DAVID GREENE, HOST:
With dozens of congressional Republicans opting not to run again this year and a president who is - popular support is polling just in the 30s, this year's midterm elections seem like a strong opportunity for Democrats to take back control of Congress. But there are some in the party who are worried that not enough is being done to make sure that happens. Representative Cheri Bustos of Illinois is one of the Democrats raising the alarm. She thinks that more could be done to attract Midwestern and rural voters. She has a new report out called Hope from the Heartland, and she joins us on the line.
Congresswoman, welcome back.
CHERI BUSTOS: Thank you very much.
GREENE: So Democrats - not a bad 2017 in terms of picking up governorships, winning that Senate seat in Alabama. I mean, couldn't you argue that the party is on the right track at the moment?
BUSTOS: Well, I hope we're on the right track. And the report that we just issued yesterday is a way to take a look at Democrats from the heartland. We talked with 72 Democrats who have been elected in more rural, blue-collar, Republican-leaning areas and took their best practices on how they made it work. And you know, the old Tip O'Neill saying, all politics is local. This is taking a look at how people who have run as Democrats have been successful. And all I want to do with this is make sure that we learn from people who have done it right, how they've figured out how to localize their elections and what we can learn from that. That's the whole point of this report.
GREENE: But there are parts of your report where you talk about what might be wrong. And I just want to focus on one thing that really stood out to me. You wrote that too often, heartland voters view national Democrats as fixated on siloed messages to specific groups that don't include them or are too focused on controversial social issues to the exclusion of economic concerns. I mean, are you suggesting that Democrats went too far in their backing on issues like gay marriage or transgender rights and that has been part of the problem?
BUSTOS: Well, I don't think we should ever lose sight of fighting for the people who need us to fight for them, whether it's, you know, the LGBTQ community or whether it's communities of color. You know, we're Democrats, and we fight for people and for better lives for families.
But what I'm saying is that we need to stay relentlessly and I - you know, just keep our eyes on the ball for economic recovery in areas that have yet to see it. You know, when we say that we're the big-tent party, you know, that doesn't mean that you leave one group outside pounding the stakes and you let other people - you let them in the tent. When we say we're the big-tent party, we've got to be inclusive, and we've got to fight for everybody. And that includes people in the heartland who have gone through some tough times.
GREENE: I just want to be - when it comes to concrete solutions to some of the problems you're talking about, I mean, are you saying that Democratic candidates in some of the rural areas that you're talking about should - if they craft a speech or craft a message - focus less on issues like, say, race or transgender rights - things that are important to a lot of communities - and focus more on something else? I mean, you can't put everything into a speech. Is that the advice that you're suggesting?
BUSTOS: Well, I'm not the kind of person who writes a prescription and says, you know, this works in every part of the country or even saying that this works in every one of the Midwestern states or throughout the heartland. But we have some suggestions in here that say that - focus on our Democratic policies that revolve around jobs and the economy, and that is a uniter. And I don't care what community you're in. If you're saying that we want your family to be in a better place in a year or five years or 10 years than you're in right now, I don't think we can go wrong with that message.
GREENE: Congresswoman Cheri Bustos, a Democrat from Illinois - thanks so much for your time this morning.
BUSTOS: Thank you, David. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.