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Van Hollen: We Haven’t Lost the House Yet

After an August recess tour that included stops in 17 battleground districts around the country, Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee Chairman Chris Van Hollen (Md.) returned to Capitol Hill confident that predictions of a lost majority are premature.

In an interview Monday, the man who carries on his shoulders the hopes of a continued Democratic House hit Republicans for being too confident and promised a voter enthusiasm-builder/turnout effort bigger than anything the party has done before.

He attacked Republicans for being too cozy with lobbyists as they “plan their agenda” and used the now-customary line that the GOP wants to cut Medicare and privatize Social Security.

In leveling his attacks on the GOP, Van Hollen almost seems to be looking for any contrast he can with seven weeks to go before the election.

“The Republicans would like the election to not be about them at all,” he said. “And the fact of the matter is elections are about making a choice.”

Van Hollen is back on Capitol Hill this week just in time to witness national Republicans unleash their first major television advertising offensive of the cycle. He said Monday he’s not impressed by what the National Republican Congressional Committee came up with.

The NRCC has targeted 11 battleground districts in its first round of independent expenditure ad buys. All of those ads focus on a theme that Democrats are supporting Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) and not representing their districts.

“I think these groups, including the NRCC, are making a mistake elevating personality over policies and issues that are important to the American people,” Van Hollen said in an interview Monday.

“They are focused on individuals, whether it’s President [Barack] Obama or Speaker Pelosi. We’ve seen that movie before and we know the end of that movie.”

Van Hollen was referring to the special elections earlier this year in Pennsylvania and New York where Republicans worked hard to nationalize the races and tie the Democratic candidates to Pelosi.

His assessment earned a quick rebuke from the NRCC.

“If Chris Van Hollen thinks it is a mistake to elevate personality over policies,” NRCC spokesman Paul Lindsay said, “perhaps he should send that message to his friends in the White House who are desperately trying to make this election about [House Minority Leader] John Boehner.”

These days, Van Hollen seems to be placing a lot of hope on his committee’s ability to re-create the successes of this cycle’s special elections in Pennsylvania and New York.

Despite hopes on the left that a “recovery summer” would create a wave of enthusiasm that would energize the party heading into the fall, Van Hollen admitted no such spike developed.

“It’s pretty clear that over the summer there was this political energy deficit and our challenge is to close the gap and I think we’re doing it. ... Just as in the Pennsylvania 12 special [election], by the time voters went to the polls there was no political energy gap.”

During his swing around the country, Van Hollen said, he was encouraged that Democrats are finally recognizing what’s at stake in November and that is helping to close the enthusiasm gap.

“People are increasingly energized,” he said. “The message was ‘let’s rev up the troops. Let’s get going because there’s a lot at stake and each of these elections is a choice about where we want to take this country.’ ... What you’re seeing is that Democrats have woken up to the danger of Republican rule in Washington and the fact that that will be a return to the same policies that George [W.] Bush and the Republicans gave us for eight years. No one wants to return to that agenda.”

He’s hoping to bolster that message with an aggressive voter contact program that in some districts has been active for more than a year.

“It is the largest field operation that the DCCC has ever supported,” Van Hollen said.

Working with state parties, the DCCC is now supporting field operations in 75 targeted districts, with each of those districts boasting its own field director and an average of five paid staffers. The DCCC also has its own in-house field operation staff, which looks to spot trends across districts and regions to help coordinate messages and make better use of resources.

Democrats hope those field efforts, combined with the nearly $14 million cash-on-hand advantage the DCCC has over the NRCC, will give them crucial advantages on the campaign trail over the next seven weeks.

But this summer saw political pundits ratchet up their estimates of Democratic losses in November. Most view a GOP takeover of the House to be a foregone conclusion. That, combined with massive spending by conservative third-party groups, has many vulnerable incumbents panicked, according to some party insiders.

Last week, the DCCC chairman was quick to push back against a New York Times story that indicated his committee had already decided to divert funds away from some of the most vulnerable Democrats this fall.

“As in any cycle, there are always questions of exactly how to allocate resources,” he said. “This cycle is no different. But make no mistake, we are fully behind our candidates and have already invested in those races and will continue to do so.”

Van Hollen painted a different picture of life inside the Democratic Caucus these days.

“The mood is upbeat among our Members,” he said. “It’s a clear contrast with the constant sort of national media gloom-and-doom story. I think you’ll find when our Members return they are upbeat, focused, battle-tested and in fighting form.”

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