ALBUQUERQUE ― Politicians tend to be peppy creatures, but Rep. Ben Ray Luján (D-N.M.) is an exceptionally upbeat dude, even by the serotonin-rich standards of professional politics.
Luján, 45, oozes a corny, all-American wholesomeness, with boyish features set beneath a shiny woosh of a haircut ― it’s as if a “morning zoo” radio host ran for Congress. Luján’s “Hey, how ya doin’?” is dished out with exuberant regularity. He likes making “And how about ... ” call-outs praising his hard-working staff. His eyes have a tendency to bulge with excitement while he speaks, like a child beholding a ferocious animal at the zoo.Luján’s childlike enthusiasm serves him well as he enters his second two-year term as chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee (DCCC), tasked with recruiting and supporting Democratic House candidates.
“I know I’m not the smartest guy in the room,” Luján said with characteristic golly-gee-whiz earnestness during an interview with HuffPost late last month, “but I’ll listen, and I’ll learn and will execute.”
Ben Ray Luján is a nice guy. The thing is, you might come to hate him very soon.
Thanks to Donald Trump’s dysfunctional presidency, Democrats are in the strongest position to regain control of the lower chamber since 2006, when disgust over President George W. Bush’s mismanagement of Hurricane Katrina relief and the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan sent the Republican House majority packing.
However, the passions of the present moment make the 2006 election look like a sleepy race for town comptroller. In this stressful Trumpian period, the United States often feels like a nation of 320 million political strategists, with practically everyone proffering an opinion on how to refine the party’s message and direction: Go progressive. Go moderate. Shut up and let Trump sabotage himself.
One thing is certain: For many in and around the party, a blue wave won’t do. Unless 2018 unleashes a political tsunami, a significant portion of the Democratic Party will likely be displeased with Luján’s leadership come Wednesday, Nov. 7, 2018.
At the very least, Luján recognizes that it’s a hard job.
“We have a big job to do across the country,” said Luján. “We have to go back and earn the trust of the American people where it was lost and in all parts of the country.”
The DCCC clearly gets that it’s an opportunity. Its list of “flippable” Republican districts ― inclusion on which can make or break a House campaign’s fundraising efforts ― sports a whopping 80 districts, enough to flip the House three times over. It’s an aggressive list ― one, as Slate’s Jim Newell noted, has an average Cook Partisan Voting Index of just over R+7, which means an unnamed Republican candidate would enjoy a 7-point advantage over an unnamed Democrat in the district.
The assessment that so many seats are up for grabs alone represents a massive attitude shift from the 2016 cycle, when Luján wasn’t even predicting a Democratic takeover of the House.
“We have a unique opportunity to flip control of the House of Representatives in 2018,” Luján wrote in a June memo distributed to party officials and the press. “This is about much more than one race: The national environment, unprecedented grassroots energy and impressive Democratic candidates stepping up to run deep into the battlefield leave no doubt that Democrats can take back the House next fall.”
While a changing of the guard a year from November is far from certain, Luján and the Democrats are certainly working with a robust class of candidates. Every DCCC chair has their own platonic ideal of a House candidate ― mayors, veterans, district attorneys, small-business owners and so forth. This cycle, Luján and the DCCC have settled, per Politico, on female veterans, ideally ones who run ― or have run ― a small business.
At first blush, such a combination feels indulgent ― as backgrounds go, “veteran” plus anything is like the cronut of American politics. Such things are highly sought after and don’t necessarily grow on trees. While there are certainly untold numbers of Americans with very appealing stories ― like female veterans with small business experience ― candidates that check so many boxes don’t always choose to run in a meaningful number of districts.
Yet female veteran candidates with notable non-military experience are already materializing ― a tribute to a motivated base and the efforts of grassroots organizations like Run for Something and VoteVets. There’s former Air Force engineer Chrissy Houlahan in Pennsylvania’s 6th Congressional District (she helped start a nonprofit), former Navy helicopter pilot Mikie Sherrill in New Jersey’s 11th District (a former federal prosecutor) and former Marine fighter pilot Amy McGrath in Kentucky’s 6th District (she graduated from the Center for the Study of Weapons of Mass Destruction’s Program for Emerging Leaders at the National Defense University, which is just a terrifyingly impressive sequence of words).
“This year we’re fortunate that we have candidates of all backgrounds,” said Luján, drawing particular attention to the fact that here are “a lot of veterans, people who have served our country in different capacities.”
Luján added that the DCCC was particularly interested in whether candidates had deep roots in their districts. “If they don’t trust you, they’re not ever going to put their faith in you,” he said.
But not everything about the DCCC’s recruitment is going smoothly, to put it mildly.
Just this week, The Hill published an interview with Luján in which he insisted that the candidates it supports aren’t subject to a “litmus test,” which includes their stance on hot-button issues like abortion rights. While those remarks jibed with the longstanding policy of both the DCCC and its Senate counterpart, the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, it was the first time Luján was on the record saying as much.
The remarks have prompted a skirmish in progressive circles. Many liberal activists, particularly ones focused on reproductive justice, viewed the continuation of the policy as a disappointment and a missed opportunity to capitalize on the groundswell of progressivism in the Trump era.
“Throwing weight behind anti-choice candidates is bad politics that will lead to worse policy,” said Mitchell Stille, national campaigns director for the abortion rights advocacy organization NARAL Pro-Choice America, in a statement provided to HuffPost and other news outlets. “The idea that jettisoning this issue wins elections for Democrats is folly contradicted by all available data.”
On Wednesday, NARAL President Ilyse Hogue and a coalition of progressive advocacy organizations, including Planned Parenthood Action Fund and EMILY’s List, published a “statement of principles” largely in response to the renewed debate over how ideological the DCCC should be. Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.), a strong supporter of reproductive rights, tweeted, “We do not have to make compromises on protecting women’s health to win back the House or Senate.”
Democratic Party officials, who asked to speak anonymously so they could discuss private conversations, expressed frustration and surprise that the DCCC and DSCC were on the defensive over a long-standing policy. Exacerbating these feelings, the officials said, was the involvement of multiple activists whom the officials claimed had previously signaled their willingness to tolerate, if not endorse, anti-abortion Democrats.
In conversations and in statements, DCCC officials have said that, while their organization plays a large role in candidate recruitment, their priority is to support whichever Democrat the primary voters choose.
“This is not about impacting the roster of candidates as much as understanding what our mission and ultimate role and goal is,” said DCCC Communications Director Meredith Kelly. “As always, primary voters and local groups will ask candidates where they stand on the issues and select their own nominees. Our job is to get as many of those nominees elected to Congress as possible.”
Officials anticipate that anti-abortion candidates will make up a negligible part of the Democrats’ crop of 2018 House candidates and that the organization’s approach isn’t about abandoning the Democratic principles as it’s adjusting to the political situation in certain districts.
Dan Sena, the DCCC’s executive director, reiterated in an interview with HuffPost that there “absolutely is no litmus test” of a candidate’s agenda but insisted that policy aberrations are the exception, not the norm.
“In Central Valley, California, where you are on water is more important than where you are on guns. In [California’s] Orange County, where you are on fiscal issues is going to matter more than social issues,” said Sena. “In Tucson, where you on on immigration and health care is probably more important than where you are on the environment. It’s really a balance of where we have certain types of profiles.”
Regardless of where the Democratic House candidates end up on the ideological spectrum, the Republican Party is hoping to make the midterms a referendum on progressive policies, an argument it plans to take to districts where Trump outperformed expectations in the 2016 election.
“Democrats have their heads buried in the sand, hoping to ignore the bitter primaries that are destined to tear their party apart in 2018,” said the National Republican Congressional Committee’s spokesman Jesse Hunt. “It’s going to be a race to the left, with single-payer health care as the ultimate litmus test.”
Luján’s own remarks fit with a broader push by the party to focus on less politically charged economic issues, such as job creation, combating corporate malfeasance and retirement security. That approach, he said, can unite moderate and progressive Democrats.
“I think what’s most important this cycle ― and every cycle after this ― is that Democratic elected leaders and our party leadership don’t ever forget the importance of standing up and fighting for hard-working families across the country, especially when it comes to economic issues,” Luján said. “It turns out that whether you live in the smallest community in rural America or if you live in one of the biggest cities in the United States, we all understand the importance of a job [and] the dignity of the paycheck.”
Another issue causing consternation among Democratic activists is the DCCC’s digital fundraising program. DCCC officials take pride in their fundraising efforts, saying a majority of their 2017 fundraising to date comes from small-dollar donors. The DCCC out-raised its Republican counterpart for the second quarter of 2017 by $5 million ($29.1 million compared with $24.1 million).
However, many observers both within the party and without have criticized the way that those dollars are solicited. There’s a good chance that more people can describe the DCCC by the content of its fundraising appeals than by the organization’s actual function in the Democratic Party. You may have seen some of their emails in your inbox:
From: Nancy Pelosi
Subject: I’m losing hope
Subject: AUTO-CONFIRM: [Member Status (07/31/2017)]
From: James Carville
Subject: ELECTION OVER. WE LOST.
Such alarmist clickbait is a great way to increase email open rates ― if House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi is depressed and wants to chat, who are you to ignore her? ― but many Democrats worry that such hair-on-fire tactics will degrade the Democrats’ brand and create a cry-wolf effect. The FINAL-NOTICE email contained decidedly scammy language and formatting about the recipient risking losing their party membership if they didn’t act. The blast from political strategist James Carville, despite its subject, was actually sent a week and a half before the 2016 election.
Though manipulative fundraising tactics may pale in significance compared with the policy debates underway, the emotions they solicit from party and liberal activists are no less raw. The DCCC, one former Democratic official warned, should seriously weigh the “short-term gains of more $3 donations from scared white ladies who see subject lines like ‘doomed’” against long-term party building.
Luján and DCCC officials say they understand criticism of the email campaigns, but to crudely summarize their views on the matter: the emails are too damn profitable to stop.
Luján says that there’s been “a shift in tone already this cycle,” something he attributes to listening to activists across the country. However, he maintains that such behavior is necessary in a dog-eat-dog, post-Citizens United fundraising environment.
“Half of what we’ve raised thus far to date has come from that program,” Luján observed.
“I recognize the reputations thing,” echoed Sena, who said such criticisms “do not fall on deaf ears,” but pointed to the digital program’s financial success. “People are responding to it and joining the fight. They’re doing that by giving.”
One area where the DCCC is changing course is its geographical focus, a correction that party officials admit was long overdue. It has relocated a number of D.C. staff positions to permanent posts in the districts and recruited a number of local organizers whose job, says Sena, is to “arm the rebels.”
“I think all too often there was always an emphasis on training as many people as you could in Washington, D.C., and then you’d fly them into different races across America, and after that election cycle they’d all pack up and go back to Washington, D.C.,” Luján recalled.
“It’s a matter of being present, of going and having conversations with people,” he elaborated. “I think what we’ve seen in the past is people have made mistakes with a tendency to speak down to people.”
The DCCC is also hosting a number of “DCCC University” sessions, in which its staffers and local political activists train up-and-coming campaign officials in behind-the-scenes skills, such as press engagement, coalition building and get-out-the-vote initiatives.
It was at one of these events in Albuquerque last month that Luján sat down with HuffPost.
“Everyone’s here for a fun-filled information gathering!” a typically revved-up Luján told the crowd before the training.
The congressman’s blandly hip outfit that day ― jeans and a blazer over a T-shirt stamped with the New Mexico flag ― served to strengthen his nice guy vibes. In an alternate life, you could see him as a youth pastor who regularly sits backward on chairs to “rap” with kids about abstinence.
For Luján, such organizationally minded events are an increasingly central component of the DCCC’s work, as its financial reach, though still large, is diluted by all the independent expenditures now in play in a post-Citizens United world.
“What we’re seeing after Citizens United are Republicans having endless amounts of money to attack and attack and attack, so you have to be in a position to defend that,” Luján said. “I think it’s fair to say that, with the candidates that I’ve been working with, I have put an emphasis on making sure that you’re building a strong campaign and program.”
Yet the interview came on the heels of stinging Democratic losses in special elections for House seats in Georgia, Montana, South Carolina and Kansas. The DCCC has absorbed considerable criticism over the loss in Georgia’s 6th Congressional District, where many saw Democratic nominee Jon Ossoff as overly cautious when it came to criticizing Trump and thought he ran a campaign that was “overly focus-grouped,” as Jeff Hauser, a House campaign veteran and executive director of the Revolving Door Project at the Center for Economic and Policy Research, described it.
“There definitely needs to be a message about what a Democratic Congress would do but also how Trump is making Washington worse,” Hauser said.
There definitely needs to be a message about what a Democratic Congress would do but also how Trump is making Washington worse. Jeff Hauser, executive director of the Revolving Door Project
Luján says he is proud of the campaign Ossoff ran, and, though he resisted providing a postmortem, he did say that the various scandals enveloping the Trump administration should be a part of Democrats’ messaging going forward.
“Could we have made better decisions about leaning in [to the special elections] earlier or later?” asked Luján rhetorically. “I think those are all fair questions, and we are getting to the bottom of that.
“I see incredible momentum coming out of these special elections. That the National Republican Campaign Committee and the Congressional Leadership Fund had to spend the dollars that they did should worry them.”
But Luján said he doesn’t want Democrats to get “distracted” by Trump: “We have to keep our focus on the American people and focus on what we can do to make things better.”
The DCCC often serves as a stepping stone to party leadership, and a big win on Nov. 6, 2018, could be Luján’s ticket to replacing Pelosi or one of her top deputies, all of whom are in their late 70s. It’s talk that DCCC officials notably don’t dissuade, and with a number of Luján’s potential rivals for those top jobs seeking opportunities elsewhere, there’s a good chance that America will become much more familiar with Luján in the years to come.
The renewed debate over how policy-focused the DCCC should be is just a taste of what Luján could expect should he rise to higher ranks. Pelosi has had to address similar questions since Trump’s election, and one suspects that Luján’s current battles will arise again should he decide to seek a promotion.
Right now, however, Luján can only hope to get back to being the earnest, aw-shucks guy who can talk up the strengths and prospects of this cycle’s class of Democratic House candidates.
“All across America, those middle-class, hard-working families need our help, and that’s what I’m asking for your help with,” Luján told the assembled campaign staffers and activists during his opening remarks. “You willing to get on board with that?”
A handful of audience members cheered in acknowledgment.
“Oh, c’mon!” Luján, exclaimed, dialing his “Leave It to Beaver” earnestness up to 11. “You willing to get on board with that?”
“Yeahhhh!!!” The crowd exclaimed.
It was clear that the Democrats’ chief congressional cheerleader was in his happy place.