When Ben Ray Lujan was named chairman of House Democrats‚Äô campaign committee in 2014, he helped devise a long-term plan to take back Republicans‚Äô hefty majority within several campaign cycles.
Then came Donald Trump.
Almost overnight, Lujan and House Democrats made the controversial Republican nominee the centerpiece of their 2016 strategy, aiming to tie every single Republican on the ballot to Trump in the hopes of alienating them from GOP voters and driving up Democratic turnout. It jump-started a process already in place to expand the number of competitive House races and increase the number of seats Democrats can potentially win this fall.
Lujan is careful not to predict that Democrats, who hold the party‚Äôs smallest minority in almost a century, will win back the House. That feat would require flipping 30 seats from away from Republicans, an extremely tall order.
‚ÄúI think it‚Äôs too early to tell what the ultimate end number will be with the number of wins we as Democrats have, but it‚Äôs not too early to say that Democrats are on offense and we will win seats across the country,‚ÄĚ Lujan said in an interview in his office at the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee on Capitol Hill.
Lujan‚Äôs rise to committee chairman was unexpected. The 44-year-old, fourth-term congressman from New Mexico had held leadership roles in the House, including with the Congressional Hispanic Caucus and as a member of the whip team, but he didn‚Äôt actively campaign for the committee job after the 2014 elections. Most observers ‚Äď including Lujan himself ‚Äď were surprised when Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi asked him to take the position.
Lujan calls it an ‚Äúhonor‚ÄĚ and ‚Äúimmense responsibility‚ÄĚ to guide House Democrats during what has become a tumultuous election cycle. It started, after his appointment and well before the rise of Trump, with conversations with Pelosi, Rep. Steve Israel of New York and other Democratic members about changes needed to improve the way Democrats ran campaigns. Lujan then put together a staff at the DCCC with deep experience, including retaining DCCC Executive Director Kelly Ward, Deputy Executive Director Ian Russell (who was formerly the political director) and other top staffers, and bringing in experienced strategists who hadn‚Äôt done work for House candidates before.
Lujan identified two main areas where he wanted to improve the committee‚Äôs work: data and field operation. In terms of data, the panel brought the operation in house, creating an analytics hub, ‚ÄúRevere,‚ÄĚ an online portal of data and voter information for campaigns to access. Committee members also worked to improve voter contact systems and tested methods to use them most effectively.
In the grassroots field operation, Lujan sought to recruit local activists and young people in competitive districts, hoping to build an enduring infrastructure across the country rather than simply helicoptering in last minute when races become competitive.
The third component, of course, was recruiting candidates.
‚ÄúThe recruitment started immediately,‚ÄĚ Lujan said of the effort after he took the helm in November 2014. ‚ÄúWe brought everyone together, we developed the strategy, we crunched numbers, we were smart with data, but we also knew we had to own the ground with the grassroots development. All of that came together with ‚ÄėOkay, here it is. Now let‚Äôs go.‚Äô"
It was always likely Democrats could play offense this cycle given that Republicans hold their largest majority since the Great Depression and the electorate tends to favor Democrats in presidential election years. But the surprise success of Trump has left Lujan even more confident about Democrats‚Äô position. Whereas many Republicans are hesitant to use Trump‚Äôs name ‚Äď with even some of those who support him referring simply to ‚Äúthe nominee‚ÄĚ ‚Äď Trump is part of nearly every argument Lujan makes in favor of House Democrats.
‚ÄúBecause of Donald Trump, it‚Äôs especially important that we‚Äôre able to stand together and make sure the American people see the divisiveness, the bigotry, the misogyny from Donald Trump, and how it‚Äôs the same thing that, sadly, our Republican colleagues have been saying day in and day out,‚ÄĚ Lujan told RCP in the interview in response to a question unrelated to the GOP nominee.
Republicans, however, are skeptical that Democrats‚Äô strategy will succeed. Rep. Greg Walden, Lujan‚Äôs Republican counterpart, told RCP last week that Democrats were running a ‚Äúbluff routine‚ÄĚ by arguing they could significantly expand the map of competitive seats because of Trump.
In many ways, Lujan represents the anti-Trump. He‚Äôs the first Hispanic lawmaker to chair the committee; he‚Äôs young, progressive and mild-mannered. He still lives on the family farm in New Mexico where he grew up, and spends his very limited free time hiking, fly-fishing, mountain biking and anything else to take in the outdoors. He also helps to maintain the farm, and said he gets peace of mind by fixing the barn, improving irrigation ditches, working in his garden or sitting and reading under a large cottonwood tree on the property.
‚ÄúThere‚Äôs something tranquil and surreal about it,‚ÄĚ Lujan said. ‚ÄúBut family and friends, all things New Mexico, grabbing some green chile or red chile, it‚Äôs what I do to stay grounded but be able to recharge those batteries as well."
Along with maintaining his roots in New Mexico, Lujan‚Äôs reputation within Democratic circles is that of a hard worker and a genuinely friendly, outgoing leader.
‚ÄúEvery member loves this guy,‚ÄĚ a Democratic leadership aide told RCP. ‚ÄúIt‚Äôs just stunning. Very few people have that. It‚Äôs a level of charisma and he‚Äôs an always-positive person and he‚Äôs good on TV. He‚Äôs just the full package for this job and it‚Äôs a very hard thing to find."
Achim Bergmann, who worked for the DCCC in 2006 when Democrats took the majority from Republicans and now consults for several House candidates, said Lujan‚Äôs demeanor helps convince people to run for office. He said he‚Äôd spoken with multiple potential candidates who sat down with Lujan this cycle and that every single one left their meetings ‚Äúbelieving they can trust him, that he‚Äôs going to do what he tells them he‚Äôll do. That‚Äôs really meaningful."
Israel, Lujan‚Äôs predecessor as committee chair, told RCP there are two things in particular that make him successful: a strategic sense of how to manage a political environment, and the trust of members and Democratic activists and donors.
But that doesn‚Äôt necessarily mean it‚Äôs smooth sailing. A presidential cycle in which Democrats are aiming to make massive gains presents a unique problem: resources are stretched thin as more districts become competitive, but resources are also flowing to Hillary Clinton‚Äôs presidential campaign and to races in the Senate, where Democrats see a much better chance to win back a majority. The House map, and the available resources, will shift substantially as the cycle moves past the conventions and into the fall.
Bergmann argued Clinton‚Äôs campaign decisions on where to compete most vigorously will sway DCCC thinking: if Clinton and her team make a push in Arizona, it could lessen the burden in the swing district there; if not, resources will have to flow for down-ballot races. The same goes for districts in other swing or potential swing states.
‚ÄúWhat‚Äôs unique about Ben Ray is he‚Äôs got a completely unpredictable environment,‚ÄĚ Israel said. ‚ÄúIt could be very good for Democrats, it could be very poor for Democrats, and that‚Äôs required him to develop a strategic and tactical approach that is both agile and flexible."
Lujan‚Äôs pitch to activists and donors to make sure they don‚Äôt forget the House circles back to the centerpiece of his strategy: argue that House Republicans and Trump are one in the same.
‚ÄúIf you‚Äôre upset and concerned and fearful of Donald Trump‚Äôs candidacy and that he could become president of the United States, the rise of Donald Trump came through House Republicans,‚ÄĚ Lujan said, outlining his argument. ‚ÄúIf you want to beat Donald Trump, it starts by beating House Republicans."
James Arkin is a congressional reporter for RealClearPolitics. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @JamesArkin.