Gonzales

Democrats Look to Dan Sena to Secure House Majority

Veteran operative is the first Latino to direct a party campaign committee

Dan Sena, executive director of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, is interviewed in his Washington office on August 14, 2017. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photo)

Armed with a Nokia cellphone and a couple of semesters of graduate school, Dan Sena was ready for battle.

It was 1998, and the future executive director of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee was going to be a key cog in his party’s effort to take over a House seat in New Mexico, even though at the time his previous professional highlights included teaching tennis at a country club, washing dishes on his college campus and selling CDs at the Villa Linda Mall.

Then Sena, dressed in a suit and tie, got a reality check on appropriate canvassing attire from veteran Democratic consultant Sue Burnside.

“I remember her saying, ‘What the heck are you wearing?’” he recalled. “I told her, ‘I’m here to help you win.’ She said, ‘Go home and put some real clothes on. You don’t have any idea. You’re going to walk.’” 

Over the next two decades, Sena honed his skills in federal, state and local campaigns and now leads the Democrats’ House campaign operation as it seeks to recapture the majority.

Watch: Congressional Republicans Had Wonky Plans for the Week. Then Trump Happened

The Maloof mess

Back in 1998, Sena felt called home to New Mexico to work on the special election in the Albuquerque-based 1st District. The University of Arizona graduate left Washington, D.C., where he was attending George Washington University’s Graduate School of Political Management, to spend the spring and early summer canvassing — going door to door, with a clipboard in hand.

“He was humble and ready to go to work,” Burnside remembered. “He came to his shift an hour early to do extra things.” He could have played his trump card, according to Burnside, considering his father was chairman of the state Democratic Party, but Sena chose to never tell his fellow canvassers.

Democrats’ hopes of winning the GOP seat faded when they nominated 31-year-old multimillionaire Phil Maloof, a state senator who wasn’t known for his intellectual heft. Republican Heather A. Wilson won the race by 5 points.

“The campaign was just hell and he never showed a moment of stress,” Burnside recalled. “I immediately offered him a job.”

Santa Fe start

Sena’s Hispanic father ran a van company, eventually receiving his MBA from Harvard, while his Irish mother taught fourth grade. His great-uncle, Dennis Chavez, served in the New Mexico Legislature in the 1920s and, in 1940, became the first person of Hispanic descent elected to a full term in the U.S. Senate.

“In the family, politics is a noble profession,” Sena said.

Now 42, Sena grew up in Santa Fe about 20 minutes away from his current boss, DCCC Chairman Ben Ray Luján, whose father was speaker of the New Mexico House. Back in 1998, Sena worked on Democrat Tom Udall’s successful 3rd District race and spent time at the Lujáns’ home since it was a staging area for the campaign.

In the trenches

Burnside and Sena had to build a New Mexico voter file from scratch for the Udall race, and she subsequently deployed him to a batch of races in California over the next few years.

He helped Joe Baca defeat Martha Macías Brown and the political establishment in a 1999 special election to replace her late husband, and he later worked on Jane Harman’s coordinated campaign. Sena also gathered signatures against the National Rifle Association to pressure the Utah Legislature to review its gun policies. (It didn’t work.) And he managed longtime City Councilmember Joel Wachs’ bid for mayor of Los Angeles in 2001.

“I was 25 and shouldn’t have been managing,” Sena recalled. Wachs went from one of the front-runners to a distant fourth place finish (11 percent) in the primary. “I drove that campaign directly into the ground,” Sena said.

In 2004, Sena helped register more than 250,000 Latino and Native American voters nationwide through Moving America Forward, the 501(c)(3) organized by New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson. Sena eventually worked on Richardson’s 2008 bid to become the first Hispanic president of the United States, but the governor dropped out after early disappointing finishes. All was not lost, however, considering the campaign in Iowa connected Sena with his future wife Elizabeth, now a partner at Greenberg Quinlan Rosner Research.

Sena returned to the Land of Enchantment in 2008 as field director for Udall’s 61 percent to 39 percent victory for an open GOP Senate seat.

The next year, he worked on Blackberry co-founder Jim Balsillie’s unsuccessful effort to purchase the Phoenix Coyotes of the National Hockey League. And at the end of the 2010 cycle, Sena worked for Patriot Majority, Nevada Sen. Harry Reid’s independent expenditure committee, and directed Spanish media in the Democrat’s 5-point win over Sharron Angle.

Going national

But Sena wasn’t satisfied. For two weeks, he lived at the Days Inn in Ballston, Virginia, waiting for the Democratic Governors Association to call him back for an interview for a second stint. (He spent the 2006 cycle there as deputy political director.)

“We wanted someone who was experienced, but still full of energy,” said Colm O’Comartun, then the DGA’s executive director and a top aide to Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley. “He brought a different perspective to the map that was different than the usual DC-insider perspective, and some geographic balance.”

After a cycle as DGA political director, Sena took a step back from politics. “I was interested in what life was like as a normal person,” he said. He took a job with Share our Strength, building capacity for the group’s “No Kid Hungry” campaign. “I was trying to think through how to balance marriage, a family, and work,” he recalled. “In the end, I wanted to win elections.”

When Udall’s 2014 re-election race tightened, Sena was called in to take the reigns. “When I’m in a tight spot, I want Dan Sena by my side,” the senator said.

“He’s like part of my family,” said Udall, whose daughter grew up with Sena. “He does things by the book, and always stays on top of all the important data you need to evaluate in making campaign decisions.”

He ran the campaign from a dilapidated building in the historic Nob Hill neighborhood of Albuquerque. Staffers recalled him choosing to share an office the size of a closet with the finance director to free up space for the rest of the staff, and carving out time each day for his wife and daughter.

“I drew a moat around those [voters] most likely to leave,” Sena said about running in a cycle that spiraled away from Democrats nationally. Udall won re-election by 11 points.

Back to the field

Sena returned to Washington to work for the DCCC as deputy executive director for voter contact and analytics during the 2016 cycle, in which Democrats netted six seats but fell short of expectations. Now Sena is the first Latino to direct a party campaign committee.

“Diversity is very important to me. And having an E.D. with all the skill sets that Dan has is first critical,” Luján said, while stressing the impact of younger, minority staffers seeing a person of color who grew up on a dirt road running a committee that will raise and spend at least $200 million.

“Coming into the 2018 cycle, I knew it would be unlike anything we’ve experienced,” Luján said. “As we looked at what we needed, we needed an agile strategist at the helm, someone who can work smart and develop partnerships with a number of grass-roots organizations.”

“We’re living in a new world and our campaigns have to adapt,” said Sena, who deployed a field program earlier than at any point in the committee’s history.

While historical midterm trends favor the minority party, the cycle is proving to be a challenge amid Democratic infighting over their ideological and strategic direction and public criticism of the DCCC.

“I know from my career that it can be tough to find a perfect balance between all groups, but ultimately we’ll all be unified to take back the House,” Sena said.

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