Keeping the House Democratic

The Baltimore Sun

Washington -- While the political world is focusing on next year's presidential contest, one Maryland congressman is spending his time on 435 races that might have as much bearing on the future of the nation.

It's Chris Van Hollen's job as chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee to ensure that his party maintains control of Congress into the next administration.

Van Hollen hopes to deepen the party's inroads in suburban districts, where voters in recent elections have been going Republican, and where big-city rates can make television advertising prohibitively expensive.

"You need to win them over one by one," he said. "It's not a place where there's a lot of machine politics. It's not a question of just going around and getting endorsements from a few key people and expecting everyone else to follow suit. It needs to be more retail politics."

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi gave Van Hollen the job of coordinating the Democratic campaign effort for 2008 after the party's takeover of the House last fall. She cited his "depth of legislative experience" -- including 12 years in Annapolis -- and "political savvy." Van Hollen helped then-DCCC Chairman Rahm Emanuel, the hard-charging Chicago congressman, recruit moderate Democrats to run in conservative districts last year. As a reward for his success, Emanuel was named chairman of the House Democratic Caucus.

Van Hollen says he didn't campaign for chair of the DCCC -- the "D-triple-C," or "D-trip" -- but the appointment continues his ascent within the party. Five years ago, he was a state senator little known outside Montgomery County.

In his first race for Congress, Van Hollen beat Kennedy cousin Mark Shriver in the primary and unseated eight-term Republican Rep. Constance A. Morella. Now in his third term in Washington, he sits on the Ways and Means Committee, a valuable perch for raising campaign money, and is mentioned as a future Senate candidate.

He says he's now focused on building the Democratic majority.

The even-tempered Van Hollen, whose slim frame and curly blond hair make him look younger than his 47 years, presents a sharp contrast to his predecessor, Emanuel, the former Bill Clinton protege described as ruthless in the pursuit of electoral success. Rep. Artur Davis, Democrat of Alabama, describes a difference.

"Sometimes the chair has to do a lot of heavy lifting," Davis said. "On dues, on encouraging more member involvement, on pushing members to help recruit people to run in their state. And for a D-trip chair to be successful, there needs to be strong goodwill and strong support within the caucus.

"Rahm had that because there was extraordinary respect for his political talent. And even when Rahm had sharp edges, there was a sense that his talent and his command was so strong that people responded to that.

"Chris has a great deal of respect based on the substance, but Chris is an extremely well-liked member as well."

One of Van Hollen's first acts as chairman was to set up a meeting with Democratic National Chairman Howard Dean. Through much of the last election cycle, Emanuel and Dean sparred over where to spend the party's money. Dean predicts "an easier relationship" with Van Hollen.

"We think a lot alike," said the former Vermont governor and presidential candidate. "He's tough-minded, which is good, but I think he's interested in trying to forge an alliance."

Democrats are optimistic about building their Senate majority, where Republicans must defend 21 seats next year, to the Democrats' 12. But in the House, everyone is up for re-election.

"The good news is that we won a lot of marginal seats," Democratic Leader Steny H. Hoyer said. "The bad news is we've got to defend a lot of marginal seats."

And they'll be doing it during a presidential election, when districts tend to vote their traditional leanings, and members must compete with presidential candidates for money and attention.

Democrats now hold 61 seats in districts that voted for President Bush in 2000 and 2004. And there's no guarantee that the conditions that aided them in 2006 -- voter frustration with the war in Iraq, public disapproval of Bush and a rash of scandals involving Republicans -- will prove as influential in 2008.

Still, analyst Stuart Rothenberg calls the position of the Democrats "quite good."

"The national environment continues to favor them," said Rothenberg, the editor of the nonpartisan Rothenberg Political Report.

"Is there a significant desire for change in 2008? ... There may be. [But] when people think of change, they still think of, 'Get rid of George Bush and the Republicans.' "

The challenge for Democrats, he said, is "simply broadening the playing field -- finding enough good challengers and enough competitive districts. After you win 30 seats, you've probably won many of your better opportunities. So what you're left with is people who in a landslide year couldn't win."

Van Hollen says it's a problem he's glad to have.

"Our challenge this time is to build on the momentum from the last election," he said.

Even before the current freshmen were sworn in, the DCCC held its first recruiting meeting for next year's crop. It has identified 29 members for its "Frontline" program for vulnerable incumbents -- more than twice the number at this point in the last cycle -- and directed them to raise between $650,000 and $1 million by the end of June, in order to discourage would-be challengers.

The DCCC itself raised $19 million this year through March, a first-quarter record for the organization. Van Hollen plans to target the eight Republicans now serving in districts that voted for Democratic presidential nominee John Kerry in 2004, the 20 who won last fall by less than 5 percent, and others he describes as "ethically challenged."

He says the Democrats' election hopes rest on whether they honor the commitments they made to the voters who put them in the majority last fall.

"I know it's early, and two years is a long time, but I am actively encouraging all our members, whenever they go back home and talk about what they're doing, to remind people of the changes that we made in the House in the first 100 hours. Whatever the issue is, begin there, and then talk about the additional efforts we want to make."

This might prove a challenge. None of the Democrats' "Six for '06" -- a minimum-wage hike, cuts in interest rates on student loans, increased support for embryonic stem cell research, among other items -- has made it past the president's desk. And Congress and the White House remain deadlocked over Iraq.

"The president may decide to ignore the message of the Congress, but I think that the American people are going to see that for what it is," Van Hollen said. "I think the key thing that we need to do is to keep faith with the voters -- is to make it clear that we are doing everything within our powers to change direction in the war. As he continues to dig in, the next election will be a referendum on that issue."

Rep. Tom Cole, Van Hollen's opposite number as chairman of the National Republican Congressional Committee, sees trouble for Democrats, especially in Republican-leaning districts. They are likely to have difficulty defending their positions on Iraq, the budget and other issues, he says.

"For the first time in a dozen years, Democrats really have to cast tough votes and go out and defend them," said Cole. "We will have a lot more ammunition in an issue-related sense than my predecessors have had."

Rothenberg says there's something to his point.

"But there's not enough for what Tom Cole wants," he said.

"Frankly, voting for ethics reform, stem cell research and minimum wage, these are not the kind of things that are going to oust a whole bunch of Democrats. Is it a problem for one or two? Some of those Democrats are voting against their party on things that will be controversial."

Van Hollen says he is encouraging members to be mindful of the voters to whom they ultimately will answer.

"I may have a conflict with someone in the party whose job it is to make sure they always get enough votes," he said. "But my advice to every member, every new member, every old member, is vote your conscience and your constituency and your country, and you'll be in good shape."

matthew.brown@baltsun.com

Chris Van Hollen Jr.

Born:

Jan. 10, 1959, in Karachi, Pakistan

Childhood:

Father was U.S. diplomat; mother was State Department analyst. Raised in the United States, India, Turkey and Sri Lanka

Education:

B.A., Swarthmore; Master of Public Policy, Harvard; J.D., Georgetown

Experience:

Legislative assistant to Sen. Charles McC. Mathias Jr. for defense and foreign policy; staff member, Senate Foreign Relations Committee; senior legislative adviser for federal affairs to Gov. William Donald Schaefer.

Elected office:

Maryland House of Delegates, 1990-94; Maryland Senate, 1994-2002; House of Representatives, 2002-present

Family:

Lives in Kensington with wife, Katherine, and their three school-age children

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