When I sat down with U.S. Rep. Ben Ray Luján in Washington on Thursday to talk about the 2018 mid-term elections, the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee chairman could barely contain his enthusiasm.
His demeanor was similar to that in a meeting we had about this time two years ago, when Luján also seemed bullish on the Democrats’ chances of picking up seats in the U.S. House of Representatives. But two things about last week’s interview did strike me as different.
First, Luján hardly mentioned President Donald Trump – a marked contrast from his talking points in May 2016, when he and the entire Democratic Party were counting on the bombastic, soon-to-be GOP presidential nominee to implode and possibly take the Republican-controlled Congress down with him. We all know how that worked out.
But despite Luján’s most fervent hopes two years ago, he stopped short of predicting a Democratic takeover of the House. Last week, he threw such restraint to the wind.
“If everyone does their part, and if we execute our plan, I have every confidence we can win back the House,” Luján said.
To do so, the Democrats would need to pick up 23 seats. While that’s no easy lift, it’s certainly not outside the realm of possibility. More than 40 Republican House incumbents aren’t seeking re-election, including House Speaker Paul Ryan, a Herculean fundraiser for the party. Meanwhile, Trump’s approval rating hovers at a historic 40 percent low as scandals swirl constantly around the White House.
Given the terrible optics at 1600 Pennsylvania Ave., I asked Luján why he isn’t talking about Trump as much as he was two years ago.
“President Trump is going to talk about President Trump every day,” Luján said with a smile. “He’s doing all the talking for us. The president himself has brought more attention to the investigations of the scandals tied to him and his family and people around him than anyone else could. He should continue to do that.”
So, what are Luján and his roster of Democratic House candidates talking about?
“It’s all about jobs, economy and health care,” he said. “Overwhelmingly, people are telling us their salaries and wages are not keeping up with the costs.”
While Democrats are united in their opposition to Trump, it’s not at all clear that a bitter divide between liberal progressives and more establishment Democrats laid bare by the insurgent campaign of Bernie Sanders against Hillary Clinton in the 2016 Democratic presidential primary has healed. The Democratic National Committee was shown to have favored Clinton behind the scenes in that campaign, enraging Sanders’ supporters.
In recent weeks and months, Luján and the DCCC have been criticized by some of those same people for openly favoring more moderate candidates over left-leaning ones, such as former journalist Laura Moser in Houston and Dana Balter in Syracuse. Luján insisted that the DCCC isn’t working to suppress progressive candidates, but simply trying to help the best candidates get on the ballot.
“We have incredible progressive candidates running all over America, and they are running strong campaigns,” Luján said. “We want to make sure we have strong candidates across the country in competitive general elections because we owe it to these grassroots organizations that have put in the work.
“What we saw in 2016 and before was when there wasn’t a candidate in a race that was strong or that viable, who did the blame go to?,” Luján continued. “The blame went to the (DCCC) that was responsible for recruiting candidates across the country. I’m proud of the work our team and this organization is doing.”
And finally, that brings us to New Mexico where Luján, who is running unopposed in his 3rd Congressional District primary, said he’s elated by the quality of Democratic candidates in the 1st and 2nd districts. The DCCC is unlikely to get involved in the crowded 1st District primary race but has announced its support of Xochitl Torres Small, a lawyer and former Capitol Hill staffer for Sen. Tom Udall, in the 2nd District.
Luján said the DCCC is intent on capturing the southern New Mexico seat that’s belonged to Republican Rep. Steve Pearce for seven of the last eight terms.
“We already have an office that’s going to be opening up in southern New Mexico, and we’ll have field staff there, as well,” he said. ” We’ll keep a close eye on this race.”
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