This weekend, NM Political Report sat down with Congressman Ben Ray Luján for an interview. Luján was back in the state, a day after voting against the Farm Bill, which failed because conservative Republicans and Democrats voted against the proposal.
Luján is the chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, an organization devoted to electing Democrats to the U.S. House of Representatives.
NM Political Report spoke to Lujan about the 2018 elections, immigration and more.
The following Q&A is edited for clarity and length.
NMPR: What have you seen so far this year that you think shows you what to expect from the elections on a congressional level?
Ben Ray Luján: From the onset, I never said this would be easy. We always knew that we were going to be in a tough election cycle. But if we go back to November and December of 2016, coming out of the elections, we saw a lot of excitement and energy and momentum on our side—even before the Women’s March. The Women’s March definitely validated what we were hearing and seeing. And [showed] how one woman, Teresa Shook, could post to ten of her friends before she went to bed, ‘Let’s march.’ And woke up the next morning to 10,000 people responding. And then weeks later, millions showed up all across America
NMPR: Was that a surprise when you saw all that happen, at that scale?
Ben Ray Luján: The scale of what that would amount to [was a surprise]. The notion of one person reaching out to a few of her friends that ultimately culminated in people responding across the country, they were feeling what she was feeling. They answered her call and they quickly spread that across the country.
And oddly enough, the pundits all said, ‘Well, will this energy last a week, will it last a month, will it last through the summer?’ We’ve seen it continue to grow to the point where on the first anniversary of the women’s march, there were more people in small towns and small cities in many parts of the country that were showing up even more than what we saw with the Women’s March.
We saw that coming a bit, we knew history was on our side. The party that holds the White House during the first midterm is at a disadvantage and typically, at least since the 80s, they lose and average of 28 seats.
So that was the history.
And then we soon saw the data. President Trump was elected as a historically unpopular president. His [approval ratings] went from the 40s, dipped down into the high 30s, they’re now back to the low 40s, but no president under 50 percent has ever picked up seats in the midterms. As a matter of fact, they lose them.
NMPR: Does that mean you expect Democrats to retake the House?
Ben Ray Luján: I see a path where Democrats can win back the House. We’ve identified 104 seats across the country that we believe are the most competitive. Candidates that have stepped forward to run all across America, in many cases were recruited as well. We have viable candidates in all 104 districts across the country. Where we are today, [all but] six Republicans running for reelection have an opponent as well.
And that’s again, fueled by this energy. But we’ve seen, even with these special elections, with districts Republicans should have won by 20 points or ten points or more, they were all very close elections, all leading up to Conor Lamb [in Pennsylvania] and what we just saw in Arizona.
But we also know that—if you ask what keeps me up at night—Republicans have endless amounts of outside money. Sheldon Adelson just wrote a $30 million check to the Republican Super PAC, the Koch Brothers have committed $400 million for this election cycle, President Trump committed $100 million to his efforts. We’re continuing to see all that outside, secret money pour in. So that worries me. And then we’re playing in Republican gerrymandered districts from 2011, as well. So these are tough lines. But we’re going to fight for every inch.
We’re going to win back the House because we’ll win a lot of close elections through 2018. So it’s going to be a battle, but I’m confident that if we all do our part, we can win back the House.
NMPR: You mentioned the history, the first midterm after a new president, do you think that means that Donald Trump will be a big part of the messaging from the DCCC and other Democrats? Or is it going to be more focused on local issues?
Ben Ray Luján: I don’t know that Democrats need to talk about President Trump a lot. No one’s going to talk about President Trump more than President Trump. It doesn’t matter what kind of scandal he’s tied to, it doesn’t matter what investigation he’s tied to, what disrespectful tweet or comment he makes—President Trump himself will remind us about all of that.
So I don’t think we need to talk about him while we’re out on the campaign trial. As a matter of fact, what we’ve heard from a lot of people is they’re tired of talking about the president, they’re tired of his tweeting, they’re tired of the fact that he’s not presidential. And so let’s talk about what matters to the American people.
We’re seeing in district after district, like Conor Lamb, where candidates are able to talk about real issues that are affecting their constituents, understanding that wages and salaries are not keeping up with daily costs. That prescription drug prices are going up. We’ve seen what House Republicans and this president have done to destabilize the health marketplace: we’re seeing premiums increase across the country. We saw a tax on repeal and replace that Republicans promised to help lower costs on the American people, but what their legislation actually would have resulted in is increased premiums and increased out-of-pocket costs and taking protections away from people with preexisting conditions. We saw a tax package that moved 83 percent of the benefits to corporations and the most wealthy in the country when Republicans promised to prioritize middle class, hard-working families—and they ignored that. Republicans and this administration promised an infrastructure package in America. They have not delivered on that. And so we need to have conversations around all of these very important issues.
And so that’s why you won’t hear us talking about the president a lot, if any this cycle. He’ll be doing it for us.
NMPR: More locally, we have two open seats in New Mexico, the first time we’ve had two or more open seats since you were [first] elected [in 2008]. What do you think the prospects are of keeping your seat in addition to CD1 and even taking CD2?
Ben Ray Luján: While I don’t have a primary opponent this cycle, we do have a Republican and Libertarian challenger and we’re taking the race really seriously. I assembled a strong campaign team and we’ve been reaching out to our constituents from a campaign perspective since October of 2016. Even leading up to the state Democratic convention, my campaign went out and did trainings for all of the incredible people that I represent here in New Mexico that were getting involved, that wanted to participate, that wanted to be part of the nominating process and that have continued to organize in their communities. Like the incredible grassroots organizations like Indivisible, Swing Lift and Run for Something. They’re doing incredible work, and we’ve been working with them and will continue to.
I hope that I will continue to hold and earn the trust of my constituents and we’re going to work hard to do that.
In the 1st Congressional District, I think it’s great that we have such strong candidates who are running. And they’re running based on who they are and how they’ll be able to deliver for their constituents, as opposed to going at one another. I think that’s been great. I think our prospects for holding the 1st District are strong. It’s one of those seats that sometimes can be a little competitive. But nevertheless, we’re going to fight to hold it and I’m confident we will.
In the 2nd Congressional District, remember the last time that we won this district, it was open as well. We’re in a similar situation [this year]. You have Republicans involved in what has become a very personal and ugly primary. They’re going at one another, there are divisions down there.
And I think that on our side, you’re seeing some strength from our candidates. I think Xochitl Torres-Small, she comes out of that primary. We’ve named her to the DCCC’s red-to-blue program and she’s been working hard. But it’s ultimately up to the voters in the 2nd Congressional District, [on] who is going to be their nominee and how we’ll win the seat.
But I think we’ll have a very good chance to win the 2nd Congressional District as well. But we’re going to have to fight.
A lot of voters that voted for President Obama in ‘08 and ‘12, they voted for President Trump in 2016 and we have work to do to make sure that we’re earning that trust back and that we’re listening to them and addressing their concerns.
NMPR: You mentioned Xochitl Torres-Small [in the 2nd Congressional District] that you put her in the red-to-blue program. How does the DCCC decide which primaries to get involved in? It can be controversial.
Ben Ray Luján: Every district is unique. Especially in this cycle. There’s so much at stake right now. As we look at the concerns that we see coming out of this administration and the importance of restoring checks and balance in Congress, we need to make sure that we have strong candidates in all of these races across the country. Grassroots organizations, people that are getting involved, they deserve to have strong candidates all the way through.
And ultimately, as I said earlier, it’s up to the voters.
Look at California, for example. A unique environment in California, Washington state and in Georgia, where the top two out of a primary [with candidates from all parties] face each other for the general. Which means you could have two Republicans surface as the top two in the primary that face each other in the general election and block out Democrats from even having a candidate.
We learned a lot from a race with Congressman Pete Aguilar back in 2012. When there wasn’t a consolidation or investment from the DCCC behind Pete. Ultimately, he came in third from the primary and Democrats got blocked out a race we should have won. In 2014, the DCCC made a decision under previous chair to get behind and support Aguilar. And ultimately he made it into the top two and then won the seat. We did the same thing in 2016 with Congressman Salud Carbajal out of California, in a Santa Barbara district. And so we’ve learned a lot from that.
And that’s why where it’s an open seat like with Congressman Ed Royce’s retirement, an open seat with the announcement of Congressman [Darrell] Issa announcing his retirement, a competitive seat with Congressman Dana Rohrabacher’s seat, you’ve seen the committee work with local organizations and with labor to make sure we have a strong candidate that can get through. Those are the kind of discussions that we’ve been making, especially with competitive seats out in California.
All of these seats matter so very much. And in order for us to win a majority, we cannot be kept out of any general election in the country.
NMPR: How do you engage the grassroots activists that want to help but don’t always necessarily trust the bigger organizations? How do you get them engaged?
Ben Ray Luján: You have to do the best that you can to sit down and visit with these organizations, with people that are giving so much of themselves and their time to organize their communities, their precincts, their neighborhoods. Volunteering, getting more people involved, all of that. I think they’re doing extraordinary work. That’s what we’ve been doing in my congressional district, it’s what we’re doing across the country.
Our executive director, Dan Sena—who’s New Mexican—at the DCCC, he’s done a great job of reaching out to national leaders within Indivisible, Swing Left, with Sen. [Bernie] Sanders’ campaign as well. They talk on a regular basis, they meet on a regular basis. What we’ve tried to do in every congressional district, our field organizers, it’s incumbent on them and our candidates to get to know the members of these grassroots organizations and earn their trust. I think that’s critically important.
In California for example, we have relationships with over 200 organizations. As I’ve [said to] our DCCC team and our candidates, it’s not enough to have a relationship with these organizations, you have to have their trust and a partnership with these organizations.
Like we saw in Alabama, with the Senate campaign there, the party can’t go in and tell people and organizations, ‘Here is how you’re going to do it and if you don’t do it this way [we’re] not going to help.’ What Congresswoman Terri Sewell did down there in working with these grassroots organizations, predominantly a lot of strong, incredible African-American women, is she worked with the various committees and said ‘Here’s what we need, here’s how your help makes a difference so that we can have the tools we need to go out and win.’ That was an important shift that I think the parties involved responded to and that I certainly learned a lot from.
In the past, the party structure from the Democratic Party and even our counterparts, grassroots organizations were not always embraced. They were not seen as partners. And I think that needs to change. You need to understand the strength of our grassroots. And our committees are developing tools to forge these partnerships with grassroots as well. They’re the now, they’re the future, they’re the strength and counterbalance that we have to that outside Republican money. It’s the grassroots that are going to ultimately decide who is going to be the president in 2020 and who’s going to control the Congress after the 2018 election cycle.
NMPR: It seems like immigration efforts are really popular. What need to be done to get these passed? Are these something that won’t be done until after the election?
Ben Ray Luján: There are two colleagues on our side of the aisle that have been doing incredible work on this. One is Congressman Pete Aguilar out of California, and the other is my colleague here from New Mexico, Michelle Lujan Grisham, who is the chair of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus. [Through] every roadblock that Republicans have put up, they’ve found ways to continue that conversation. They’ve reached out to Democratic leadership, to Republican leadership, to find a path forward to get the Dream Act passed or a piece of legislation that would overturn or address what President Trump did in taking away protections from Dreamers across America.
With the discharge petition that has been written about a lot recently, it’s a procedural tool that is used when the majority party refuses to put a piece of legislation on the floor, you work to get 218 members of the House, Democrats and Republicans, to sign the petition. Then you can force a vote on whatever the petition calls for.
Note: As of this writing, 20 Republicans and 176 Democrats have signed onto the discharge petition. Lujan and Lujan Grisham, both Democrats, have signed onto the petition, though Congressman Steve Pearce, a Republican, has not.
That would force a vote before the election. It would set a clock that would force a vote before we leave for home in August. …
There’s a compromise bill that’s not one that we as Democrats would write if we were in charge, but that Pete Aguilar and Will Hurd put together. We believe that’s the bill that would receive the most votes coming out of the House. That way you provide certainty to the Dreamers that are living in the U.S. right now, that are living in fear every day. I’m hopeful that there’s a path forward to get that done.
Speaker Paul Ryan and [Majority Leader and possible future Speaker] Kevin McCarthy have recently said that they don’t want that bill to come to the floor because it would jeopardize them maybe maintaining [their] majority.
That’s not what this should be about. This shouldn’t be about party, this isn’t about Kevin McCarthy and Speaker Paul Ryan maintaining their political security, this is about the good of the country and especially looking at the state of the economy in the United States and these Dreamers in the United States and moving the bill forward.
Kevin McCarthy and Speaker Ryan have shown their colors. And I’m hopeful that enough of our colleagues, especially in the days of the farm bill going down, will come forward and lend their voices to this and do what’s right for Dreamers across the country.
NMPR: You mentioned the Women’s March earlier, then after that we saw the #MeToo movement and addressing sexual harassment, it hit Congress like it’s hit every other facet of life. In your dad’s old state House seat [in the Santa Fe area], one of the candidates is facing allegations [of sexual harassment]. What kind of procedures need to be done to make sure that this is adjudicated fairly and that women are safe?
Ben Ray Luján: As I’ve said at the federal level, in Congress, when this issue has come forward with some of our colleagues as well, and a question with others out there I’ve been very clear that no one guilty of sexual harassment, of sexual abuse, of anything like that deserves to hold public office. And I believe that.
As a result of many cases, but especially the courageous women that have come forward that were not believed in the past, Congress, through Jackie Speier, there have been policies that have shifted, which is about time. This should have been done a long time ago. To implement policies that root out sexual harassment and sexual abuse. Not just in Congress, but across the country.
That’s what’s so important about the Me Too movement and Time’s Up, is one, victims need to be believed.
But it also shows that there needs to be important processes that are set up immediately to take every one of these allegation and look into them quickly and thoroughly.
At the state legislative level, after last year, policies were put in place with bipartisan, small committees to quickly look into allegations and I think that’s important. Again, no one that’s guilty of sexual harassment or sexual abuse should be allowed to hold public office.