Democrat Van Hollen has Obama on one side, history on the other

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Rep. Chris Van Hollen figured his mission was complete after Democrats bulked up their majority in Congress last fall.

Letting someone else lead the House campaign committee would free him to advance on the leadership ladder. And he'd avoid blame if the party lost ground in the next election.


After all, it's been more than a century since a party added seats in the situation Democrats find themselves in now.

"We have our work cut out for us," says the Maryland congressman in an interview. "We have to beat history in a big way."


But when House Speaker Nancy Pelosi insisted, Van Hollen agreed to stay on as chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee through the 2010 election.

She gave him a fancier title as one of her assistants, and the 50-year-old representative from Kensington, whose star continues to rise, has emerged as one of his party's most visible spokesmen.

With a Democrat in the White House, the campaign job is easier in many ways.

President Barack Obama's donors should be a ready source of cash to help Democrats maintain a financial advantage over the Republicans. And interest groups are now reinforcing Washington's power shift by moving the Democrats' way.

Recently, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce played against type by praising selected Democrats for voting in favor of the $787 billion stimulus package, which the Chamber supported. Maryland freshman Rep. Frank Kratovil was among the vulnerable incumbents rewarded with statements designed to impress business leaders back home.

Democrats, including Van Hollen, had encouraged the chamber effort. "They were heading in that direction," he says, "but we reinforced the idea that it's important to let people know when someone's with you and not just when they are against you."

The chamber's actions have not sat well with Republicans, who like to think of the business lobby as a reliable ally.

House Republican Leader John Boehner of Ohio told a group of reporters last week that he "wasn't happy" with the move but chalked it up to chamber officials "being their usual pragmatic selves."


Van Hollen's responsibility for scoring partisan points has been complicated, though, by Obama's call for an end to petty political gamesmanship. Editorial writers were quick to jump on Van Hollen after the DCCC aired radio ads last month that criticized 28 House Republicans for votes identical to ones that Van Hollen and most Democrats had cast.

Obama's reputation will on the line in next year's congressional contests, even if his name isn't on the ballot, says Van Hollen, now in the midst of recruiting candidates for targeted races.

"The 2010 election is not just a referendum on how Congress is doing. It's also a midterm report card on the president," he says.

The extent of Obama's political involvement isn't clear yet, though he seems unwilling to risk his capital on longshots. He kept his distance from a Senate runoff election in Georgia in December and has yet to get involved in a special election in upstate New York this month, where Republicans have an excellent chance to take back the seat formerly held by Democrat Kirsten Gillibrand, now a member of the Senate.

Public opinion, fickle and fleeting, particularly in the age of the 24-hour news cycle, is rising for Democrats in Congress, a coattail effect linked to Obama's popularity and swift passage of the stimulus package.

Enthusiasm for Obama is also contagious among prospective House candidates, according to Van Hollen.


"I do think Obama has excited a lot of people about public service and an opportunity to change the direction of the country. And so I think a lot of people are going to take a look at running this time around," he says. But "there's a difference between inspiring people to run and then winning these elections."

There are early signs that the Republicans are regaining their footing. They've started to unite their base by returning to their fiscally conservative roots, while counting on Democratic mistakes to help them win back some of the 54 districts they lost over the last two elections.

It's way too early to guess how many seats will change hands, but a variety of factors favor the Republicans. They "simply have more opportunities for pickups than do Democrats," Stuart Rothenberg, a respected independent analyst, concluded recently.

At the same time, Rothenberg said it would be "impossible" for Democrats to lose enough seats—40—for Republicans to regain control. Out of 435 House districts, just 23 Democratic and 10 Republican ones will be in play, he estimates.

History does holds out some hope for Democratic gains. One of the two elections since the Civil War in which a new president's party added seats was in the Depression year of 1934.

"The American people are hurting economically and the president and the Democratic Congress are working overtime to try to climb out of the economic hole that we've inherited," says Van Hollen. If Republicans "just say no to every Obama initiative, I don't think they're going to get the support of the American people."