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Hakeem Jeffries’ big decision: Picking a campaign chief with a majority in reach

One of the first big items on Jeffries' to-do list as Democratic leader is to choose a new Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee chair to retake the House in 2024.
U.S. Representative Hakeem Jeffries (D-NY) speaking at a press conference of the House Democratic Leadership for the 118th Congress. (Photo by Michael Brochstein/Sipa USA)(Sipa via AP Images)
Rep. Hakeem Jeffries, D-N.Y., in Washington on Nov. 30.Michael Brochstein / Sipa USA via AP file

WASHINGTON — Rep. Hakeem Jeffries of New York will make one of his first, most consequential decisions as the incoming Democratic leader: hand-picking who will lead House Democrats’ campaign operation next cycle to try to win back the majority in two short years.

For the past three cycles, chair of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, a leadership post, had been elected by rank-and-file Democrats. But members recently voted to reinstate a rule that gives the party’s leader the power to select the chair, putting the decision in Jeffries’ hands.

Jeffries, who won his race to lead Democrats last week, will have to decide whether to choose one of the two candidates who had launched public campaigns for the DCCC role — Reps. Tony Cardenas and Ami Bera, both of California — or look elsewhere to a close and trusted ally within his caucus.

Some Democrats are privately encouraging Jeffries, a cautious and calculated strategist, to think outside the box and name a DCCC chair who isn’t a sitting House member with responsibilities like voting, committee work and constituent meetings back home.

Democrats aren’t necessarily pounding down Jeffries’ door for the job. It requires near-constant fundraising and travel across the country, frequent communication with the leadership team and responsibility for making unpopular decisions about where to spend hundreds of millions of dollars and whether to cut off spending in colleagues’ races.

“It’s all about winning. And when you have to make these really tough decisions, you don’t always make your colleagues happy. You’ve got to be really tough and thick-skinned,” said Rep. Cheri Bustos, D-Ill., who chaired the DCCC two cycles ago.

“It’s the toughest job I’ve ever had in my life, not just in Congress but in life,” she said.

The stakes are high for Jeffries and the party. Their better-than-expected midterm performance means the next DCCC chair will take over in a cycle when Democrats need to net only five seats to win back the majority and make Jeffries the likely speaker.

Asked whether he has a candidate or candidates in mind, Jeffries would say only that “those discussions are ongoing.”

“According to the caucus rules, the incoming leader will have until the middle of February or so to make that decision," Jeffries said. "I expect that to happen much sooner than that."

House Republicans last month elected Richard Hudson of North Carolina as their campaign chief for the 2024 cycle.

The Democratic leader had appointed the DCCC chair for years, but after a disappointing 2016 cycle, a band of young Democrats who wanted to strip power from Nancy Pelosi successfully pushed for members to elect the campaign chief.

Then-Rep. Ben Ray Lujan, D-N.M., a Pelosi ally who held the job in the 2016 cycle, was elected to stay on for the 2018 cycle, when Democrats netted 40 seats and won back control of the House.

But in the 2020 and 2022 cycles, Democrats elected two colleagues from battleground districts — Cheri Bustos of Illinois and Sean Patrick Maloney of New York — who had to rush back to their own districts late in the campaign to defend their seats while trying to run the larger campaign operation. Bustos survived her race for re-election in 2020, but Maloney didn’t this year, even as he was credited for helping his party limit losses and stave off a red wave in last month’s midterms.

Those dynamics, in part, are what drove Democrats last week to change their rules and return to the old system, in which the leader appoints the DCCC chair.

Both Cardenas and Bera said they have not sat down with Jeffries to make their cases. But few other names are circulating.

“I don’t know anyone who’s searching for pain and trying to avoid pleasure. I don’t think people are lined up to fight for that position,” said Rep. Emanuel Cleaver, D-Mo., a close friend and ally of Jeffries.

After the 2020 and 2022 cycles, Cleaver said, “I would like to see somebody who has a district that is easily winnable so that he or she will not be required to spend a lot of time trying to preserve their own seat.”

Rep. Jason Crow, D-Colo., said Jeffries' pick should be someone who has a strategy and a message to win races in "places where we haven’t been winning," namely in the middle of the country.

“There are places and districts around the country where we’re not reaching, where we’re not getting our message across," Crow said. "There’s a lot of places in the Midwest and the Mountain West where I think we can win races and win elections.” 

Asked whether he wants the role, Crow quipped: “I have too many friends around here.”

Some top GOP targets, including moderate Rep. Henry Cuellar, D-Texas, are pushing for Cardenas, who raised a record amount of money when he led the Congressional Hispanic Caucus’ campaign arm and narrowly lost to Maloney in the race for DCCC chair two years ago.

“The process has changed, but my willingness to serve is still the same,” Cardenas said. “Let’s get back in the majority. I’m ready to serve, ready to do my part to make sure that we get back in the majority, not in four, six, eight years — in two years.”

Bera said he is in a unique position of understanding how vulnerable colleagues can defend their seats. Bera represents a Sacramento-area seat that had been a battleground but now is safely Democratic, and this cycle he led the DCCC’s program to protect front-line members.

"I understand exactly what front-liners and red-to-blue candidates have gone through. So I think that’s what made me a very effective front-line chair,” Bera said. “And I think the case is we had a good night [in the midterms]. We went 35-4 in the front-line races.”

But several Democrats think a different approach is needed, and they are urging Jeffries to look outside the Democratic Caucus. Rep. Tim Ryan, D-Ohio, who is leaving Congress in January after a strong but ultimately unsuccessful run for the Senate, is one possibility who has been floated, although he has shown no interest in the role.

“I think that’s something we should consider. A Tim Ryan would be that kind of person,” said a California Democrat who requested anonymity so he wouldn’t offend his colleagues who want the job. “I don’t think we want a repeat of what happened with Bustos or Maloney, where you have a challenge that materializes into a threat to their seat and where they also still have to operate in Congress.

“It should be someone who can really campaign well, who is familiar with the process and dynamics of the House. I think being a former member would be a real advantage,” the lawmaker continued. “Someone like Tim Ryan, who was universally thought to have run a terrific campaign in an impossible environment. So find people who’ve lost great races or retired — that’d be a really useful thing to consider.”