Still, Lujan admits that it will be an uphill battle. In 2016, a presidential year—which usually boosts Democratic turnout—he said Democrats should safely pick up eight to 10 seats, a modest pickup that would still leave the party nearly 40 votes short of the majority. If it turns out to be a good year for Democrats, those numbers could grow substantially, though Lujan was unwilling to offer a hard figure.
The majority, he said, is still in play, although it might take an unprecedented Democratic wave to make it happen. “If a Democratic president wins 49 of 50 states, I think the math is pretty clear on what that wave would look like,” he said. “What I’m preparing for is whatever scenario comes our way.”
Most Democrats were unwilling to speculate on just what is achievable for the DCCC, but acknowledge that it would take a long-shot scenario to overtake the GOP. “I don't think [Democrats can win back the House], but I think we can get awfully close,” said Rep. Marcia Fudge. “Stranger things have happened.”
Fudge had harsh words for the caucus’s leadership this spring, accusing them of being unwilling to admit just how badly Democrats were defeated. But she’s been pleased so far with Lujan’s work to steer the committee. “The direction is very different,” she said. “He took to heart some of the criticisms that members had.”
Of course, any praise of Lujan’s new-and-improved approach to DCCC is seen by some as veiled criticism of his predecessor, Rep. Steve Israel. But members were careful not to explicitly blame Israel for the party’s past failures, and many went out of their way to acknowledge the difficult circumstances he faced.
Israel, long a favorite of Pelosi, was named to lead the caucus’s newly-formed messaging team soon after he stepped down at the DCCC, and he and Lujan say they work closely together to form House Democrats’ narrative ahead of 2016—one Lujan says will be focused on pocketbook issues. “It’s eggs and milk and the cost of those goods to be able to feed your kids, to keep a roof over your head,” he said. “To be able to work with dignity and take care of your family.”
Israel put it a little more bluntly. “In 2016, the message is, ’It’s my paycheck, stupid.’”
Even with the increased message coordination, Israel cautioned, many of the factors that decide an election are outside of the DCCC chair’s control. “Chairing the DCCC often involves management of the wind,” he said. “You inherit an environment, a good environment or a bad environment, and you just have to exploit the good environment and you have to defend against the bad environment. It’s managing meteorology.”
The DCCC, Lujan said, is focused on about 70 battleground races. In the early going, he’s encouraged by what he sees. In the 21 most-vulnerable GOP-held districts, Democrats have already lined up 17 recruits. Meanwhile, the dozen incumbent Democrats that he’s focused on protecting have drawn only four challengers. And the committee has its eye on the 49 Republican seats in districts that President Obama won or narrowly lost.