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Only one big job remains up for grabs in Democrats’ House Leadership elections, and the contest to see who will helm their campaign arm for the next two years is as much about the two men seeking the position as it is about the message the party wants to send about its commitment to diversity.
The chairmanship of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee is coming down to a two-man race. Rep. Sean Patrick Maloney of New York is raising an interracial family with his husband in a district that voted for President Donald Trump in 2016 and whose 2020 status was far closer than Democrats would have preferred. Rep. Tony Cárdenas is a leader and strong fundraiser in the Congressional Hispanic Caucus and hails from a district that voted 4-to-1 Democratic in 2012 and 2016. Both men, first elected in 2012, have built impressive political operations and similarly pitched that the Democrats cannot afford another blindside like the one that hit them on Election Day when they nearly lost their House majority.
But as much as the contest may come down to the men’s not-all-that-different vision for the party’s campaign arm — namely, it must modernize, or President-elect Joe Biden will be facing a Republican-controlled House come 2023 — it also may come down to the symbolism of the gig. Maloney would be the first openly LGBTQ member of Congress to lead the campaign committee and the highest-profile gay man to have a seat in the current House Leadership. Cárdenas offers a nod to Latino voters’ power and to the fact Democrats underperformed with that bloc in 2020, while he argues that Democrats must reach out in culturally competent ways.
Don’t think Democrats care about these issues of representation? Look at President-elect Joe Biden’s senior communications team heading to the White House next year, which is entirely female — a first. Or listen to the very serious voices sounding off from inside Biden’s orbit, warning that diversity needs to be a priority as he builds out his Cabinet.
Maloney, the first openly gay man elected to federal office from New York, started his political career as a volunteer on Bill Clinton’s 1992 campaign and rose to senior West Wing roles, at the time the highest-ranking openly-gay man in the White House. The son of a New Hampshire lumberjack later worked as a lawyer and software executive.
In a recent interview, Maloney dismissed the prospect of making history as a reason enough to go with him. “I have always felt it’s my job to be good at what I do and to succeed by being good at it. And if in the process I can show the millions of kids out there who might be wondering how they’re gonna’ fit in their own family, let alone in the career of their choice, that’s always been enormously gratifying as well,” Maloney told me by phone. “But this is D-Day. I mean, we are going to have to hit the beach in 2022 and execute perfectly. And so I don’t think this is the right time to be focused on merely my career or in notching some win for the LGBT community.”
(Should Maloney fail, there will still be LGBTQ representation in the closed-door Leadership meetings; Congressman-elect Mondaire Jones of New York is the freshman class’ representative at those meetings.)
Cárdenas, the son of a farm worker who earned an engineering degree, rose up in California politics, starting in a state Assembly district in the San Fernando Valley in 1996 before joining the Los Angeles City Council. Cárdenas told my colleague Lissandra Villa that the party cannot pretend it exists in a bubble. “Another thing that we can do better is make sure that the DCCC looks like America,” he says. “Right now, the DCCC has made some strides in increasing the diversity of women and people of color and people from all parts of the country. … We are going to take it to the next level.”
Both Maloney and Cárdenas are right. Democrats need to figure out how they misread the electorate so badly this year. In a post-Election Day phone call that stretched more than two hours, lawmakers literally shouted into their phones with dismay that so much of their strategy had backfired: they under-estimated the potency of Republicans’ smears, they misjudged how “defund the police” slogans would frighten some voters and push them toward Republicans, they misread who was in the electorate. The finger-pointing started before they had counted how many seats they had lost, and the incumbent Chairwoman of the DCCC, Rep. Cheri Bustos of Illinois, decided to step aside days after the polls closed and let someone else sort out the mess. (She’s not completely off the stage, however; House Speaker Nancy Pelosi tapped her to chair the House Democratic Steering Committee, an influential position that handles internal politics for the caucus.)
Maloney knows the terrain of a mess well. After the 2016 election, Maloney led what any political professional would call an autopsy. For five months, he went through district-by-district data with the team at the DCCC — and outside skeptics — to see how Democrats miscued their races back then. The findings informed the races they ran in 2018, when Democrats won back the majority by flipping Trump districts back to Democratic hands with candidates who ran on fiercely local messages.
But this year, Democrats faced a constant volley of false charges coming from the President himself: that Democrats were at the ready to end funding for police, planning to come after guns, welcome unchecked immigrants into the country illegally, and scrap private health insurance plans. Democrats tried to ignore the noise, but the charges stuck, and at least 11 members of the Democratic caucus are going home come January even as Joe Biden is heading to the White House.
Maloney has talked with more than 200 of his colleagues already and knows they’re deeply frustrated, but he isn’t ready to offer any diagnosis. “Anybody who tells you [what went wrong], what they are doing is giving you an opinion and many of those opinions are worth listening to,” he says. “By listening to them all and then examining what the data and the evidence shows us, we will come to some conclusions that are informed and out of that knowledge, a strategy and a battle plan will arise. That’s what happened in 2018. I think the results speak for themselves.”
Cárdenas, for his part, has been running the 38-member Congressional Hispanic Caucus’ political arm, BOLD PAC, and for the three cycles he’s been at the helm has raised record sums of cash: $30 million. And despite its main mission, BOLD PAC has been savvy in doling out cash beyond just Hispanic candidates. Sure, the committee endorsed 61 Hispanic candidates during Cárdenas’ six-year tenure but the group also helped almost 170 non-Hispanic Democrats earn election.
He, too, would bring a welcome awareness about the electorate’s complexities to the mix. “One of the things that’s really important for people to understand is, America is very eclectic,” Cárdenas says. “If you just look at the Latino vote across America, California Latinos are not receiving information or appreciating information that same way that you would in New York and Florida.”
Whichever man wins the secret, app-based vote this week, the challenges of the job will be unrelenting from the start. The DCCC gig is one of the toughest in Washington. It requires a ton of time dialing for dollars, calming candidates from afar and quarterbacking dozens of races between the day-to-day grind of a day job as a lawmaker in Congress. On top of that, first-term Presidents typically lose seats in their first midterms, and Biden is coming to Washington with a narrow cushion in the House. There are few more familiar punching bags in town than the DCCC. Whether it’s Maloney or Cárdenas, either one is likely to take some hefty incoming over the next two years.
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