Newly appointed Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee Chairman Chris Van Hollen (Md.) may face an intrinsically different task than his recent predecessors — defending the House majority — but he asserts the organization’s mission will remain largely unchanged heading into the 2008 elections.
“We’re going to be on defense,” Van Hollen acknowledged during an interview last week, then added: “but on offense, too.”
While the past 12 years have seen Democrats focus significant effort on culling challengers, the campaign committee’s focus must now turn largely to retaining seats, including the 30 districts captured by Democrats in the November elections.
“We’re going to focus very hard on making sure they cement their relationships with their constituents,” Van Hollen said of the freshman lawmakers, many of whom won in Republican-leaning districts.
In addition, Van Hollen said those Members stand to be bolstered by Democrats’ legislative efforts such as the “100-hour” plan — focused on stem-cell research, raising the minimum wage, student loans and national security — that the new majority has vowed to complete in advance of President Bush’s annual State of the Union address Jan. 23.
Promoting those efforts, Van Hollen said, will require close communication between the committee and the House leadership led by Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.).
“What we both agree on is that the most important thing we can do … is to follow through on the commitments and promises made to people in the last election,” said the third-term Maryland lawmaker, tapped in late December to succeed now-Democratic Caucus Chairman Rahm Emanuel (Ill.). “That requires good communications.”
Those efforts include Van Hollen’s recent decision to tap Brian Wolff — a close political confidant to Pelosi and deputy executive director in charge of finance in the last cycle — as the new executive director, while bringing on another top Pelosi aide, Jennifer Crider, to run the communications shop.
While such moves might suggest that the new Speaker intends to keep a strong hand in the DCCC this cycle, several Democratic observers suggested that Van Hollen is likely to emulate the independent style of his predecessor.
“Not that they don’t have a relationship, but [Van Hollen] is not viewed as [Pelosi’s] person. ... I think she would have gone with [California Rep.] Mike Thompson (D) if that’s what she was looking for,” said one senior Democratic aide, who asked not to be identified.
Still, another Democratic operative, who also spoke on the condition of anonymity, said: “He will work to coordinate closely with the Speaker, just given the new construct that we’re in the majority.”
Van Hollen also plans to step up cooperation with the Democratic National Committee. The Maryland lawmaker said last week that he has already spoken with DNC Chairman Howard Dean and expects the two will have a formal meeting in coming weeks.
“We’re going to work very closely together,” Van Hollen said, a marked turnaround from the famously contentious relationship between Emanuel and the former Vermont governor.
“He understands a new Democratic president ... will want to have a new Democratic Congress to work with,” Van Hollen said of Dean.
Van Hollen’s heavy involvement in the political side of the committee last cycle — he co-chaired the “Red to Blue” program with Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz (D-Fla.) — also makes him steeped in its culture in a way that some other incoming chairs have not been, noted one former DCCC aide.
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