Van Hollen aims to 'beat history'

July 16, 2008|By THOMAS F. SCHALLER

Rep. Chris Van Hollen feels history peering over his shoulder.

Tapped by Rep. Nancy Pelosi after she ascended to the House speaker's office to succeed Rep. Rahm Emanuel as chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee for the 2007-2008 election cycle, the third-term congressman from Maryland's 8th District is tasked with protecting - or better, expanding - the speaker's thin majority in the House of Representatives.

Ms. Pelosi's majority and speakership were won on the strength of 30 seats Democrats flipped in 2006. Mr. Van Hollen served as Mr. Emanuel's recruitment director at the DCCC last cycle, but this time around the full responsibility for House Democrats falls upon his shoulders.

"History says that after a wave election, like 2006, the party that benefited usually loses seats the next cycle," Mr. Van Hollen told me during a wide-ranging conversation. "I did have some mixed feelings [taking this job], knowing what history tells you."

Undeterred, Mr. Van Hollen, an up-and-comer in the majority caucus who gave the party's national radio address Saturday, accepted the challenge and decided to get moving right away.

"We started getting organized before the new speaker was sworn in," he said. "We decided we needed to get an early start, so we put together a recruitment team before the new Congress began.

"We obviously have a big challenge to defend 30 new members while still going on offense. But the big story is that we are on offense," he added. "We are confident that we will beat history - we will win seats - but I don't want to put a number on it."

One reason for his confidence is that Mr. Van Hollen and his House colleagues have benefited from a spate or Republican retirements. The GOP will be defending a whopping 29 open seats this November. Plus, the returns from three special elections thus far this year - including one in the seat formerly held by Ms. Pelosi's predecessor, Republican Speaker Dennis Hastert - are encouraging. The Democrats won all three. (Many political analysts, including me, are predicting Democratic gains of about 10 to 18 seats this year.)

This momentum, coupled with control of the House and an unpopular Republican president, has made fundraising easier than expected.

"You've seen a total reversal in the fortunes of the DCCC and the Republicans," said Mr. Van Hollen, referring to the National Republican Congressional Committee, his partisan counterpart headed by Oklahoma Rep. Tom Cole. "A big part of that is a result of new emphasis on grass-roots fundraising."

Mr. Van Hollen says those grass-roots contributions - that is, small-dollar donors who give, say, $50 or $100 online or in response to direct-mail solicitations - account for about a third of what the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee raises, with another third from big-dollar donors and the last third coming from the dues paid by members of the House Democratic Caucus.

Overall, as of the end of May, the committee, with $47.2 million, was enjoying a sevenfold cash-on-hand advantage over its GOP counterpart ($6.7 million). "Obviously, the Republicans have had a really hard time," said Mr. Van Hollen, trying to disguise his glee.

But the third-term congressman cautioned that a lot of outside, independent expenditures - much of it generated by conservative groups like Freedom Watch - will supplement the Republicans' resources. "They have become the substitute for the NRCC," he said of such groups.

In 2002, Mr. Van Hollen, then a state senator, shocked the powerful Kennedy family by edging then-Del. Mark K. Shriver to win the Democratic nomination in the 8th District. That fall, he parlayed a newly gerrymandered map into victory over eight-term Republican incumbent Constance A. Morella. This year, his opponent in November is a Republican eye surgeon named Steve Hudson.

Mr. Van Hollen has proved he can win elections when his name is on the ballot. This cycle, after two comfortable re-elections, Maryland's rising star in the House has a chance to prove he can win elections when the fate of other Democrats - no less his own reputation - is on the line.

Thomas F. Schaller teaches political science at UMBC. His column appears regularly in The Sun. His e-mail is schaller67@ gmail.com.

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