On a sunny morning in May, Rep. Cheri Bustos showed up to work at a machine shop in south Peoria, where grain silos hug the Illinois River. Protective eye gear on, the Democratic congresswoman was ready for another day of “Cheri on Shift” – shadowing workers on the job when she’s home in her district.
But this was not going to be anything like the time she processed fish, drove a forklift, or spot-welded. Guided by her “trainer” at Performance Pattern & Machine, the congresswoman approached a panel of controls on the noisy shop floor and – drumroll, please – pressed a button.
Yep. That was it. Everybody laughed, but the actual work wasn’t really the point. During her “training,” she started up a conversation with the operator of the computer-driven, metal-cutting machine, Jason Williams. It lasted a good 10 minutes. Even before this, she kept breaking off from her shop-floor tour to chat with employees: A young apprentice. A longtimer of 27 years. An Iraq War veteran.
Along the way, she asked more questions than a census-taker. Not just whether they have any kids, but about the kids. Not just how long they have worked here, but what they were doing before this. Not just about their training, but what they do for fun and whether they took a vacation last year.
“We’ve had other politicians come through here before that had no real interest in talking to somebody,” said Kris Woll, a young machinist with a “Bernie” sticker on his toolbox. “She ... had a big smile and came up and introduced herself within moments of seeing me. That, to me, meant a lot.”
Showing up. Listening to constituents. Following through. It sounds simple enough. But it is an aspect of politics that is undervalued in an age of social media and in a region of the country that largely abandoned Democrats for Donald Trump. If the party wants to regain the House in 2018, and rise again in the larger sense, it will need to win in the Midwest and gain the trust of Trump voters – as Representative Bustos has done, observers say.
Last November, she won her district by a healthy 20-point margin. A vast swath of northwestern Illinois, where corn and soybean fields stretch to the horizon, it’s the kind of rural area where Mr. Trump triumphed. He won this district by a smidgen. Still, 1 in 5 Trump voters also backed Bustos, the granddaughter of a hog farmer.
How she performed so strongly is a vital question for her party. Only 11 other Democrats managed to win in congressional districts that Trump also captured. Progressives argue for staunchly liberal politics and a strategy of resistance to the president. Bustos, however, implores her colleagues to hear out Trump supporters, foster a more inclusive politics, and develop a specific strategy to win back the heartland.
“The vast majority of this nation is still rural, and people don’t want to feel like they’ve been forgotten. That’s human nature. People want to feel like they’ve been listened to. And as public servants, we owe them that,” said Bustos in an interview in Peoria. Democrats, she adds, “need to stop acting like everyone else is a villain.”
Lone Midwesterner in House leadership
Bustos seems to be having some sway. In December, Democrats in the House elected her co-chair of their policy and messaging committee, making her the only Midwesterner in the House Democratic leadership. It was a corrective step after Democrats’ painful loss of states such as Iowa, Michigan, and Wisconsin in the presidential race. Still, nearly two-thirds of the top posts in the House legislative committees are held by representatives from the coasts.
“I can’t sit there and be meek and mild” in leadership meetings when the coastal voices dominate, she says. That determination seems to come naturally to this star collegiate athlete known for her furious rebound in basketball. It helps, too, that she used to be an investigative reporter.
The congresswoman has personally pressed Democratic National Committee (DNC) chair Tom Perez to form a “rural council” to coordinate a Midwest strategy. And she’s working with the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, which is recruiting and training candidates to win back the House, on training programs – touting her “Build the Bench” boot camp to prep newbie candidates for local office.
The DCCC is designating a point person for the Midwest, according to Bustos. It is targeting a total of 79 Republican seats for the 2018 cycle, including 21 seats in the heartland. Democrats need to win 24 seats to take back the majority, and Republicans are increasingly nervous about the prospect of them doing so.
“The heartland is going to be critically important to the battleground that we’ve laid out,” said Rep. Ben Ray Luján (D) of New Mexico, chairman of the DCCC, at a May press conference. He credited Bustos and others for keeping them focused on the region. That still leaves the question, though, of how to win the hearts and minds of working-class Middle America.
To be sure, Bustos was helped in her first congressional race in 2012 by Democratic redistricting that roped in a portion of two cities, Peoria and Rockford, that trend Democratic. And she faced no formidable competition last year. But much of Illinois’s 17th District is dotted with farms and small towns with conservative voters, and the congresswoman has steadily increased her margin of victory with each election. She won all 14 of her counties last year. “You know that old saying, ‘Half the game is just showing up’ – I think that’s part of it,” says Bustos, when asked how Democrats can regain the trust of people who voted for Trump.
Showing up is not so easy in this district of 7,000 square miles. She makes sure to visit all counties each year and stays close to her constituents by working her “shifts.” She also does “Supermarket Saturdays,” asking mothers and grandparents picking over produce or pulling cereal from the shelf what they want her to know before she heads back to Washington.
People complained that Hillary Clinton neglected the heartland states, and elected Democrats need to ensure they don’t do the same, says Emily Parcell, a consultant who worked on the Iowa presidential campaigns of Barack Obama and Mrs. Clinton, and is a top adviser to Bustos.
“We’ve just gotten so far away from retail politics, where candidates go talk to the voters,” says Ms. Parcell, speaking of both parties and all levels of office. “The lesson from Congresswoman Bustos is that she’s there.”
Her one-on-one discussions, with everyone from factory workers to grocery store shoppers, help Bustos understand the economy’s effect on people’s lives – for instance, by giving her a sense of how much disposable income someone might have to spend on a vacation. This informs her work in Washington, whether it’s fighting for or against something, or writing legislation.
The problem in 2016, she says, was that Democrats campaigned on a message that “everything was good” and they were going to build on that. “Well, things don’t feel so good to a lot of people.”
Handling hot-button issues
Though she comes from a line of farmers, Bustos also grew up talking politics around the kitchen table. Her farmer grandfather was a representative in the Illinois statehouse and stayed with the family in Springfield during legislative sessions. Her father was a political reporter and columnist who became a top aide to the Illinois lieutenant governor and a US senator from the state.
“I’ve known Cheri since she was a little girl,” says Sen. Richard Durbin (D) of Illinois, now the second-ranking Democrat in the Senate’s minority leadership. He worked for her father, and she baby-sat his children. “I know what her dad taught her. First, honesty. You never lie. And you tell the truth. It sounds so basic and it’s so important.”
Except for her years at the University of Maryland, where she earned her bachelor’s degree, she’s spent her whole life in the heartland and knows how to navigate a socially conservative region. For instance, Bustos says she doesn’t talk about a typical hot-button issue – abortion.
She’s Roman Catholic and in favor of abortion rights, but she doesn’t see such rights as a litmus test for Democrats, and it’s not a topic that comes up naturally on the shop floor or in the grocery aisle. When Mr. Perez, the DNC chairman, commented recently that “every Democrat” should support a woman’s right to choose, she groaned, because it sends the message that all Democrats agree with him. “That’s hurtful in regions like this,” she says.
Indeed, observers say it helped sink the campaign of an antiabortion Democrat who was running for mayor in Omaha, Neb., this spring.
On another hot-button issue – guns – Bustos supports some firearms restrictions, such as for known or suspected terrorists and those who are mentally ill. But she usually starts a conversation about guns by saying her husband – Gerry Bustos, the sheriff of Rock Island County – wears a gun every day. (He also sports a barbed-wire tattoo and the letters “CBGB” – the couple’s initials.)
Bustos had a chance to banter about her own experience with guns while at Performance Pattern, when she walked into the office of Scott Herman, one of the owners. She looked at a picture of his son in a football uniform, asked about him, and then, with motherly pride, bragged about her oldest son, who had gone to Iowa State and been No. 2 in the nation in collegiate trapshooting. “Awesome. Wow,” said Mr. Herman.
For Christmas, her son took his children to Tennessee for wild-boar hunting. She doesn’t hunt, she explained, but “I do like to go to the shooting range. For me, that’s fun.”
That was the gun handshake, followed along the way by bonding with workers over sports. She doesn’t bring it up, but she was inducted into the Illinois College Sports Hall of Fame. She’s got biceps like Michelle Obama’s, and when she’s on recess, she works out with her husband at the YMCA at 4:30 every morning.
The key to talking with folks who may not agree with you, she says, is “not talking down to people, ever, because their views might be different on women’s reproductive rights or guns.”
Or on Trump. Which is why Bustos takes care not to “bad-mouth” the president, as she puts it. But she does point out where he’s failed on his promises, and she condemns his proposed 21 percent budget cut to the Department of Agriculture as harmful to every town in her district.
When touring workplaces, she described the health-care bill that passed the House in early May as “terrible” – but she never talked about it in terms of R’s and D’s.
She’s particularly attuned to veterans. Since she learned from a concerned vet that flags used by the military were made in China, she has succeeded in requiring the Defense Department to purchase only US flags made in America.
Boot camps for rising Democrats
Not every candidate can grow up in a political family, excel at sports, and become a reporter, observes Dianne Bystrom, director of the Carrie Chapman Catt Center for Women and Politics at Iowa State University in Ames.
But anyone can learn to ask questions and listen to voters and constituents, she says: “All they have to do is focus on the person they’re talking to, and not so much on themselves.”
At Ms. Bystrom’s Center for Women and Politics, workshops on how to run for office offer a session exclusively on listening.
Bustos, too, is offering campaign workshops, looking to franchise her success.
Frustrated with the lack of Democratic candidates in the 2016 election cycle, she held her first one-day boot camp last year to teach political newcomers how to run for local office. She aims to rebuild the Democrats’ ranks from the ground up – offering her personal expertise, which makes the workshop distinctive.
Bustos is talking with party chairs in eight Midwestern states about expanding the program. “I am not one bit proprietary about this,” she says, explaining that her shift work at local businesses, grocery-store interviews, and boot camps are easily replicable.
The boot camps have graduated winners. Out of 12 alumni from a February workshop, eight won elections this spring. One of them, Rita Ali, lost her bid for Peoria City Council by one slim vote. It was a huge disappointment, but the college administrator and community activist is going to run for an at-large seat – and she could well make it over the finish line.
Ms. Ali, an African-American who ran in a majority white and Republican part of Peoria, says Bustos inspired her to keep going when things got tough.
Ali says she was impressed to learn that Bustos doesn’t delete attacks against her on her Facebook page. The congresswoman explained that “you have to stay the course, you have to stay strong, but you have to respect that people have a difference of opinion.”
And that is how Ali ran her campaign. It was for a nonpartisan office, granted, but people knew she was a Democrat. She says she won the support of Republicans simply by allowing them to get to know her through personal contact, such as knocking on their doors.
They lost their “fear” of her, she says, when they discovered they want the same things – fair property taxes, safe neighborhoods – and have the same concerns, like the pending relocation of Caterpillar from its Peoria headquarters. Some Trump supporters even hosted events for her.
When asked to describe a Trump voter, she quickly responds, “They’re regular people.”
That may elicit howls of protest from progressives on the coasts. But it’s an answer that no doubt would please Bustos.
(Editor's Note: This story was updated to correct the state affiliation of Rep. Ben Ray Luján (D) of New Mexico.)