Senate Dems’ campaign chief battles tough map

Senate Dems’ campaign chief battles tough map
© Victoria Sarno Jordan

The 2018 midterm map is stacked against Senate Democrats, but Sen. Chris Van Hollen (Md.) believes his party can beat the odds.

The chairman of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee (DSCC) is charged with defending 23 seats in next year’s midterm elections, including 10 in states won by President Trump.

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Republicans are only defending eight states, and just one of those is in a state lost by the president.

The difficult map is why most political observers believe Democrats have almost no chance to win back the Senate majority next year despite Trump’s dismal approval ratings.

In fact, there’s a case to be made that Democrats could lose seats in an election where they are defending in West Virginia, North Dakota, Missouri, Indiana and Montana, where Trump rolled up big wins last year.

“It would be nice to have a very different map; I’d love to have it flipped [with] 25 Republican seats up this time,” Van Hollen acknowledged in an interview. “But the reality is, the current political environment, all the grassroots momentum, is helping our incumbent members and will help our challengers.”

Senate Democrats have already seen strong fundraising numbers — top incumbents are growing their bank accounts, and the DSCC’s raised $28.7 million this year, about $1.7 million more than in the first six months of 2015.

A challenge for Van Hollen will be to keep the cash flow going as donors are pressed to back both House and Senate Democratic candidates. With both parties seeing the House as in play, that could be difficult.

Van Hollen said that Democrats understand the stakes of each Senate seat. 

“When you don’t have the majority, every single loss is consequential because of the rules of the Senate,” he said. 

“If you lose any of those members, you make it more likely that bad things can happen.”

Democrats have battled since their disappointing loss in last year’s presidential election over what their party should represent. The fight has pitted liberals against centrists, with the left pushing the party to back purer progressive candidates and some members of Congress saying their party should retain a big-tent approach.

Rep. Ben Ray Luján (N.M.), the chairman of the House Democratic campaign arm, drew criticism this week in an interview with The Hill for saying that his caucus would not pose a litmus test for candidates on issues such as abortion rights.

Van Hollen, for his part, defended vulnerable Democratic senators, such as Sen. Joe ManchinJoseph (Joe) ManchinTrump rips Dems a day ahead of key White House meeting Senate panel moves forward with bill to roll back Dodd-Frank Wealthy outsiders threaten to shake up GOP Senate primaries MORE (W.Va.), who have at times sought to work with Trump. The president won West Virginia with 68 percent of the vote.

“Our priority is holding the blue line in the United States Senate,” said Van Hollen, who said his job is to protect incumbents while seeking to make gains.

Manchin has drawn liberal ire by voting for a number of Trump’s Cabinet picks and describing Trump as a “good energy president.”

In response, the liberal groups Credo Action and Democracy for America have called for the party to remove him from his leadership position as the conference’s vice chairman of policy and communications.

Van Hollen argues that having Democrats like Manchin in the Senate is a plus for Democrats, noting the recent healthcare votes. 

“Having a Republican in these seats would drag us backwards — after all, we just won the [healthcare] vote the other night by just one vote. If we had lost one of those senators, it would have been a whole different ballgame,” he said.

Van Hollen also sees the healthcare debate as an opportunity for Democrats given the unpopularity of the GOP bills.

After playing defense on healthcare in the wake of ObamaCare’s passage, Democrats have been flipping the script — and have seen support in polls for the healthcare law rise.

“All of the polling shows that 12 percent of people support [the Republican] healthcare plan,” Van Hollen said. “That means a lot of people who voted for Trump support our membership and are fighting that plan.”

The two biggest Democratic targets in the Senate, Dean HellerDean Arthur HellerDems look to use Moore against GOP Senate hearing shows Fed chair nominee acts the part Senate GOP votes to begin debate on tax bill MORE (Nev.) and Jeff FlakeJeffrey (Jeff) Lane FlakeGOP strategist donates to Alabama Democrat Sasse: RNC help for Roy Moore 'doesn't make any sense' Sasse calls RNC decision to resume support for Moore 'bad' and 'sad' MORE (Ariz.), both voted for the scaled-back “skinny” ObamaCare repeal bill last week.

Van Hollen plans to remind voters in those states about their senators’ positions.

“They are in real trouble in their states because of that,” said Van Hollen, who argues Flake and Heller could be caught between those angered over their support for the Republican bill and those who think they didn’t fight enough to get repeal done.

“They are being squeezed by the overwhelming majority in those states who were strongly opposed to the healthcare proposal they voted for and then the Trumpers in those states who don’t think they did enough,” he said.

Senate Democrats have yet to land a top recruit for the race against Flake, but Van Hollen said he’s confident that the party will run a “very strong candidate.”

In Nevada, Van Hollen’s operation has thrown its weight behind Rep. Jacky Rosen. Former Senate Democratic Leader Harry ReidHarry ReidBill O'Reilly: Politics helped kill Kate Steinle, Zarate just pulled the trigger Tax reform is nightmare Déjà vu for Puerto Rico Ex-Obama and Reid staffers: McConnell would pretend to be busy to avoid meeting with Obama MORE, the dean of Nevada Democratic politics, played a role in that endorsement, a source told The Hill.

Rep. Dina Titus (D-Nev.) had been openly weighing a bid before Reid’s allies circled the wagons around Rosen. With Rosen’s bid imminent, Titus needled Reid by saying that she won’t make her decision based on his “preferences.”

Van Hollen described Titus as a “terrific member of Congress” who could have a “very strong future” in House leadership.

“She’s obviously welcome to take a look at it. She’s a friend of mine,” said Van Hollen, who served in the House until January.

“She has a congressional district that she is secure in. She’s a hard worker. She always works hard. We’ll see.”