Keeping the House Democratic

Md.'s Chris Van Hollen continues his rise in the party's hierarchy

May 13, 2007|By Matthew Hay Brown | Matthew Hay Brown,Sun Reporter

Washington -- While the political world is focusing on next year's presidential contest, one Maryland congressman is spending his time on 435 races that might have as much bearing on the future of the nation.

It's Chris Van Hollen's job as chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee to ensure that his party maintains control of Congress into the next administration.

Van Hollen hopes to deepen the party's inroads in suburban districts, where voters in recent elections have been going Republican, and where big-city rates can make television advertising prohibitively expensive.

"You need to win them over one by one," he said. "It's not a place where there's a lot of machine politics. It's not a question of just going around and getting endorsements from a few key people and expecting everyone else to follow suit. It needs to be more retail politics."

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi gave Van Hollen the job of coordinating the Democratic campaign effort for 2008 after the party's takeover of the House last fall. She cited his "depth of legislative experience" -- including 12 years in Annapolis -- and "political savvy." Van Hollen helped then-DCCC Chairman Rahm Emanuel, the hard-charging Chicago congressman, recruit moderate Democrats to run in conservative districts last year. As a reward for his success, Emanuel was named chairman of the House Democratic Caucus.

Van Hollen says he didn't campaign for chair of the DCCC -- the "D-triple-C," or "D-trip" -- but the appointment continues his ascent within the party. Five years ago, he was a state senator little known outside Montgomery County.

In his first race for Congress, Van Hollen beat Kennedy cousin Mark Shriver in the primary and unseated eight-term Republican Rep. Constance A. Morella. Now in his third term in Washington, he sits on the Ways and Means Committee, a valuable perch for raising campaign money, and is mentioned as a future Senate candidate.

He says he's now focused on building the Democratic majority.

The even-tempered Van Hollen, whose slim frame and curly blond hair make him look younger than his 47 years, presents a sharp contrast to his predecessor, Emanuel, the former Bill Clinton protege described as ruthless in the pursuit of electoral success. Rep. Artur Davis, Democrat of Alabama, describes a difference.

"Sometimes the chair has to do a lot of heavy lifting," Davis said. "On dues, on encouraging more member involvement, on pushing members to help recruit people to run in their state. And for a D-trip chair to be successful, there needs to be strong goodwill and strong support within the caucus.

"Rahm had that because there was extraordinary respect for his political talent. And even when Rahm had sharp edges, there was a sense that his talent and his command was so strong that people responded to that.

"Chris has a great deal of respect based on the substance, but Chris is an extremely well-liked member as well."

One of Van Hollen's first acts as chairman was to set up a meeting with Democratic National Chairman Howard Dean. Through much of the last election cycle, Emanuel and Dean sparred over where to spend the party's money. Dean predicts "an easier relationship" with Van Hollen.

"We think a lot alike," said the former Vermont governor and presidential candidate. "He's tough-minded, which is good, but I think he's interested in trying to forge an alliance."

Democrats are optimistic about building their Senate majority, where Republicans must defend 21 seats next year, to the Democrats' 12. But in the House, everyone is up for re-election.

"The good news is that we won a lot of marginal seats," Democratic Leader Steny H. Hoyer said. "The bad news is we've got to defend a lot of marginal seats."

And they'll be doing it during a presidential election, when districts tend to vote their traditional leanings, and members must compete with presidential candidates for money and attention.

Democrats now hold 61 seats in districts that voted for President Bush in 2000 and 2004. And there's no guarantee that the conditions that aided them in 2006 -- voter frustration with the war in Iraq, public disapproval of Bush and a rash of scandals involving Republicans -- will prove as influential in 2008.

Still, analyst Stuart Rothenberg calls the position of the Democrats "quite good."

"The national environment continues to favor them," said Rothenberg, the editor of the nonpartisan Rothenberg Political Report.

"Is there a significant desire for change in 2008? ... There may be. [But] when people think of change, they still think of, `Get rid of George Bush and the Republicans.' "

The challenge for Democrats, he said, is "simply broadening the playing field -- finding enough good challengers and enough competitive districts. After you win 30 seats, you've probably won many of your better opportunities. So what you're left with is people who in a landslide year couldn't win."

Van Hollen says it's a problem he's glad to have.

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