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Roll Call

Van Hollen Says Democrats Will Be Ready to Fight in 2010

Tom Williams/Roll Call
DCCC Chairman Chris Van Hollen said vulnerable Democrats are going to be well-positioned in 2010, even though they face a playing field that is heavily tilted toward the GOP.

As they look to protect their most vulnerable in what they figure could be an unforgiving election cycle, House Democratic leaders, including Speaker Nancy Pelosi (Calif.), are continuing to meet weekly with freshman Members to discuss a range of operational and political issues.

“We have a very good turnout,” said Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee Chairman Chris Van Hollen (Md.), who plays a key part in organizing the Wednesday morning meetings in his role as special assistant to the Speaker.

The sessions with the freshmen — Pelosi also meets with second-term Democrats once a month — are part of a multipronged approach by House leaders to boost potentially vulnerable junior Members, Van Hollen said in an interview with Roll Call reporters and editors Wednesday. The efforts include attempts to showcase their legislative work — Van Hollen said Democratic freshmen are introducing more significant amendments this year than in recent memory — and teach them the basics of running a successful district office.

“A lot of their early success has to do with keeping in touch with constituents of all persuasions,” Van Hollen said.

Then there is the political side of the equation, which Van Hollen tends to in his role at the campaign committee. The Congressman agreed to helm the DCCC for a second straight cycle even though history teaches that losses are almost inevitable.

Although the party in the White House loses 30 House seats on average in the first midterm elections after a change in administrations — the exceptions in the past 150 years were in 1934 and 2002 — Van Hollen said Democrats are cautiously optimistic that they can minimize their casualties next year.

“We’re off to a pretty good start if you look at legislative developments, if you look at our ability to get the economy moving again,” he said.

Democrats were heartened by their recent special election victory in New York’s 20th district, where Scott Murphy (D), a political novice, quickly closed a 21-point gap en route to edging a far better known Republican in a district where the GOP holds a 70,000 voter registration advantage.

The difference, Democratic strategists believe, was Murphy’s strong and early support for President Barack Obama’s economic stimulus package. Van Hollen scoffed at the notion being advanced by some Republicans that the GOP nominee in the New York contest, state Assemblyman Jim Tedisco, was fatally flawed.

“The problem wasn’t that he was in politics for 20 years,” Van Hollen said. “The problem was his ideas were 20 years old.”

House Democratic strategists are clearly hoping that Republicans continue to be perceived by voters as a party bereft of fresh ideas. And they’re optimistic that by controlling all levers of power in Washington, D.C., Democrats will push through major legislation in the months ahead that will also be politically popular.

But he conceded that one-party rule also carries political peril for Democrats.

“To the extent that the American people are, down the line, unhappy, we will be held accountable,” he said. “The president and the Congress will be held accountable.”

By the same token, the Democrats’ success in the midterms will largely be tied to Obama’s popularity. Van Hollen said the White House did just about all the DCCC asked it to do during the New York special election, and he said he has a good relationship with the White House political operation and with the Democratic National Committee. He is scheduled to meet with Virginia Gov. Tim Kaine, the DNC chairman, later this week, and Obama is headlining a fundraiser for House and Senate Democrats in June.

But Van Hollen did confess that he wished the DNC’s fundraising numbers were better. Even with Obama in the White House, the Republican National Committee outraised the DNC in the first quarter of the year, and the RNC — and outside Republican groups — pumped more money into the New York special election than the DNC and liberal groups did.

“The fact that they’ve got as much money as they do should be a warning sign to all of us,” he said.

Van Hollen also said he’s monitoring the activities of outside liberal groups to make sure they don’t try to target moderate Democratic Members. He said he does not have a problem with liberal groups pressuring Members to vote a certain way on legislation.

“That doesn’t concern us,” he said. “If there is a group trying to defeat a Democratic incumbent when there’s a chance of losing the general election, then that’s a concern.”

On a related topic, Van Hollen said the DCCC would continue the practice of not interfering in primaries this cycle where Democratic incumbents are threatened — as long as the seat isn’t in danger of being captured by the GOP. He said one race he is watching is in Florida’s conservative 2nd district, where Rep. Allen Boyd could face a Democratic primary challenge from the left in the form of state Sen. Al Lawson. Boyd has yet to ask the committee for help.

To guard against the fact that House Democrats will largely be playing defense in 2010 — there are a record-setting 40 Members in the DCCC’s “Frontline” program for shaky incumbents, and Murphy is likely to soon be added to the list — Van Hollen is aggressively trying to recruit candidates in potentially competitive districts where Democrats have fallen short before.

Democratic strategists have pointed to a handful of recruiting victories already this cycle, and Van Hollen promised more. But after flipping 51 GOP-held seats in the past two election cycles, “we’ve got less real estate to play on,” he admitted. “That’s the dynamic moving forward.”

Just as she is an integral part of schooling and promoting freshman Democrats on Capitol Hill, Pelosi is also taking a keen interest in their campaign activities, Van Hollen said. Although Pelosi was far less visible on the campaign trail than many Democratic leaders last year, the DCCC chairman said he would feel comfortable sending her into just about any vulnerable Democrat’s district.

But Republicans continue to use Pelosi as a political punching bag, particularly in the districts of some of the Democrats’ most vulnerable Members. The GOP is happy whenever Pelosi’s name recognition is on the rise, and party strategists hope to link vulnerable Democrats in conservative districts to the “San Francisco liberal.”

“Chris Van Hollen is trying to give a rhetorical facelift to an emerging problem for vulnerable Democrats across the country,” National Republican Congressional Committee spokesman Ken Spain said. “The fact of the matter is Nancy Pelosi’s negative poll numbers have become a liability for President Obama and her noticeable absence from the national scene is proof of it.”

Pelosi did not stump with Murphy in upstate New York during the recent special election, but she did raise money for him in New York City.

“The Speaker has been a very effective spokesperson for the party,” Van Hollen said. “The candidates want her to be in the districts. We’ll see more of that later in the cycle.”

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