Campaign 2010

Oct 10, 2008

Washington Post - Md.‘s Van Hollen Goes National

ALBUQUERQUE -- Ever since he ousted a popular Republican congresswoman in 2002, Rep. Chris Van Hollen has enjoyed a reputation as a giant-slayer. Now the Montgomery County legislator is wielding his grass-roots organizing experience as head of the Democrats' House campaigns nationwide, hoping to add to his party's majority in Congress.

The genial, boyish-looking lawmaker has a tough act to follow. His predecessor, Rep. Rahm Emanuel (D-Ill.), a bare-knuckled former Clinton administration official, led the party's successful effort to win back the House in 2006 after a dozen years of GOP control.

Parties typically lose seats two years after enjoying such a "wave" election, but Van Hollen hopes to buck that precedent by tapping discontent with the Bush administration, including policies that Democrats say contributed to the current economic crisis. Democrats, he predicted, will benefit from the fact that voters "are focused like a laser beam" on the economy.

"Most people thought we'd have to circle the wagons to just protect the gains we made," Van Hollen said, as he cruised through Albuquerque on a recent 17-hour day of campaigning. "Our overall goal is to break that historical pattern" of giving back gains, he said.

Van Hollen, 49, has won plaudits for his work so far. Democrats have grabbed three House seats in special elections this year, and the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, or DCCC, has a 4-to-1 fundraising advantage over its Republican counterpart.

"He's raising a lot of money, recruiting good candidates. They've got a good team over there," said Stuart Rothenberg, an independent analyst with the Rothenberg Political Report. He predicts that Democrats will pick up 10 to 20 House seats Nov. 4.

Despite such assessments, Van Hollen has concerns about the campaign. He worries that conservative groups will pour money into races. He frets about preserving the 33 seats the Democrats picked up in 2006 and in special elections, many in Republican-leaning areas. To go after more seats, he is dedicating millions of dollars to the kinds of canvassing and other ground techniques he honed in Montgomery County.

"We are going into redder territory," he said. "There's no doubt about it."

On his recent day in Albuquerque, Van Hollen was a blur in a Jos. A. Bank suit, giving seven interviews, speaking at a Michelle Obama rally, visiting a wealthy lawyer and a backyard cocktail party to pitch for funds, stopping by a phone bank and attending events at a hospital and bar.

Van Hollen was campaigning with Martin Heinrich, 36, a former Albuquerque City Council member. As their sport-utility vehicle cruised through the flat city ringed by scrub-flecked mountains, he quizzed Heinrich about polls, ads and grass-roots efforts.

"One of the things we think is critical in this race and others is that direct door-to-door," the Maryland lawmaker said.

Van Hollen relied on an army of liberal supporters to turn out voters in his 2002 race. He squeaked past a better-funded rival, Kennedy relative Mark Shriver, in a primary and went on to defeat longtime representative Constance A. Morella (R).

As one of two Democrats to knock off a Republican House incumbent that year, Van Hollen turned heads. Within three years, he was selected to lead candidate recruitment for the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee. In December 2006, the incoming speaker, Nancy Pelosi (Calif.), asked him to run the committee.

In many ways, Van Hollen inherited a favorable political environment. The Democrats' control of Congress made it easier to raise money. As of Sept. 20, the most recent filing date, the DCCC had $54 million on hand -- four times the amount of its Republican counterpart. Democrats have to defend six open seats, compared with 29 for the Republicans.

Even Rep. Tom Cole (Okla.), head of the Republicans' House campaign committee, calls this "a Democratic year," although he promises a vigorous fight. Van Hollen, he said, "should be pretty proud of the job he's done."

In this election year, however, many voters are focused on the presidential candidates, rather than races further down the ticket.

"The challenge is to cut through the clutter," Van Hollen said.

To do that, the Democrats' House campaign committee probably will spend twice the $9 million it dedicated to grass-roots efforts in the last election, officials said. Their door-knocking and phone-calling campaign began in April, four months earlier than in the previous cycle.

"Now Republicans have to spend their money defending their incumbents instead of going after our own," Van Hollen said.

In Albuquerque, he strolled through a party office buzzing with volunteers phoning voters.

"That's a great operation! I'm impressed," he declared.

Before going to Congress, Van Hollen was one of the most liberal legislators at the State House in Annapolis. But on the national stage, he has proved to be a pragmatist, as shown in his party's choice of candidates.

Heinrich, for example, is pro-gun rights; Van Hollen gained passage of a first-in-the-nation trigger lock law in Maryland.

Some liberals accuse the Democrats of jettisoning their principles by recruiting anti-abortion and pro-gun rights candidates to run in conservative areas.

"It's a different place than Maryland," Van Hollen said with a shrug. "On those issues, [conservative Democrats] may not vote any differently from Republicans they replace . . . but there are a lot of other issues, whether children's health or energy policy, where they'll be part of a new Democratic majority."

For all Van Hollen's hard work this year, he still labors in the shadow of Emanuel. Many credit the Illinois congressman with leaving Van Hollen a well-oiled machine.

"It's not a stretch to say that there's an Emanuel encore named Van Hollen," said David Wasserman, House editor for the Cook Political Report. He credits the Maryland congressman with doing "a good job, not a particularly original job."

Van Hollen, a diplomat's son, patiently lists the ways this campaign is distinct. For instance, the DCCC has 50 percent more money on hand than it did in 2006, and Democrats consider 75 races to be in play, compared with 43 two years ago.

"We have a very different challenge this time," Van Hollen said. "We have had to reinvent big parts of it."

Howard Dean, head of the Democratic National Committee, said Van Hollen has distinguished himself as a "grass-roots guy." Emanuel put more emphasis on media ads and direct mail, Democratic staff members say.

Van Hollen has made dozens of trips across the country for campaigns and fundraising since becoming DCCC chairman. In the next few weeks, he will be making stops in Florida, Minnesota, North Carolina and Ohio.

"It would be an impossible job if I didn't represent a local district," he said.

He can attend campaign strategy meetings in Washington, for instance, while handling his regular congressional duties and tending to his nearby district. And that still leaves some time for his family. Van Hollen, the father of three, lives in Kensington with his wife, Katherine, a fellow graduate of Harvard's Kennedy School.

Van Hollen's Republican opponent this fall, surgeon Steve Hudson, said in an interview that the incumbent's high-profile position was distracting him from his district, which includes much of Montgomery and some of Prince George's counties. "He's really not involved in the district right now," Hudson said.

Van Hollen countered that he is deeply engaged in local issues. He said that he helped win more than $400 million in this year's federal farm bill for cleanup of the Chesapeake Bay. Two years ago, he cruised to reelection in his heavily Democratic district, with 77 percent of the vote.

"My hand is greatly strengthened" by the party position, Van Hollen said. "When you're dealing with [House] committee chairmen, it helps to be head of the DCCC."

Van Hollen's access to Pelosi is evident. Between events in Albuquerque, he made a 23-minute call to the House speaker to discuss legislative strategy. He meets frequently with the leadership, including another Marylander, Majority Leader Steny H. Hoyer. Van Hollen played a key role in his party's passage of new ethics rules this year, and he said that he was among the leaders who helped put more accountability into the $700 billion financial rescue plan approved by Congress last week.

Colleagues say that if Democrats do well in the election, Van Hollen could be in line for a senior House post, a committee chairmanship or an eventual run for the Senate.

Rep. Tom Davis (Va.), who oversaw the Republicans' House campaigns in 1998, 2000, and 2002, said he would give Van Hollen a "very, very good grade" -- so far. "But ultimately," Davis added, "what will matter is what happens on election night."