Time for a Democratic Reboot? The Party’s House Campaign Chair Doesn’t Think So

DCCC’s Ben Ray Lujan offers a could’ve-been-worse review of the 2014 midterms.

WASHINGTON, DC - JULY 11: U.S. Rep. Ben Luján (D-NM) (5th L) speaks as (L-R) Rep. Tony Cardenas (D-CA), Rep. Lucille Roybal-Allard (D-CA), Rep. Luis Gutierrez (D-IL), Rep. Loretta Sanchez (D-CA), and Rep. Rubén Hinojosa (D-TX) listen during a news conference July 11, 2014 on Capitol Hill in Washington, DC. The Congressional Hispanic Caucus held a news conference to discuss unaccompanied minors crossing the U.S. border. (Photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images)
Alex Wong/Getty Images
Dec. 7, 2014, 2:56 p.m.

After an­oth­er dis­ap­point­ing elec­tion for House Demo­crats, one that gave Re­pub­lic­ans their largest ma­jor­ity in al­most a cen­tury, the new chair­man of the Demo­crat­ic Con­gres­sion­al Cam­paign Com­mit­tee has a seem­ingly in­con­gru­ous mes­sage: Keep calm and carry on.

DCCC Chair­man Ben Ray Lu­jan is adam­ant, des­pite a 13-seat loss in Novem­ber, that the com­mit­tee has more to build on than to fix. After all, you don’t have to make mis­takes to lose an elec­tion, es­pe­cially in the kind of hor­rible en­vir­on­ment Demo­crats faced this year.

Yet even some fel­low Demo­crats who ac­know­ledge that truth are chaf­ing at the no­tion after be­ing re­leg­ated to a 188-seat minor­ity in the House of Rep­res­ent­at­ives.

“You’ll see where some of those shifts are go­ing to take place,” Lu­jan said in an in­ter­view in his new DCCC of­fice. “But I think we really have to take in­to con­sid­er­a­tion that based on some of the mod­el­ing and the na­tion­al mood last cycle “¦ we could have lost 20 or more seats.”

“The team we had in place “¦ kept that to 13,” Lu­jan said. “As we’re mov­ing in­to all of this, that’s something to build off of.”

The com­mit­tee has nu­mer­ous build­ing blocks—its field pro­gram, di­git­al pro­gram, ag­gress­ive re­cruit­ing, and es­pe­cially its strong fun­drais­ing—for 2016 that helped mit­ig­ate Novem­ber’s losses and will po­s­i­tion the party to take ad­vant­age when there is a bet­ter polit­ic­al en­vir­on­ment in the fu­ture, Lu­jan said. Un­like the polit­ic­al en­vir­on­ment or over­all party mes­saging, those factors are un­der the DCCC’s com­plete con­trol.

But some Demo­crats on and off Cap­it­ol Hill have grown con­cerned since the elec­tion about wheth­er the DCCC is re­act­ing with enough ur­gency to an­oth­er dis­ap­point­ing elec­tion res­ult. Lu­jan’s first move as chair­man was to re­tain Ex­ec­ut­ive Dir­ect­or Kelly Ward, who echoed the new chair­man’s could’ve-been-worse at­ti­tude in a state­ment when she was re­hired. The Demo­crat­ic Na­tion­al Com­mit­tee has con­vened a “Vic­tory Task Force” to pin­point areas where the party “can strengthen and im­prove op­er­a­tions,” but Lu­jan didn’t of­fer spe­cif­ics on areas where the DCCC could im­prove.

Asked to name one thing he would change at the com­mit­tee after hav­ing some time to re­view things, Lu­jan said, “We want to win more seats.” And, he said, he wants to keep fel­low mem­bers en­gaged with the com­mit­tee.

That’s hardly a re­boot.

“After three cycles of un­der­per­form­ing ex­pect­a­tions, that would seem to high­light the need for new think­ing,” said one Demo­crat­ic con­sult­ant who asked for an­onym­ity to speak freely. (The con­sult­ant com­pared the DCCC’s line to Kev­in Ba­con’s char­ac­ter in An­im­al House, who shouts, “Re­main calm! All is well!” dur­ing the movie’s cli­mactic stam­pede.) “I would think that at some point they’re go­ing to have a prob­lem con­vin­cing donors to give money without res­ults.”

That com­plaint is not uni­ver­sal, though. “I’m frankly amazed at the money they raised and that they didn’t lose more seats,” said Steve El­men­d­orf, a Demo­crat­ic lob­by­ist and donor. “People are al­ways frus­trated when you don’t win, but what do you want to do? “¦ I have not heard any un­der­cur­rent or over­cur­rent of it be­ing the DCCC’s fault or any­thing.”

The DCCC out­raised its Re­pub­lic­an coun­ter­part in both of out­go­ing Chair­man Steve Is­rael’s cycles at the helm, a vir­tu­ally un­pre­ced­en­ted ac­com­plish­ment for the party out of power and one that likely saved seats.

Much of that fund­ing came through the com­mit­tee’s di­git­al de­part­ment, which doubled in size un­der Is­rael and drove the DCCC’s fun­drais­ing, in­clud­ing over 4 mil­lion in­di­vidu­al dona­tions. Also on the di­git­al front, the com­mit­tee spent over $3 mil­lion mes­saging per­suad­able voters on­line in 2014 along with over $67 mil­lion on TV ads.

On the cam­paign side, Lu­jan is re­pris­ing Is­rael’s early re­cruit­ing ef­forts from years past. One of Demo­crats’ los­ing 2014 can­did­ates, Emily Cain of Maine, came to the DCCC Wed­nes­day morn­ing for meet­ings with Lu­jan and oth­er party lead­ers about run­ning for the Demo­crat­ic-lean­ing dis­trict again in 2016. Lu­jan cited dis­tricts Demo­crats lost in Nevada and Iowa, plus a GOP-held open seat in the Phil­adelphia sub­urbs, as top tar­gets on which he’s already fo­cused.

Pres­id­ent Obama car­ried 26 GOP-held dis­tricts when he won reelec­tion in 2012, in­clud­ing the Maine seat that Lu­jan wants Cain to run for again.

And Lu­jan also cited a com­mit­tee field pro­gram—guided this year by an in­tern­al tar­get­ing de­part­ment—that at­temp­ted about 42 mil­lion voter con­tacts in 2014 and re­gistered 80,000 new voters. In some dis­tricts, like Rep.-elect Gwen Gra­ham’s, the num­ber of new DCCC-re­gistered voters was big­ger than the Demo­crat­ic can­did­ates’ win­ning mar­gins.

“People don’t dis­miss field, but it’s not something every­body knows how to do well,” said Mary­Anne Pintar, who man­aged Demo­crat­ic Rep. Scott Peters’s reelec­tion cam­paign in San Diego. Peters won by about 6,000 votes. “If you’re a cam­paign man­ager, you are pay­ing at­ten­tion to budget and mail and TV and earned me­dia mes­saging and more, and hav­ing their as­sist­ance and early sup­port on the field end was tre­mend­ous.”

In a postelec­tion con­fer­ence call for House Demo­crats and a sub­sequent caucus meet­ing, both reelec­ted and de­feated mem­bers lined up to voice their sup­port for the DCCC. One of them was Peters, who touted the field pro­gram (as did Reps. Ron Barber, Ami Be­ra, Ju­lia Brown­ley, Eliza­beth Esty, and Rick No­lan), ac­cord­ing to a source in the room at the Nov. 13 caucus meet­ing. Out­go­ing Rep. Car­ol Shea-Port­er said Is­rael and the com­mit­tee he led didn’t de­serve “any of the cri­ti­cism he’s get­ting,” ac­cord­ing to the source. “I lost my dis­trict by 4 points and Jeanne Shaheen lost it too,” Shea-Port­er re­portedly said. “It wasn’t about a move here or a move there.”

But the post-elec­tion call “struck a num­ber of mem­bers as prob­lem­at­ic,” said one House Demo­crat­ic aide. “I think that for a lot of them there was a feel­ing there wasn’t go­ing to be any op­por­tun­ity to have an hon­est dis­cus­sion of what happened in the cycle. The idea that the day after a tough elec­tion was just go­ing to be a lit­any of thank yous, it just didn’t con­nect.”

Still, House Demo­crats didn’t suf­fer the kind of shock­ing losses—like los­ing the Mary­land gubernat­ori­al race—that plagued oth­er arms of their party. A Demo­crat­ic source noted that nearly half of the DCCC’s in­de­pend­ent ex­pendit­ures went in­to races that the party won, in­clud­ing a num­ber of very tight con­tests, des­pite na­tion­al polling show­ing a worse polit­ic­al en­vir­on­ment than 2010, by some meas­ures. Lu­jan pledged that the DCCC is “go­ing to be on of­fense” in two years and said “the House is def­in­itely go­ing to be in play in 2016.”

Demo­crats would need to gain 30 seats to re­take the House, a tall or­der that has some in the party won­der­ing if they might need a new round of re­dis­trict­ing or a GOP pres­id­ent as a foil in or­der to take the ma­jor­ity once more. Lu­jan said he’s op­tim­ist­ic that high­er turnout in 2016 will solve some of the party’s prob­lems.

“We need more people vot­ing,” Lu­jan said. “We saw turnout across the coun­try at the low­est it’s been in a long, long time, so the more we can get people ex­cited about get­ting to the polls, which hap­pens in pres­id­en­tial elec­tion years, is something I’m look­ing for­ward to and why I think we’ll be on of­fense in­stead of de­fense.”

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