of House Democratic leadership.
While many of her rival leadership aspirants are pitching to the left wing of the party, Bustos is trying to carve a niche closer to the middle — both politically and geographically. The candidate she was promoting in the pizza shop lost on Nov. 6, but Democrats won back the House, largely by picking off seats in moderate suburban districts that Trump won in 2016.
Bustos says her ability to serve as a sort of Rosetta Stone to better understand Midwestern voters will be vital in helping Democrats keep and expand those wins.
“I know how to do well in really, really tough districts,” she said. “We’re going to have more than 30 Democrats in the House coming from Trump districts, so we just have to figure out how to button these up and hang on to them and grow our margin in 2020.”
Bustos, 57, currently in the lower ranks of leadership, is hoping to be elected to run the party’s campaign arm, one of 10 coveted posts that will be decided next week in a secret ballot. The jobs are viewed as a launch pad to higher office in House leadership, even more so as Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi faces pressure to either step aside or begin to at least wind down her leadership of the caucus in the coming two years.
Bustos, who grew up in the Illinois capital of Springfield where President Obama got his start and you can’t walk a few feet without running into something named Lincoln, is the only one of about 18 leadership candidates who doesn’t represent a district along one of the coasts. She is one of only two contenders representing a district won by Trump.
And she’s probably the only member of Democratic leadership whose go-to road food while campaigning is an indulgent, heart-clogging ButterBurger from Midwestern fast-food chain Culver’s.
Her pitch to Democrats of all stripes is that the party’s majority is fragile. If its political pendulum swings too far to the left in next two years or Democrats are seen as coastal elites, they risk losing in those moderate districts, especially when Trump himself is on the ballot, she said.
“We don’t hang on to that majority by having a Democratic message that is viewed as extreme in rural America or in the heartland,” she said.
In an autopsy of Democrats’ losses in the 2016 election, she implored fellow party members to focus on voters’ “economic anxieties” by talking about infrastructure, education and small business, and staying away from social issues.
Bustos represents the resurgence of the kind of Democratic moderate who largely got wiped out of the House in the last several election cycles as Republicans built a majority.
She supports abortion rights but doesn’t lead with the contentious social issue. Her stump speech is big on reducing healthcare and prescription drug costs but doesn’t lean into government-run Medicare for all. She had an A- rating from the National Rifle Assn. two years ago, but it dropped to F after she endorsed a series of gun control measures.
Moderate Democrats such as Bustos will likely be pivotal to the party’s success in 2020. The Democratic presidential candidate will have to appeal to their voters to have any shot of denying Trump a second term. And in the House, 21 Democrats newly elected in Trump districts will have to figure out how to sustain the Democratic enthusiasm they rallied this year while not angering their Republican or independent voters too much. There are only nine Democrats who won reelection in Trump districts this year.
In the race to become head of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, Bustos is up against another Democrat who won in a Trump district, Rep. Sean Patrick Maloney of New York, as well as two Democrats from Washington state, Reps. Dennis Heck and Suzan DelBene. All of them, like Bustos, have worked with the campaign group in prior years.
Pelosi, who is facing her own leadership election, has not put her thumb on the scale in the DCCC contest. But Bustos said Pelosi “has personally said to me and many others” that she wants to see a woman in the job. A Pelosi spokesman declined to comment on a private conversation.
Bustos has a record to tout: She’s helped lead coalitions to recruit candidates, especially women and people in the Midwest. She’s raised or given away $3 million to more than 100 candidates. And she won by the largest margin of any Democrat in a Trump district (although Trump won her district by less than one percentage point).
The campaign arm post is not often seen as ideological. But DCCC leaders have sometimes run into political buzzsaws, such as when abortion-rights groups — including NARAL Pro-Choice America — criticized them for not requiring all DCCC-backed candidates to support abortion rights.
Bustos declined to weigh in on how she would handle prospective candidates who oppose abortion rights, saying she would deal with the issue if and when it came up.
Fellow Illinois Democratic Rep. Jan Schakowsky, a prominent progressive who represents a liberal district outside Chicago, said progressives have nothing to worry about. She’s supporting Bustos.
“She’s certainly going to have to work with the entire caucus,” Schakowsky said. “It’s not really an ideological job. It really is execution — making things happen — and I think she’ll be good at that.”