WASHINGTON – Rep. Ben Ray Luján, a New Mexico Democrat, saw his national political profile elevated dramatically Monday when House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi made a surprise announcement naming him chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee.
In his new role, Luján will take control of the U.S. House Democrats’ election strategy and become a key member of the House Democratic leadership structure. The announcement came as a shock on Capitol Hill, as several more senior members’ names had been floated for the position in recent days. Luján will become just the second Latino to hold the post. Former Rep. Tony Coelho of California, who was a member of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus, headed the committee in the 1980s.
“I am pleased recommend to our colleagues Ben Ray Luján of New Mexico, a dynamic and forward-looking leader with a fresh energy and ideas that Democrats need for victory in 2016,” Pelosi said at a Capitol Hill news conference to announce the pick. “He has bold vision and determined leadership to deliver wins in difficult districts. I am confident (Luján) will prove a tireless champion.”
A beaming Luján – son of the late New Mexico House Speaker Ben Lujan – apologized for being tardy to the news conference, saying he couldn’t get off the phone with his mother, ” who was “joyous” about the news.
“It got a little emotional,” Luján told the Journal afterward, saying his mother told him his late father would have been proud of him. “We shared some tears and shared some laughs.”
While the DCCC chairmanship is a high-profile, plum assignment for Luján, he faces a steep climb heading into the 2016 political cycle. House Democrats were drubbed in congressional elections this month, and Republicans now control both chambers of Congress. Democrats would have to pick up about 30 seats to capture control of the House.
At the news conference, Luján said he was up to the challenge.
“House Republicans are once again talking about shutting down the government rather than working with Democrats and the president to tackle the issues facing families across our nation,” Luján said. “I will work to make sure House Republicans are held accountable for this reckless behavior and that the American people see the clear difference between House Democrats (and Republicans). There will be great opportunities in 2016 to make gains with the more favorable electorate during the presidential year. We will be on the offensive to put the majority in play.”
While Democrats were congratulating Luján on Capitol Hill, officials at the National Republican Congressional Committee – the DCCC’s counterpart – appeared pleased with the selection, as well – but for different reasons. Ian Prior, spokesman for the NRCC, said Luján is among the most liberal members of the House and his politics will fall flat with many Americans.
“In selecting Ben Luján to head the DCCC, Nancy Pelosi has chosen a member of the uber-liberal House Progressive Caucus who has routinely voted for budgets that include amnesty for illegal immigrants, tax rates as high as 49%, and a massive expansion of Obamacare,” Prior said. “This pick will give rise to plenty of awkward moments on the 2016 campaign trail as Democrats in swing states will have to distance themselves from incoming Chairman Luján, the very person tasked with helping them get elected.”
Larry Sabato, chairman of the Center for Politics at the University of Virginia and one of the nation’s best handicappers of House and Senate races, said Luján – while a surprise pick – has some qualities that can be helpful to the Democrats. Sabato also said he has his work cut out for him.
“Luján is a Westerner, Hispanic, and young and energetic,” Sabato said. “That last quality will be critical as he attempts to climb Mount Everest and somehow restore Democrats to the House majority. More realistically, he’ll want to try to get Democrats back over the 200-member mark after 2016 so that they can be in the game. Right now, House Democrats are by far the least relevant caucus in either house of Congress.”
“House Republicans are once again talking about shutting down the government rather than working with Democrats and the president to tackle the issues facing families across our nation,” Luján said. “I will work to make sure House Republicans are held accountable for this reckless behavior and that the American people see the clear difference between House Democrats [and Republicans]. There will be great opportunities in 2016 to make gains with the more favorable electorate during the presidential year. We will be on the offensive to put the majority in play.”
Luján has proved a popular member of the Democratic House caucus and most recently served as vice chairman of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus. Lujan’s Democratic congressional colleagues from New Mexico praised his appointment.
“Congressman Luján has been a dynamic leader in the Hispanic Caucus and in New Mexico,” said Rep. Michelle Lujan Grisham. “He will build on that leadership for the Democratic Party and will engage key constituencies to build a path to the majority for Democrats in Congress. During his time in Congress, Congressman Luján has been a strong advocate for working families and the middle class. I fully support him as the messenger for Democratic priorities and I look forward to working with him to achieve those goals.”
“Ben Ray has shown strong leadership in the House and is greatly respected by his colleagues. I can’t think of anyone better-suited for this important post,” said Sen. Martin Heinrich, D-N.M.
“Congressman Luján’s incredible enthusiasm, intelligence and leadership have made him an effective congressman for New Mexico and a great partner in Washington,” said Sen. Tom Udall, D-N.M. “Having Congressman Luján in the House leadership will help shine a light on issues that matter to New Mexicans, from immigration to rural development to clean energy. I am extremely proud of him today.”