Rep. Ben Ray Luján was already feeling good about the Democrats’ chances of picking up U.S. House seats in the fall elections, but last week he sounded downright bullish on the prospect during an hourlong meeting with regional reporters in Washington.
I organized the session with 15 scribes from around the country to give my colleagues a chance to hear directly from the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee chairman, who is responsible for recruiting House candidates and helping them get their campaigns up and running.
Luján was appointed to the leadership position by House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi in late 2014, and he has had a steep mountain to climb. After all, Democrats need to pick up 30 seats to reclaim the U.S. House.
But Luján said – as he did a month ago in this space – that the campaign of Republican presidential front-runner Donald Trump is making his job easier.
“If Donald Trump continues to speak and be just himself then he’s going to motivate our base as much as anyone,” Luján said, noting that Trump is “under water” in opinion polls of women, minorities and millennials.
“The guy is just incredible.”
But Luján wasn’t prepared to predict a Democratic House takeover.
“The only thing Republicans don’t know is how many seats they truly will lose or how bad it will be … we are on offense – we’ll pick up seats and win seats,” Luján said.
“No doubt, I see Republicans losing seats in the Congress the year. The question is how bad will it be for them?” he said.
Luján’s prediction is little more than wishful thinking, according to House Republicans.
“House Democrats have been pushing their far-fetched fantasy about a wave election sweeping them to a majority every cycle since voters rejected Nancy Pelosi’s speakership in 2010,” said Katie Martin, the National Republican Congressional Committee’s spokeswoman. “Here in the real world, a combination of their recruiting failures in races across the country and their own presidential candidate’s abysmal favorability ratings ensure that Democrats’ chances of winning the majority this year are as laughable as they were in 2012 and 2014.”
Weak candidate recruitment has been the rap on Luján – at least from the Republicans – from his earliest days on the DCCC job. He dismissed the criticism when I asked him about it on Thursday.
“Anytime you see positive movement and traction, our Republican counterparts try to tear it apart,” Luján said. “Republicans are having to defend seats that should not be on the map (because they are in historically safe GOP districts), but they are on the map and they have to worry about it. It speaks volumes. The Republicans are having to play defense in a very profound way.”
I also asked Luján about New Mexico’s 2nd Congressional District, where the entrenched Republican Rep. Steve Pearce will be difficult to beat, as always. Merrie Lee Soules, a Democratic former General Motors executive and contractor at White Sands Missile Range from Las Cruces, is challenging Pearce for the seat. Soules is the sister of state Sen. William P. Soules, D-Las Cruces.
Luján said Soules is a good, credible candidate who hails from a well-known family. But he didn’t say she could beat Pearce.
“Who knows what happens when we look at New Mexico, but we’ll be working hard,” Luján said, adding that demographic changes in the 2nd District could, at least eventually, break Pearce’s lock on the seat.
“I’m excited about what we’re seeing there; the southern district of New Mexico is already a 50 percent Latino district and it’s growing,” Luján said, suggesting that those new Hispanic voters will be Democrats.
And yes, you can expect Luján and the DCCC to try to tarnish Pearce with Trump’s problems among certain voting blocs. Pearce told The Associated Press last week that he would back Trump if he secures the nomination. That is not surprising. Most Republican members of Congress will have no choice but to support their party’s nominee. It’s a prospect that Luján seemed to relish.
“All across the country Republicans running for Congress or other offices are between a rock and a hard place,” Luján said. “They either say they are with Trump and alienate everyone who is opposed to Trump, or they say they are not with Trump and they alienate the Trump supporters. They can only dance that dance for so long.”