Campaign 2010

Oct 24, 2008

New York Times - House Democrat Seeks a 2006 Repeat, His Own Way

Congressional leadership posts are the Holy Grail for ambitious politicians, but Representative Chris Van Hollen could be excused for being a little anxious when he took the helm of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee in 2007.

First, the reserved Maryland Democrat was succeeding Representative Rahm Emanuel, the hard-charging Illinoisan who ran the House Democratic campaign arm in the last election cycle, bludgeoning Republicans on the way to a 30-seat Democratic gain.

Second, the fact that Democrats recorded those major gains appeared to leave Mr. Van Hollen with the not-so-glamorous role of playing defense and protecting the freshman Democrats; past voting patterns made the idea of achieving any further gains seem far-fetched.

“A lot of people thought I was crazy for taking on this responsibility for a variety of reasons,” said Mr. Van Hollen, whose day job is representing the heavily Democratic and affluent Montgomery County suburbs northwest of the nation’s capital.

Those appearances may have been deceiving. Ever cautious, Mr. Van Hollen is still not ready to put a number on his expectations, but he is willing to predict that the Democrats will once again increase their ranks in Congress.

“I am confident that we will beat this historical curse, and pick up a good number of seats this cycle,” he said.

Of course, Mr. Van Hollen has not done this entirely on his own. He received substantial help from the economic collapse that put Republicans on the defensive. And Republican lawmakers are retiring in record numbers this time around, vacating more than two dozen seats and giving Democrats that many more opportunities to compete without having to unseat an incumbent.

On top of those factors, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi of California and Representative Steny H. Hoyer of Maryland, the majority leader, have joined Mr. Emanuel and other party leaders in raising millions of dollars and persuading strong candidates to take a chance on a House race.

Still, Mr. Van Hollen has been the man responsible for overseeing day-to-day operations. His colleagues — and even his Republican opponents — credit him with running a smart and sophisticated operation that has taken the advantages he was handed and made full use of them.

“He has been steady in the eye of the storm, and he has sound judgment,” Mr. Emanuel said. “I think he has done a fantastic job.”

Mr. Van Hollen has labored a bit in the shadow of Mr. Emanuel, a former senior aide to President Bill Clinton who knows how to command the media’s attention. Mr. Emanuel remains a top strategist for the party and an influential presence as chairman of the House Democratic Caucus. He and Mr. Van Hollen consult almost daily on political operations.

The two men differ starkly in style, with Mr. Emanuel generally taking no prisoners while Mr. Van Hollen’s approach is more tempered. But Mr. Van Hollen is no pushover. He was effective in the Maryland legislature and punched his ticket to Congress in 2002 by winning a primary against a member of the Kennedy family (no small feat) and then defeating a popular Republican incumbent.

Mr. Van Hollen has also managed the congressional campaign committee, known universally as the D-triple-C, a bit differently from Mr. Emanuel’s way, which focused heavily on party message. Mr. Van Hollen and his staff — some handpicked by Speaker Pelosi — made an early decision to invest heavily in field operations, putting paid workers on the ground in key districts to begin identifying and persuading potential voters.

The heavy emphasis on the ground game, as it is called, quickly paid off in stunning Democratic special-election victories in Illinois, Louisiana and Mississippi, setting the tone for the year and throwing Republicans off balance.

Mr. Van Hollen said the focus on field operations was a calculated way to break through the clutter of a crowded election year, when much of the public’s attention wopoluld be on the presidential battle and on statewide races like Senate contests.

The congressman also set up a formidable in-house research operation of about 15 people to study the candidates, the districts and the issues and be ready to strike at Republicans when the moment arose.

“It has allowed a very rapid response effort,” Mr. Van Hollen said.

Republicans who spoke positively about Mr. Van Hollen did so only on condition that they not be identified. They credited Mr. Van Hollen with being particularly astute at identifying potential opportunities for Democrats that were overlooked by others. And, they said, he made the competition hot enough that some Republicans incumbents chose to retire rather than fight it out. In some respects, one Republican said, Mr. Van Hollen often outmaneuvered them, though he also had far greater resources and a much more favorable political climate on his side than they did.

Democrats say Mr. Van Hollen has not been so assertive when it comes to the legislative agenda in the House. But he remains a junior member of the party leadership team, and given the forcefulness and experience of the personalities above him — Ms. Pelosi, Mr. Hoyer, Representative James E. Clyburn of South Carolina and Mr. Emanuel — it is easy to see how he might have a hard time breaking through.

The continued presence of those lawmakers in the still-new Democratic majority also leaves little room for Mr. Van Hollen to rise quickly in the leadership and reap his reward for any success achieved on Nov. 4. But his future may lie across the Rotunda, since he is seen as a potential candidate for the Senate should one of Maryland’s seats open up.

At the moment, Mr. Van Hollen said, he is not looking past Election Day. “I am just focused on finishing the job right now,” he said.