WASHINGTON – Rep. Ben Ray Luján is spending the weekend in Santa Fe, but it’s far from an ordinary trip home for the northern New Mexico congressman.
Luján, who was appointed chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee in November, will be the master of ceremonies at the DCCC’s annual “issues conference,” based at La Posada de Santa Fe Resort and Spa, just off the Santa Fa plaza. The conference allows about 150 of the Democratic Party’s big donors and national elected officials to rub elbows and swap ideas.
In recent years, the annual gathering has convened in other prestigious locales, such as Napa Valley and New York City. But thanks to Luján’s DCCC chairmanship, it’s Santa Fe’s turn in the spotlight.
Luján will start his day today with House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., at Santa Fe Community College, where they will tour the school, meet with the college president and talk about the importance of education in lifting people out of poverty. Santa Fe Mayor Javier Gonzales said he will officially welcome the Democratic group at an event at the Center for Contemporary Arts tonight.
The conference itself is scheduled for Saturday at La Posada resort, according to an invitation obtained by the Journal. On Saturday night, conference attendees are invited to “Chairman Luján’s Taste of Santa Fe,” a party at the nationally renowned Gerald Peters Art Gallery.
Luján said he’s proud to showcase his hometown.
“I wanted it to be held in Santa Fe because I wanted to show off New Mexico,” Luján said, grinning ear to ear during a Journal interview this week in his office at the DCCC headquarters on Capitol Hill. “Anytime we can get people coming to Santa Fe, it’s good for the local economy. I hope a lot of art is bought and restaurants visited.”
In a statement provided to the Journal, Pelosi praised Luján, her handpicked leader of the 2016 Democratic congressional campaign. The longtime Democratic power player said in November that she chose Luján because of his energy and “political astuteness.” Political observers said Luján’s Hispanic heritage likely also factored into Pelosi’s decision as the Democratic Party seeks out candidates who appeal to the nation’s fastest-growing ethnic group. Pelosi said Luján has “hit the ground running” in his first few months on the job.
“Chairman Luján has shown he has the energy and the dynamism to lead House Democrats to victory in 2016,” Pelosi said in a statement provided to the Journal this week. “With Ben Ray’s tireless determination, his values, and his deep strategic savvy, Democrats will continue to champion bigger paychecks and better infrastructure for hardworking Americans across the country.”
Asked his priority as DCCC chairman, Luján was direct.
“My top goal is to put the House in play,” he said, adding that he was routinely working 12- to 15-hour days to ensure he can attend to his regular duties as a congressman, as well as lead the DCCC.
Recapturing the House in 2016 would seem to be a tall order, considering that Republicans now hold a 59-seat advantage in the House. With 247 seats over the Democrats’ 188, the GOP has its largest majority since the 71st Congress, which convened from 1929 to 1931.
“Putting the House ‘in play’ is something the DCCC chair should try to do, but it isn’t very realistic this cycle – at least not now,” said Stu Rothenberg, a respected Washington political handicapper and author of the Rothenberg Political Report. “Things could change, of course, but 30 seats is a big number and the way districts are now drawn, there simply aren’t that many great Democratic opportunities.
“In a big Democratic wave, 30 seats is possible,” Rothenberg added. “But there are no signs of that now and presidential years generally don’t generate big partisan waves the way midterm elections do.”
In the fundraising contest, Luján – at least so far – is more than holding his own. In total, House Democrats raised $6.3 million in January, compared with House Republicans’ total of $4.4 million. Luján set the pace personally, transferring $150,000 from his own campaign coffers to the DCCC’s. A half-dozen other Democrats followed suit, shifting $100,000 each to the DCCC.
Ian Prior, spokesman for the Republican National Congressional Committee, said Luján has had trouble recruiting legitimate candidates early in his term and been embarrassed by slip-ups, including an erroneous fundraising email claiming that House Republicans had allowed the Department of Homeland Security to be shut down. Although the DHS funding battle went to the brink, the agency was never closed.
“Thus far into his term as DCCC Chairman, Ben Ray Luján has been unable to recruit legitimate candidates in several competitive House seats, making his delusional predictions of Democrats retaking the House all the more laughable,” Prior said. “Meanwhile, the organization he leads has even been blasted by liberals for its questionable tactics and it has embarrassed itself repeatedly with unforced errors, like sending out fundraising emails erroneously claiming that the Department of Homeland Security had been shut down.”
Meanwhile, Santa Fe Mayor Gonzales said he’s excited to see his old friend Luján returning home as a national political figure. Gonzales also said he expects the Democrats to talk about income disparity – a reality they can witness for themselves in New Mexico’s capital city.
“For all of the incredible cultural assets we have in Santa Fe that are globally recognized, we still have many families that are earning below poverty wages and a lot of our children – at least a third of them – go to school hungry every day or count on our schools to be fed,” Gonzales said. “We have many families who continue to struggle every day to support their kids and be a part of the middle class, so it’s fitting that they’re here and they can see it.”