Congressman Sean Patrick Maloney of New York was elected to be the next leader of the House Democratic campaign arm on Thursday, a crucial position after Democrats lost 12 incumbents and now hold a far smaller majority heading into 2022.
Maloney defeated Congressman Tony Cárdenas of California for the top job as chair of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, after the former chair, Congresswoman Cheri Bustos, announced she wouldn’t seek a second term.
Democrats voted 119 to 107 for Maloney, has repeatedly been reelected in a swing district just north of New York City that President Trump won in 2016. He will be the first openly gay DCCC chair. Maloney was also in charge of conducting a “deep dive” on the DCCC’s lackluster performance in 2016, and will now be in charge of doing the same type of assessment this year.
He’ll be taking control of the committee after House Democrats severely underperformed in the November elections. As Democrats saw the losses of at least a dozen seats, Republicans defended every incumbent, despite aggressive efforts by the DCCC to expand its battlefield. The losses immediately exposed fractures between the centrist and progressive flanks of the party.
Moderates like Congresswomen Abigail Spanberger accused the far left of handing Republicans ammunition against Democrats with their endorsement of “Defund the Police,” leaving them at a disadvantage as they tried to fend off relentless Republican attack ads tying them to socialism.
Progressives countered that Democrats who lost had mismanaged their digital outreach or didn’t do enough door-knocking, and in a memo wrote that the lack of a compelling economic message resulted in the losses.
Waleed Shahid, spokesperson for the progressive group Justice Democrats, said House Democrats and the DCCC’s biggest mistakes this cycle were not talking more about the economy and not having an aggressive counter to take on the Republican party’s “scare tactics.”
“Republicans ran a message of ‘if so-and-so Democrat wins this election, it will destroy the fabric of our country and establish communism.’ And Democrats often responded to that kind of messaging with, ‘We’re here to fight for your health care and find common ground across the aisle,” he said.
“I don’t think the Democrats have a strong message to combat the divide-and-conquer tactics of Republicans. And I would like to see them be more forceful about that.”
Congresswoman Katie Porter, a progressive “Frontliner” who was easily reelected to her once reliably Republican Orange County seat and backed Cárdenas, said members who won re-election were the ones who focused on the issues they fought for and were available to their constituents, and she pointed to moderates who succeeded in winning their bids.
“Cindy Axne is a good example of this or Elissa Slotkin. They are very different ideologically than me, but they really ran on who they were and what they had done during their time in Congress. And they didn’t run on, ‘I’m not other guy,'” she said.
Congressman Marc Veasey of Texas, who was part of Maloney’s whip team, said while he expects House Democrats to coalesce around President-elect Joe Biden and the prospect of keeping their majority, Democrats did have a messaging problem and didn’t clearly define themselves.
“We need to make sure that whether you’re an oil and gas worker in the Rio Grande Valley or whether you are a barista in Seattle, we need to come up with very simplistic ways to communicate and speak with people so they understand what it is we stand for,” he said.
Members and strategists from across the party’s spectrum said there needs to be a look into how to change the nuts and bolts of campaigning, from investing into more grassroots support and local party work to more tailored minority community outreach.
Democrat Congresswoman Debbie Murcarsel-Powell’s South Florida seat saw one of the biggest swings towards President Trump this election, going from a 16-point Hillary Clinton win in 2016 to a 6-point win for Mr. Trump.
She tweeted that while she was able to outperform Biden by focusing on the economy and knocking on doors, a combination of targeted disinformation and lockdown-fatigue with Latinos, as well as “a national party that thinks racial identity is how we vote” led to her loss.
Evan Weber, co-founder of the progressive youth climate group the Sunrise Movement, said while the party infrastructure is in a better place than in 2016, called for a greater focus on local party building.
“Resourcing local and state party building is really key in directing more resources to folks who are on the ground and know what is best in their districts, and less to high dollar national consultants,” he said.
Progressives will be looking to see if Maloney will reverse the DCCC’s “blacklist” rule on vendors, which prohibits vendors from working with both primary challengers and the campaign committee. Maloney has signaled he would consider changes to the rule.
The New Democrat Coalition, a group of newly elected centrist-leaning Democrats, supported Maloney for chair. They referenced his experience running in a purple district, and said his recommended changes from his “Deep Dive” into the DCCC after 2016, led to the success Democrats saw in 2018.
“He understands the history and is looking at what are going to be our strengths and what are going to be our weaknesses going into 2022,” said Veasey.
Maloney and House Democrats are heading into 2022 with a tight majority and an emboldened House Republican caucus that could have flipped the chamber altogether if not for the extensive efforts to defend incumbents.
House Democrats are also trying to buck history and retain or grow their majority during the first midterm of a president’s tenure. Since 1946, the party in control of the White House has lost House seats during midterms of a president’s first term every time except for 2002. Only three times has it resulted in Republicans flipping a chamber altogether.
But Maloney and the DCCC will also have to navigate redistricting, and won’t likely know the full map they’re running members in until after 2021. Republicans fended off Democrats looking to flip state legislature control in several key states. Democrats argue that breaking trifectas in Pennsylvania, Michigan and Wisconsin and moves to independent redistrictin commissions for some states will still put them in a better position than in 2010.
“There’s certainly uncertainty over what the actual maps will look like over the next couple of years,” said National Redistricting Foundation spokesperson Patrick Rodenbush. “I think it’s important to take into account that 2020 were not the only elections that mattered for who has a seat at the table.”