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Sunday, January 16, 2022

Democratic Rep. Cheri Bustos announces retirement from Illinois seat Trump won twice

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One Republican isn’t waiting to see what will happen next, though. That would be 2020 nominee Esther Joy King, who held Bustos to a 52-48 win last time, confirmed she would run again Friday shortly after the congresswoman said she would retire. King said she had been planning to make this declaration “in a couple weeks,” but that Bustos’ retirement led her to move up her announcement.

That 2020 contest was also Bustos’ closest race in her political career. Bustos herself first won office in 2007 when she was elected to a seat on the East Moline City Council, but her roots in politics go back much further than that. Her grandfather was a state representative while her father, Gene Callahan, served as chief of staff to Sen. Alan Dixon and later as Major League Baseball’s first lobbyist. Callahan also served as a mentor to now-Sen. Dick Durbin during his rise, and Bustos herself used to babysit Durbin’s children.

Bustos, who was still serving as an alderwoman, sought a promotion in 2012 when she took on freshman Rep. Bobby Schilling, a Republican that Democrats very badly wanted to beat. Schilling had won the ancestrally blue 17th District during the tea party wave the previous cycle, and Democratic map makers did their best to make sure that would not happen again

Bustos ran in the primary with the support of Durbin and EMILY’s List, and she got some very good news when her main intra-party opponent, state Sen. Dave Koehler, dropped out; Koehler would soon say that he left the race right after Durbin told him he was about to endorse the alderwoman. Bustos had no trouble winning the primary, but she faced a tougher contest against Schilling in a race where outside groups on both sides spent heavily. Barack Obama carried the 17th District 58-41, while Bustos won by a 53-47 spread.

Schilling sought a rematch in 2014, but while this proved to be an ugly cycle for Democrats both in Illinois and nationwide, national Republicans largely refrained from spending on his behalf this time. Bustos, by contrast, benefited from over $1 million in support from the DCCC, and she defeated Schilling by a larger 55-45 margin.

Bustos considered running against Republican Sen. Mark Kirk in 2016 but decided to seek re-election instead, and she earned her third term 60-40 against an underfunded Republican. Her wide win, though, came as Donald Trump, buoyed by his strong performance among white working class voters, carried her seat 47.4-46.7, a narrow but shocking victory in a district that Democrats have drawn to be safely blue turf just a few years before. Still, Republicans still were slow to give Bustos, who considered but ultimately passed on a 2018 race for governor, a serious opponent, and she easily won re-election once again.

Those twin victories gave Bustos a strong pitch when she successfully campaigned to chair the DCCC for the 2020 cycle, as she argued her history of winning a suburban and rural district made her best-suited to help defend other members in Trump seats. Bustos spent most of the next two years looking safe at home against King, who initially raised little money, as she focused her attention on aiding other Democrats, but all that began to change in the final weeks of the campaign.

The NRCC and its allies at the Congressional Leadership Fund each released a poll in October giving the incumbent only a modest lead over King, and CLF backed up its talk with action when it spent around $500,000 on ads during the final days. Bustos’ DCCC didn’t end up deploying resources here, but its allies at House Majority PAC did spend $1 million to defend her.

Democrats had hoped that the 17th District would snap back to the left after supporting Trump four years before, but he instead won it by a larger 50-48 spread this time. House Democrats also unexpectedly took losses in a cycle where they’d expected to grow their majority, but Bustos held off King 52-48—a victory that made her just one of seven Democrats to prevail in a Trump seat.


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