Van Hollen vs. the GOP

October 07, 2002|By Jules Witcover

WHEATON -- Of all the Republicans in Congress facing re-election challenges this fall, probably none is more intensely targeted than Connie Morella of Maryland, whose newly revamped House district has more registered Democrats than any other in the country that is represented by a Republican.

But Ms. Morella, a moderate who often bucks her own party in an unending fight for political survival and has thrived on strong constituent services for 16 years in "enemy" territory, seems unfazed. She exudes confidence that her constituents will stick with her despite actions in the Democratic-controlled legislature in Annapolis to make her district even more Democratic than it was in the 1990s.

In a sense, her Democratic opponent, state Sen. Chris Van Hollen, is not running against her. He voted for the redistricting that has put a slice of strongly Democratic Prince George's County in with more affluent Montgomery County to make up Ms. Morella's new bailiwick.

Rather, his target is her party and, specifically, its prospective majority leader in the House come January, Majority Whip Tom DeLay of Texas. With Majority Leader Dick Armey of Texas retiring, the abrasive Mr. DeLay -- the Republican most House Democrats love to hate -- is in line to move up to the No. 2 post if the Republicans retain House control.

At a pitch by Mr. Van Hollen for Latino support at the El Boqueron Restaurant here, a supporter was asked why he would vote for the Democratic nominee. "He's not going to be voting for Tom DeLay," he said. "That's the first vote you cast in the House."

The reference was clear. Ms. Morella, though often sharply at odds with her party's leadership and specifically with the ultraconservative Mr. DeLay, has always voted with the GOP to organize the House leadership and would do so if re-elected.

House control is particularly critical this fall because the Democrats can regain it if they can pick up only six seats. Ms. Morella's could be one of them in light of the strong Democratic registration in the new district.

But Mr. Van Hollen, fresh from a primary victory over Kennedy kin Mark Shriver, avoids taking on the old survivalist and instead touts his own work in Annapolis for many of the same constituents now in the new 8th Congressional District. But he also points to Ms. Morella's voting for Republican organization of the House as a strong reason for district Democrats to kiss her goodbye in November.

While it's only part of his message, he says, "it's a very important point to make that the very first vote which is cast for the Republican leadership guarantees that you're going to get the Republican agenda for the next two years. So even though she may not always vote for bad legislation, she enables, by virtue of her first vote, bad policies and legislation by Tom DeLay and the Republican leaders in the House."

Mr. Van Hollen, aware of his opponent's cross-party appeal, goes on: "I'm not being critical of Connie Morella. I don't think the issue is Connie. The issue in the campaign is the issues I'm running on and the leadership I hope to bring to the Congress." As a freshman, however, Mr. Van Hollen could not hope to have the influence that Ms. Morella has after 16 years in the House.

The incumbent, while obviously distressed that the Democratic state legislature has, as she puts it, "gerrymandered my seat to put me in retirement," says it has "actually energized me and my supporters."

As for Mr. DeLay, she says: "I just ignore him. I'm not Tom DeLay, and he's going to be elected whether I vote for him or not."

The differences between Ms. Morella and Mr. Van Hollen are not great given Ms. Morella's survival instincts in Democratic-land. Even on Iraq, both express concern about President Bush's moves toward a unilateral pre-emptive strike, and Ms. Morella says it's a "possibility" she may vote against the Republican president.

Mr. Van Hollen has to hope that Ms. Morella's party label will at last catch up with her in this new, more Democratic district. But she has beaten the rap eight times before and is still standing, with about a 10-1 bulge in campaign funds. DeLay and Co. may not love Ms. Morella, but they, too, want her vote when the House reorganizes in January.

Jules Witcover writes from The Sun's Washington bureau. His column appears Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays.

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