“I don’t think a one-size-fits-all message works for the Democratic Party,” said Rep. Susan Wild (D-Pa.), a frontliner who supports Cárdenas. “We need to make it more tailored and more specific so that people don’t think that we’re just throwing out empty words.”
“The folks who had some difficulty winning — ads around socialism or defunding the police — those weren’t their beliefs, but it’s hard to overcome message after message on that,” added Rep. Cindy Axne (D-Iowa), who also represents a swing district and is backing Maloney. “I think we all know Democrats have a hard time of sometimes putting a succinct message out there.”
In the most closely-watched Democratic leadership race this fall, set for after Thanksgiving, Maloney and Cárdenas are offering competing pitches about what went wrong at the polls and how to solve it. Maloney is touting his experience running as a gay man with a biracial family in a Trump-won district in the Lower Hudson Valley. Cárdenas, a leader in the Congressional Hispanic Caucus, has touted his robust fundraising and ability to connect with Latino voters, some of whom fled the Democratic Party this year.
The contest comes amid a messy bout of soul searching within the caucus, with Democrats publicly airing long-simmering personal and ideological grudges as they spar over why they lost 11 incumbents when party leaders were confidently predicting gains. By the time all the votes are tallied in the last few undecided 2020 House races, Republicans will be somewhere between five and nine seats away from reclaiming the majority.
The GOP already begins the next election cycle in a commanding position — the party that controls the White House typically loses seats in the following midterm. And in 2022, Republicans will also have redistricting on their side. They control the map-drawing process in many major states, boosting their shot at reclaiming the majority.
Both Maloney and Cárdenas have been mostly restrained in their critiques of current DCCC chairwoman, Rep. Cheri Bustos (D-Ill.), and the campaign arm’s tactics during the 2020 cycle. Bustos decided not to seek a second term during an internal backlash over Democrats’ lackluster showing on Election Day.
Maloney stressed that he would conduct the kind of autopsy he did in 2016 — after Democrats picked up just six House seats despite predicting far larger gains — and says he can’t precisely spot broader problems until there’s more data. The New York Democrat, who will return to Congress for his fifth term, declined to go into detail about the substance of the review, which the committee kept closely guarded. And he would say little about any potential messaging or mechanical flaws that may have contributed to the losses.
“People really feel like we need to dig into what happened, because there’s obviously a debate going in the caucus about the causes of that,” Maloney said. “I like to say, ‘If you’re not God, bring data’… I can find out what happened because I’ve done it before.”
Cárdenas, also going into his fifth term, blamed the losses on a combination of factors, including both messaging and a lack of mobilization due to the pandemic. But he also stressed that he would build a more inclusive group.
“We need a chair of the DCCC from day one that will dedicate everything he or she can in a way that’s transparent, that is inclusive,” Cárdenas said. “When someone’s the chair of something, it’s not their organization. But that person has been entrusted to make sure the organization is run properly and it is run effectively.”
Both contenders have sought to win over swing-district Democrats, whose seats will be critical to keeping the House majority in two years. So far, more of these so-called frontline Democrats have backed Maloney, citing his ability to win in a tough Trump district. (Maloney’s seat will be redrawn next cycle in what he predicts will give him a safer seat in 2022.)
But not every vulnerable Democrat has gotten behind him, and some say they’re not enthused by either candidate, worried that Maloney won’t be independent enough from Pelosi and the leadership team and that Cardenas doesn’t have the experience in GOP-leaning districts. Many of those surviving Democrats have felt an intense sense of panic after so many of their colleagues were defeated earlier this month, and worry that top Democrats won’t be willing to sufficiently overhaul the campaign arm’s message and tactics ahead of the midterms.
Some centrists, like Wild, say Cárdenas could help DCCC with its deep struggles to win over Latino voters. Three of House Democrats’ most surprising losses in 2020 came in heavily Latino districts in South Florida and Orange County, California — prompting concerns that the party was treating these voters as a monolith.
Cárdenas also bolstered his 2020 record by bringing in $15 million this cycle for BOLD PAC, the political arm of the CHC, more than doubling its figure from two cycles ago.
Besides the moderates, the new DCCC chief will also be tasked with mending a shaky relationship between the committee and prominent progressives. The left warred with Bustos throughout the cycle over a new DCCC policy that blacklists campaign consultants who work with candidates mounting primary challenges against sitting members. Top progressives reached a detente with the DCCC earlier this year, but that represented a postponement of the conflict at best.
Cárdenas said he would reverse the policy of a blanket “blacklist” that bans any consultant who has worked on a primary challenge, and would instead evaluate vendors on a case-by-case basis. Maloney said he would reevaluate the ban, noting it had some “unintended consequences.”
In the days since the election, more tension between DCCC and progressives have surfaced. Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.), in particular, took aim at the DCCC and moderates over what she described as a lackluster digital strategy. Moderates offered their own sharp rebuttals, both on Twitter and in private caucus meetings.
Cárdenas said he reached out to Ocasio-Cortez shortly after she went public with her critique of DCCC, and noted he has worked with her as the head of BOLD PAC.
“I know what it’s like to be in a large family where we argue or we disagree,” Cárdenas added, noting that he is the youngest of 11 siblings. “But at the same time, we are here to make sure we do the work of the American people, and the best way to do that is make sure we’re in the majority.”
Even if the incoming head of the campaign arm does reach a truce with progressives over the consultant ban in the next cycle, the problem of Democratic primary challengers isn’t going away. Progressives have shown no sign of backing away from primary fights — which took down three incumbents this cycle alone, including 16-term incumbent Eliot Engel, who chairs the House Foreign Affairs Committee.
For all of their complaints against committee strategy, progressives did not offer a candidate of their own in the DCCC race.
Maloney, too, seemed eager to smooth over tensions with the caucus’s most vocal progressives, lauding their ability to organize digitally, though he didn’t say exactly how that would work.
“I think what you’ll find, it’s not an either or. Everyone is making good points based on the experience they have in their own districts,” Maloney said. “It’s my job to integrate those into a shared understanding of what happened and a new battle plan to win.”
But not all House Democrats say it’s up to the DCCC chair to bridge ideological factions within the caucus over the next two years.
“DCCC is really an operational role. It’s dangerous actually, in some ways, to try to be a really popular DCCC chair,” said Rep. Dan Kildee (D-Mich.). “It’s not about popularity, you’ve really got to be able to make hard choices.”