Van Hollen mild but no milquetoast

The House Democrats’ campaign strategy in 2008 will feature a stepped-up ground effort in the many Republican-leaning districts that the Democrats now hold, an expanded Frontline program to help vulnerable members — and fewer invectives from its leader.

The House Democrats’ campaign strategy in 2008 will feature a stepped-up ground effort in the many Republican-leaning districts that the Democrats now hold, an expanded Frontline program to help vulnerable members — and fewer invectives from its leader.

As the new head of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee (DCCC), Rep. Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.) promises to continue many of the things that brought success to his predecessor, Rep. Rahm Emanuel (D-Ill.). But in an interview with The Hill in his DCCC office last week, the mild-mannered third-termer shrugged off comparisons with the brash young star of the party, citing the different circumstances that come with Democrats in the majority.

“I think it’s a different start,” Van Hollen said. “I think that people realize that it’s a different dynamic this time around, a different challenge that we face, and everybody sort of brings different leadership styles to this.”

His style? “I’m not sure I’ll use as many four-letter words,” joked Van Hollen, a former state legislator and attorney who was born in Pakistan, where his father served in the Foreign Service.

Van Hollen has insisted that Democrats will remain on the offensive despite gaining 30 seats in the 2006 elections and despite having many more Democrats in Republican-leaning districts than the other way around. But the structural adjustments that come with trying to hold a majority have required the party to alter its methods and goals.

Among the DCCC’s chief priorities, the Frontline program, which aims to protect vulnerable Democrats, has expanded to nearly three times its former size to about 30 members, Van Hollen said. The DCCC has already met with all of these members one-on-one to discuss fundraising goals, grassroots operations and networking.

Van Hollen also pointed out that the presidential election will make the ground effort in Republican-leaning districts especially key since he’s not sure the Democratic presidential nominee will be able to campaign in all of those districts. Freshman Democrats like Reps. Brad Ellsworth (Ind.) and Heath Shuler (N.C.) come from conservative districts that might not be ideal places for someone like Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.), the Democratic frontrunner, to campaign.

“The ground operation will start earlier and it will be a beefed-up operation this time around,” he said.

Van Hollen also anticipates a change in how much he needs to lean on members to pony up dues to the committee. Early last cycle, Emanuel threatened to cut members off from using DCCC facilities if they didn’t pay up. Now, Van Hollen said, it should be easier, because members are less cynical about where their contributions are going now that they are in the majority.

But while Van Hollen is publicly more unassuming and temperate than Emanuel, he makes it clear that he can be persuasive if need be.

“I want to give everyone the benefit of the doubt, for now,” said Van Hollen. “But if people don’t cooperate, it will be made clear that it’s not fair to the members that are on the team that you’re not fully participating.”

Despite these changes, Van Hollen emphasized that he worked well with Emanuel as one of the DCCC’s lead recruiters and will continue many things Emanuel set in motion. He also expects several of the dominating issues in 2006 to endure through the 2008 election — namely, Iraq and ethics.

The DCCC has continued to trumpet the message that Republicans are corrupt, particularly focusing on the land deals of Rep. Gary Miller (R-Calif.) and rehashing the misdeeds of former Reps. Bob Ney (R-Ohio) and Randy “Duke” Cunningham (R-Calif.).

On Iraq, Van Hollen’s counterpart, National Republican Congressional Committee Chairman Tom Cole (Okla.), has suggested the current troop increase will lead to either success or failure soon enough that the issue might not be as crucial in 2008. But Van Hollen disagrees. He calls the coming vote on a non-binding resolution critical of the troop increase “one of the biggest votes in this Congress,” and he thinks the issue will still be “very significant” in 21 months.

“In the 2006 election, one of the clear messages was people wanted a new direction on Iraq,” he said. “I’ll bet you they weren’t thinking the new direction would be adding 21,000 combat troops plus an additional number of support troops in Iraq.”

On offense, Van Hollen said that the size of the DCCC’s Red to Blue program, which targets vulnerable GOP districts and included more than 50 challengers last cycle, has yet to be determined but that the program will continue largely as-is. Despite the lack of GOP retirements so far, he added, the DCCC is expecting them to provide takeover opportunities.

Van Hollen also emphasized that Democrats need to make sure they have strong candidates in every race that could be a part of a partisan wave. Several districts that weren’t on the national radar screen wound up flipping, and he suggested more could have turned in places like Michigan if the Democrats had fielded substantial challenges.

“If you didn’t have candidates in those races, you wouldn’t have the ability to take advantage of what was happening,” he said.

Van Hollen is urging his incumbents to “constantly remind people” about the so-called “first 100 hours” of the Democratic agenda, in which the House passed bills raising the minimum wage, expanding stem cell research and lowering interest rates on student loans.

That message is particularly applicable in the several districts where former Republican incumbents have decided to or are thinking about running again, he said. Former Reps. Jim Ryun (R-Kan.) and Jeb Bradley (R-N.H.) have both said they will run for their old seats, and others could follow.

“Our message is: The voters asked for change last November, they asked for a new direction,” Van Hollen said. “Our guys are delivering on their promises, and yet these guys apparently just want to go back to the same model voters clearly rejected in November.”