The Democrats' congressional campaign arm targets new voters as it faces criticism from progressive wing

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·White House Correspondent
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Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee  Chair Cheri Bustos, D-Ill., speaks at the House Democrats' 2019 Issues Conference opening press conference at the Landsdowne Resort and Spa in Leesburg, Va., on Wednesday, April 10, 2019. (Photo: Bill Clark/C
Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee Chair Cheri Bustos at the House Democrats' 2019 Issues Conference in April. (Photo: Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)

WASHINGTON — As the Democrats come off a successful 2018 election cycle that saw a “blue wave” of victories that allowed them to retake the House majority, the party has also drawn criticism from progressives for its efforts to shield incumbents from primary challengers.

Last week, the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee (DCCC) unveiled a multimillion-dollar plan to turn out the Democratic base, called Cycle of Engagement, which is meant to attract young voters and people of color. The program is an expansion of a similar effort, the minority- and youth-outreach efforts the DCCC ran during the last election cycle.

“It’s now a multiyear strategy, and the whole premise of this is that we earn the support — and I emphasize ‘earn the support’ — of two of our key constituencies, namely, people of color and young people,” DCCC Chair Cheri Bustos told Yahoo News. “We’ve got a multipronged approach to make sure that we don’t take anything for granted and that we earn every single vote.”

The strategy follows a public brouhaha over the committee’s decision to lock out political operatives who work against incumbents. Earlier this year, the DCCC included a rule on a form for potential vendors and consultants that it would “not conduct business with, nor recommend to any of its targeted campaigns, any consultant that works with an opponent of a sitting Member of the House Democratic Caucus."

Progressive members of Congress decried this so-called incumbent rule as a hindrance to growing support for the party. Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D-N.Y., a freshman who became easily the most visible member of last year’s blue wave after defeating Joe Crowley, an incumbent and leading member of the party establishment, decried the DCCC’s decision on Twitter.

“The @DCCC’s new rule to blacklist+boycott anyone who does business w/ primary challengers is extremely divisive & harmful to the party,” Ocasio-Cortez wrote.

Ocasio-Cortez’s communications director, Corbin Trent, elaborated on her disagreements with the DCCC in a conversation with Yahoo News. Trent said he believes Democrats’ results prior to the 2018 wave show the need for changes in the party’s strategy and leadership.

“The fact is, is that under the DCCC leadership, under the leadership of the DNC and the rest of this party, we’ve spent a decade and change now suffering devastating losses at the local level all the way to the White House,” Trent said. “It wasn’t until we had the most unpopular president in history that we were able to eke out a majority in one branch of government.”

Trent argued that the longevity of congressional incumbents “does not breed innovation” on the policy level and said the Democrats’ campaign organizations have misplaced priorities. “Our members of Congress live in a bubble, and the longer that bubble isn’t burst, the longer our voters will suffer the consequences,” he said.

“They defend their colleagues,” Trent added. “I think they’ve got to be fighting for the people of this country and their constituents.”

Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D-N.Y., listens during a House Oversight and Government Reform hearing in Washington, D.C., May 9, 2019. (Photo: Leah Millis/Reuters)
Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D-N.Y. (Photo: Leah Millis/Reuters)

Asked about progressive criticism of the incumbent rule, Bustos defended the practice as in keeping with the DCCC’s “promise” to “protect all members of the Democratic caucus — regardless of where they fall within our big tent.” When asked if measures to protect incumbents could hurt efforts to maximize turnout among young voters and people of color, Bustos expressed confidence in her strategy.

“I feel strongly about the direction that we’re heading at the D Triple C, and I think we’re going to have a very strong 2020 if we execute well on our cycle of engagement,” she said.

The Cycle of Engagement program involves placing 60 grassroots organizers in “targeted communities” around the country. Bustos said these staffers will be involved in early voter registration and “making sure that we hold representatives who are in these districts accountable for every vote they take” and “for every time they are silent” on issues like the treatment of child migrants. The effort will also include investments in polling, focus groups and other research, as well as advertising campaigns aimed at people of color and younger voters.

“We’ve never done something like this, this early,” Bustos said.

According to Bustos, the campaigning will focus on “everyday kitchen-table issues that folks care about,” like health care costs and stagnant wages.

“We go in and tell these voters what we are for,” she said. “This isn’t a matter of saying what we’re against, this isn’t a matter of talking about President Trump nonstop. People know who he is.”

The DCCC is also pledging that the work on the program “will be created primarily by political consultants of color.”

“This is a matter of having a messenger that matches the message. We’ve got to practice what we preach,” Bustos said. “We have a very diverse Democratic caucus, and we want to make sure that the people who are our advisers, our counselors, our vendors are diverse and young when we’re reaching out to people of color and young Americans.”

Although young voters and people of color generally lean heavily toward Democratic candidates, they often don’t vote at the same rate as older white voters. Bustos suggested that it is on the party to change that equation.

“The inside-the-Beltway talk is that these are so-called low-propensity voters,” she said. “That is Washington speak for voters who are uninspired. ... We’ve got to inspire people. That’s all it is.”

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