The Bustos blueprint, she told me in January as the Taurus dodged raccoon road kill outside a speck of a village called Maquon, is rooted in unslick, face-to-face politicking. She shows up. She shakes hands. She asks questions—a lot of questions. “Don’t talk down to people—you listen,” she stressed. When she does talk, she talks as much as she can about jobs and wages and the economy and as little as she can about guns and abortion and other socially divisive issues—which, for her, are “no-win conversations,” she explained.
…Illinois’ 17th district over the last generation has leaned Democratic, buoyed by organized labor—but the linchpin manufacturing industries are stressed, dealing with reinvention or outright elimination. The local nexus of this painful, systemic change is Galesburg, where 5,000 steady, relatively well-paying jobs vanished when a Maytag factory moved to Mexico. That was in 2002. The town still hasn’t recovered. Johnson, the Monmouth professor who is Bustos’ friend and adviser, sees it as “ground zero in this battle over globalization.” And the Democrats in Galesburg and around the area as a whole are not liberal in the least, he explained—“not latte Democrats” but “beer-and-shot Democrats,” with pickup trucks with shotgun racks. A significant swath of voters in the district prize their independence and pragmatism and make their political picks based on the person rather than the party, said Chad Broughton, the author of Boom, Bust, Exodus, a book about Maytag, Galesburg and the region. “They want to hear from Democrats, but they generally feel like they’ve been abandoned by Democrats”—on trade deals, on bread-and-butter economic considerations and in a perceived shift to the left in the overall culture.
…last November, with Trump triumphing due to his pledges to bring back lost jobs, and with Bustos endorsing Clinton, she nonetheless tightened her grip on the district, trouncing GOP challenger Patrick Harlan. A fifth of the people in her district who voted for Trump also voted for her.
“She was getting white male voters when they were abandoning our party in rural America,” said Doug House, the Rock Island County Democratic Party chair and the president of the Illinois Democratic County Chairmen’s Association. “They were for Trump—and they were for her. She was connecting with them.”
“The key in these districts,” said Kind, the congressman from Wisconsin, “is you have to be able to connect with your constituents on a basic-value level, so they understand that you get them.”
…“Cheri on Shift” feels a little like a gimmick. In the most simplistic, play-the-game, political sense, it’s a photo op. At this one, I wasn’t the only reporter. There also was a local public radio correspondent. But what was different about this “Cheri on Shift” photo op was the patter of her questions. It was constant. She quizzed the supervisors leading the tour and the employees we encountered. What do you do here? How long have you been with the company? Do you like it? Can you support your family? Can you go on vacation? Who works here? Who do you like hiring? You guys like hiring farm kids? How long does it take to train for one of these jobs? Anything else on your minds?
“Being present matters”—that’s how DCCC’s Lujan put it when we talked. “Cheri gets that,” he said.
“I don’t try to change their mind,” she said. “I’m Catholic, so I understand their views. I’m pro-choice, but”—here she shifted the subject with me, the way she says she does with others—“that’s not what most people are talking about. Most people are talking about jobs.”
She talks, in other words, about these kinds of things by not talking about them much, because the people she represents, she says, aren’t talking about them much, either, or don’t want to.
“On these sensitive topics,” she said—Black Lives Matter, transgender bathroom laws and so on—“I don’t dwell on them.”
…Paying attention to the messages she’s getting on the ground as much as to the talking points from above, she might say, shouldn’t make her a traitor in the eyes of her party. To keep faith with both her constituents and the Democrats’ broader national aims is often less a question of the precise stance she is taking and more a question of how she puts it.