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Time for a Democratic Reboot? The Party's House Campaign Chair Doesn't Think So

DCCC's Ben Ray Lujan offers a could've-been-worse review of the 2014 midterms.

WASHINGTON, DC - JULY 11: U.S. Rep. Ben Luján (D-NM) (5th L) speaks as (L-R) Rep. Tony Cardenas (D-CA), Rep. Lucille Roybal-Allard (D-CA), Rep. Luis Gutierrez (D-IL), Rep. Loretta Sanchez (D-CA), and Rep. Rubén Hinojosa (D-TX) listen during a news conference July 11, 2014 on Capitol Hill in Washington, DC. The Congressional Hispanic Caucus held a news conference to discuss unaccompanied minors crossing the U.S. border. (Photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images) (Alex Wong/Getty Images)

After another disappointing election for House Democrats, one that gave Republicans their largest majority in almost a century, the new chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee has a seemingly incongruous message: Keep calm and carry on.

DCCC Chairman Ben Ray Lujan is adamant, despite a 13-seat loss in November, that the committee has more to build on than to fix. After all, you don't have to make mistakes to lose an election, especially in the kind of horrible environment Democrats faced this year.

Yet even some fellow Democrats who acknowledge that truth are chafing at the notion after being relegated to a 188-seat minority in the House of Representatives.

"You'll see where some of those shifts are going to take place," Lujan said in an interview in his new DCCC office. "But I think we really have to take into consideration that based on some of the modeling and the national mood last cycle "¦ we could have lost 20 or more seats."

"The team we had in place "¦ kept that to 13," Lujan said. "As we're moving into all of this, that's something to build off of."

The committee has numerous building blocks—its field program, digital program, aggressive recruiting, and especially its strong fundraising—for 2016 that helped mitigate November's losses and will position the party to take advantage when there is a better political environment in the future, Lujan said. Unlike the political environment or overall party messaging, those factors are under the DCCC's complete control.

But some Democrats on and off Capitol Hill have grown concerned since the election about whether the DCCC is reacting with enough urgency to another disappointing election result. Lujan's first move as chairman was to retain Executive Director Kelly Ward, who echoed the new chairman's could've-been-worse attitude in a statement when she was rehired. The Democratic National Committee has convened a "Victory Task Force" to pinpoint areas where the party "can strengthen and improve operations," but Lujan didn't offer specifics on areas where the DCCC could improve.

Asked to name one thing he would change at the committee after having some time to review things, Lujan said, "We want to win more seats." And, he said, he wants to keep fellow members engaged with the committee.

That's hardly a reboot.

"After three cycles of underperforming expectations, that would seem to highlight the need for new thinking," said one Democratic consultant who asked for anonymity to speak freely. (The consultant compared the DCCC's line to Kevin Bacon's character in Animal House, who shouts, "Remain calm! All is well!" during the movie's climactic stampede.) "I would think that at some point they're going to have a problem convincing donors to give money without results."

That complaint is not universal, though. "I'm frankly amazed at the money they raised and that they didn't lose more seats," said Steve Elmendorf, a Democratic lobbyist and donor. "People are always frustrated when you don't win, but what do you want to do? "¦ I have not heard any undercurrent or overcurrent of it being the DCCC's fault or anything."

The DCCC outraised its Republican counterpart in both of outgoing Chairman Steve Israel's cycles at the helm, a virtually unprecedented accomplishment for the party out of power and one that likely saved seats.

Much of that funding came through the committee's digital department, which doubled in size under Israel and drove the DCCC's fundraising, including over 4 million individual donations. Also on the digital front, the committee spent over $3 million messaging persuadable voters online in 2014 along with over $67 million on TV ads.

On the campaign side, Lujan is reprising Israel's early recruiting efforts from years past. One of Democrats' losing 2014 candidates, Emily Cain of Maine, came to the DCCC Wednesday morning for meetings with Lujan and other party leaders about running for the Democratic-leaning district again in 2016. Lujan cited districts Democrats lost in Nevada and Iowa, plus a GOP-held open seat in the Philadelphia suburbs, as top targets on which he's already focused.

President Obama carried 26 GOP-held districts when he won reelection in 2012, including the Maine seat that Lujan wants Cain to run for again.

And Lujan also cited a committee field program—guided this year by an internal targeting department—that attempted about 42 million voter contacts in 2014 and registered 80,000 new voters. In some districts, like Rep.-elect Gwen Graham's, the number of new DCCC-registered voters was bigger than the Democratic candidates' winning margins.

"People don't dismiss field, but it's not something everybody knows how to do well," said MaryAnne Pintar, who managed Democratic Rep. Scott Peters's reelection campaign in San Diego. Peters won by about 6,000 votes. "If you're a campaign manager, you are paying attention to budget and mail and TV and earned media messaging and more, and having their assistance and early support on the field end was tremendous."

In a postelection conference call for House Democrats and a subsequent caucus meeting, both reelected and defeated members lined up to voice their support for the DCCC. One of them was Peters, who touted the field program (as did Reps. Ron Barber, Ami Bera, Julia Brownley, Elizabeth Esty, and Rick Nolan), according to a source in the room at the Nov. 13 caucus meeting. Outgoing Rep. Carol Shea-Porter said Israel and the committee he led didn't deserve "any of the criticism he's getting," according to the source. "I lost my district by 4 points and Jeanne Shaheen lost it too," Shea-Porter reportedly said. "It wasn't about a move here or a move there."

But the post-election call "struck a number of members as problematic," said one House Democratic aide. "I think that for a lot of them there was a feeling there wasn't going to be any opportunity to have an honest discussion of what happened in the cycle. The idea that the day after a tough election was just going to be a litany of thank yous, it just didn't connect."

Still, House Democrats didn't suffer the kind of shocking losses—like losing the Maryland gubernatorial race—that plagued other arms of their party. A Democratic source noted that nearly half of the DCCC's independent expenditures went into races that the party won, including a number of very tight contests, despite national polling showing a worse political environment than 2010, by some measures. Lujan pledged that the DCCC is "going to be on offense" in two years and said "the House is definitely going to be in play in 2016."

Democrats would need to gain 30 seats to retake the House, a tall order that has some in the party wondering if they might need a new round of redistricting or a GOP president as a foil in order to take the majority once more. Lujan said he's optimistic that higher turnout in 2016 will solve some of the party's problems.

"We need more people voting," Lujan said. "We saw turnout across the country at the lowest it's been in a long, long time, so the more we can get people excited about getting to the polls, which happens in presidential election years, is something I'm looking forward to and why I think we'll be on offense instead of defense."