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House Democrats' Campaign Chair Urges Focus On Issues Rather Than 'Outrage'


Illinois Congresswoman Cheri Bustos made a name for herself as a Democrat who won again and again in a Trump district. That's partly why House Democrats picked her to run their campaign arm and defend their majority in 2020. Bustos says the Democrats can keep moderate districts by skipping the impeachment talk and Trump and focusing instead on local issues. NPR's Kelsey Snell reports from northwest Illinois.

CHERI BUSTOS: Here's your soda.


BUSTOS: Do you want a bag?


KELSEY SNELL, BYLINE: The cashier today at the Walgreens in East Moline, Ill., is a familiar face for a lot of customers. Congresswoman Cheri Bustos is pretty well-known in her district for spending a lot of time with voters.

BUSTOS: Wow, that's expensive gum, $3.76.


BUSTOS: OK, hold on, what - do I ask him, do you want to pay with your credit card?

SNELL: Right now she's meeting people as Cheri, Walgreen's trainee for a day. Like many of the 40 most vulnerable House Democrats elected last year, she knows what it's like to run in Trump country. Her message to those embattled freshmen is that they can keep their jobs by connecting directly with their voters like she's doing at this store, not spending all of their time talking about Russia and the president.

BUSTOS: We can't continue to stay focused on the outrage of the day. It is wearing people out. We've got to stay focused on making a difference in people's lives. And if we do that, that's how I think we'll be successful.

SNELL: Bustos has a lot riding on her approach. The last group of centrist House Democrats were nearly wiped out back in 2010. That year, Republicans used the newly passed Affordable Care Act as evidence that the whole Democratic Party had taken a leftward lurch. And Democrats responded then by trying to get local. And they failed. She wants these freshmen to know that the local focus wasn't what failed. It was waiting until the election to show up.

BUSTOS: They can take this blueprint and do anything they want with it. And if it works for them, I'm happy because I want them to come back in two years. What we talk about is they can't just rent these districts. They've got to - they've got to own them.

SNELL: It also helps that the health care law is more popular now than ever. Supporting it helped moderates win formerly GOP districts, winning Democrats their current House majority. And Bustos says defending that power means listening carefully to voters like Mark and Barbie Spitzer.

BUSTOS: Good, how are you guys?


BUSTOS: Cheri Bustos.

B. SPITZER: We know.


SNELL: They walked up to Bustos in a local grocery store.

BUSTOS: Anything I should be working on or working against or...

B. SPITZER: Got a crowbar for that president of ours?

BUSTOS: (Laughter).

B. SPITZER: I know that's not a very nice thing...

MARK SPITZER: Health care.

B. SPITZER: Health care, yeah. Health care's...

BUSTOS: Health care.

M. SPITZER: Affordable health care.



SNELL: Bustos says that's the kind of thing she hears a lot. She also hears about needing more trains or access to markets for farmers. So those are the issues that she talks about.

BUSTOS: I believe in running your campaign and running your governmental office as if you are mayor of that region. And I would say the same thing to the freshmen.

SNELL: Part of that strategy is building connections. She visited a transit organization called Handivan in rural Galesburg. Bustos was invited there when Dedra Manon saw her walking around a local supermarket last month and asked her to come by. Manon says she's a big Bustos supporter. But it has little to do with her feelings about the president. It's not that Manon doesn't have progressive leanings, but she's more interested in how her congresswoman responds to what's happening at home.

DEDRA MANON: This is more important than what the White House is doing. This is more important than what she says about impeachment, most definitely.

SNELL: Bustos says she's made that message loud and clear to some of the more progressive members of her party who don't have such competitive races. She has told them that pushing for impeachment isn't helping the vulnerable Democrats whose districts determine their majority. But she knows she can't control them or what gets talked about on cable TV.

BUSTOS: We talk about different things here. And so all I can do is control what I do when I go home and what I talk about.

SNELL: And she's telling freshmen to remember all politics are local. Stick to what works. Kelsey Snell, NPR News, Moline, Ill. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Kelsey Snell is a Congressional correspondent for NPR. She has covered Congress since 2010 for outlets including The Washington Post, Politico and National Journal. She has covered elections and Congress with a reporting specialty in budget, tax and economic policy. She has a graduate degree in journalism from the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University in Evanston, Ill. and an undergraduate degree in political science from DePaul University in Chicago.