WASHINGTON – Their dwindling majority in peril, House Democrats are entrusting their campaign operations to an analytical, openly gay moderate who’s been an attorney, businessman and five-time winner in his competitive congressional district.
New York Rep. Sean Patrick Maloney, 54, takes over the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee in January, following an unexpectedly dismal election that saw 12 of the party's incumbents defeated and another still trailing narrowly. The party's House majority will be as meager as 222-213 next year, the tightest partisan gap in two decades.
Maloney's primary job is to defy history in the 2022 elections and keep Democrats in control of the House. Perhaps as dauntingly, he must bridge the divide between moderates who argue they're the reason the party holds the majority and progressives who say their more left-leaning ideas are the source of greater political energy and passion.
The task is so formidable and vulnerable to second-guessing that only one other Democrat, Rep. Tony Cardenas of California, sought the position. Maloney defeated him in a close, secret-ballot vote among Democratic lawmakers.
Maloney has work to do. In an interview, he said the party had “some very obvious issues” with its polling, digital advertising and voter outreach. He says Democrats must simplify their messaging and “communicate like human beings.”
Some of those messages are a prime source of internal friction. Moderates including President-elect Joe Biden have criticized calls from some progressives to “defund the police” or to embrace democratic socialism.
Maloney says until he conducts an intensive study similar to one he undertook after House Democrats’ disappointing 2016 performance, he won’t draw conclusions.
“I’m not here to whine about what activists say,” Maloney said. “I’m here to win races.”
Things have been more amenable among House Republicans. Buoyed by their strong November showing, they easily reelected Minnesota Rep. Tom Emmer to lead the National Republican Congressional Committee, the counterpart of Maloney’s organization.
Republicans are particularly pleased with how they made their gains, adding substantially to their sparse ranks of women and minorities. Of the 12 GOP challengers who defeated Democratic incumbents, 11 are women, members of minority groups or both.
History illustrates the challenge Maloney faces. The party holding the presidency has lost House seats in 17 of the 19 midterm elections since World War II, with losses averaging 30 seats.
What's more, solid Republican control of nearly two dozen states including Arizona, Florida, Georgia and Texas will let the GOP remap congressional districts in their favor following this year's census.
To be successful, Maloney will have to recruit strong candidates, help them raise money and organize, and pick potent issues and messages for their campaigns.
Still, the position vaults Maloney into his party's leadership. Depending on how well he performs, that could be an asset should he vie for a higher position whenever House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, 80, or the party's other aging leaders step aside.
It also could raise his visibility should he mount a third try for statewide office in New York, where his two previous runs for attorney general have flopped.
Maloney was born in Sherbrooke, Canada, where his American parents lived while his father worked for a lumber company. They moved to New Hampshire while Maloney, the youngest of six children, was a baby.
He says his first exposure to politics came in that first-in-the-nation primary state. He recalls seeing several presidential candidates, including a sidewalk encounter with Gary Hart, the Colorado senator then seeking the 1984 Democratic presidential nomination. “I was the only one who recognized him,” Maloney said.
Maloney worked on Bill Clinton’s successful 1992 presidential campaign and joined the White House after Clinton's 1996 reelection. He also has worked for an investment risk management company and as an attorney. Maloney lost his first run for office when current New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo trounced him in the 2006 Democratic primary for state attorney general.
Maloney worked for two New York governors before winning election to the House in 2012. In 2014 he married designer Randy Florke — the couple now has three adopted children — and Maloney says recent years’ gay rights progress “fills me with hope” about legislating.
“Those of us in the LGBT community have seen the system work, and it has worked because we worked,” Maloney said.
After Democrats’ minimal House gains in 2016 left them in the minority, Maloney studied scores of metrics from dozens of House races to explore what happened. His conclusions weren’t released, but his work was praised by colleagues who say they hope he’ll unearth what went wrong this time.
In 2018 he sought the House campaign committee chairmanship but withdrew when he was hospitalized for an infection. Illinois Rep. Cheri Bustos won that race, but she’s stepping down following last month’s Democratic losses.
Like Bustos’ district, Maloney’s mid-Hudson Valley district narrowly backed Donald Trump in the 2016 presidential election. “Coming from a Trump district, I expect the other side to caricature and lie about our positions. It’s my job to build a relationship with our voters and to win anyway,” Maloney said.
Dan Conston, president of the Congressional Leadership Fund, a political committee allied with House GOP leaders, scoffed at the similarity between Maloney and Bustos. “Their last chairwoman had an awfully similar pitch and background and pedigree, and it did little ultimately in the end,” he said.
Underscoring internal divisions that Maloney faces, some from his party's left such as California Rep. Ro Khanna have called for a bold agenda. He tweeted that progressives won’t abide “the continual betrayal of American workers to appease the investor class.”
Other progressives like Connor Farrell have welcomed Maloney’s ascension to the post but also expressed a wariness. Farrell runs a consulting firm that he says was blacklisted by the campaign committee under Bustos after it helped candidates challenging Democratic incumbents. Maloney has said he wants to rework that policy.
“He’s so far talking the talk that progressive candidates and organizations would like to see,” Farrell said.
Maloney has also drawn praise from many across the party. Moderates such as California Rep. Ami Bera say Maloney's “analytic mind" will help the party figure out how to appeal better in swing districts.
Rep. Katie Porter of California said progressives pushing for more input at the campaign committee feel Maloney has “shown a real openness to reform.” Another progressive, Wisconsin Rep. Mark Pocan, said: “Let’s use the word ‘science’ in political science and do this right, which is what I think Sean’s very committed to doing.”