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Democrats Need To Manage Election Expectations Better, Rep. Bustos Says

DAVID GREENE, HOST:

When Democrats lost the most expensive House race in the history of the United States last week, it forced a new round of self-assessment for a party that had already suffered big losses in 2016. But the chair of the Democratic National Committee, Tom Perez, does not seem to be among those critics of the House leadership. Last week on "The View," he doubled down on his support for House Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "THE VIEW")

TOM PEREZ: The person in the Congress singularly most responsible for the passage of the Affordable Care Act was Nancy Pelosi. Thank God she was leading the House of Representatives during the passage of that. She has fought her entire career for fairness, for opportunity for everyone.

GREENE: Now, among those looking hard at the vision for her party is Rep. Cheri Bustos of the state of Illinois. She's actually the only member of the House Democratic leadership who does not hail from one of the coasts. And she is in our D.C. studios this morning. Congresswoman, welcome.

CHERI BUSTOS: Good morning.

GREENE: So does the Democratic Party have a leadership problem right now?

BUSTOS: Well, you know, let's look at the Georgia race that you were just referring to. I think it was more that we could have managed expectations a little bit better. You know, we lost that seat by 23 points just about a half a year ago, and we came within four last week. So I think if we had gone into that saying, look, this is going to be a very, very tough hill to climb. And it's not impossible but it's also not probable. And I think it was just more of a matter of managing the expectations, which we have to do going forth.

In the last four special elections that we've had over the past several weeks, we made double-digit gains in every single one of those. So that's worth celebrating. Sure, you know, we didn't cross the finish line in the fashion that we had hoped, but we did a lot better than many would have thought, also.

GREENE: But doesn't managing expectations - is that enough? Are you prepared to tell Democratic voters in, you know, the next big election, we might not win a lot of these seats. We might not take the House but we're going to come close. Is that what you think Democrats want to hear?

BUSTOS: No. No. It absolutely is not what Democrats want to hear. I'm a former college athlete. I played basketball and volleyball, and...

GREENE: So you know that coming close is not the same as winning...

BUSTOS: No. It's not, it's not. And I like to win. But I also know that when you play a really, really tough team in the first game, if you come close, then you look at the second game. And you look to finish the job. And we've got 400 candidates and 90-some seats throughout the country that are looking at running. That's a lot of people who have interest in taking on Republicans who are casting some horrible votes right now.

This health care bill that we passed out of the House with all Republican votes is so harmful to especially towns like I represent - small towns in middle America, in the heartland. These are areas that Donald Trump did very, very well in. And I think he sees it as fly-over country now. He...

GREENE: Well, let me just - if I can ask you, if I may, I mean, just yes or no - do you have full confidence in Nancy Pelosi leading your party right now?

BUSTOS: I have confidence that we are going to move things forward, that we've got the right candidates who are running. And frankly, David, it's a little bit of a sideshow right now. I mean no disrespect to any of my colleagues who are taking this fight very public. But I think what we need to focus on is making sure we have the right candidates who are going to work hard, who are going to show up in these smaller towns in counties that are not highly populated and listen to people. You know, politicians are known to be, you know, long-winded and do a lot of talking.

GREENE: (Laughter) I've never heard that before.

BUSTOS: (Laughter) But, you know, there's a reason we have one mouth and two ears. And we need to show up and listen to people and then base our policies on what we're hearing back home when we come back out here to Washington.

GREENE: Well, you do something in your district called Cheri on Shift. You shadow workers on the job when you're home in your district. That could strike some as just sort of a photo-op, but can you explain to me the true value in that? And is that something that you think Democratic candidates need to do more of?

BUSTOS: Well, I don't treat it anything like a photo-op. I treat it as a way to get to know people. I've done more than 50 of these, where I've been a welder, or a beekeeper, or a carp processor, or a UPS driver. But I work right alongside people doing their everyday jobs. And when I'm alongside, I ask them about their families - whether they were able to take a vacation last year, what they do for fun, if they've gotten a raise in the last five years. And you learn a lot about people and their families and their hopes and their dreams.

I don't just use it as, you know, where I put a welder's helmet on and I'm doing some spot welding in the back of a truck. We have a conversation. And then I take what I learn from all of these different shift works that I do, and I go back to Washington and I look at legislation that's supportive of folks back home.

GREENE: OK. Congresswoman Cheri Bustos, Democrat of Illinois. Thanks for the time this morning.

BUSTOS: Thank you, David. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.