Van Hollen: 2010 Won't Be Like 1994

Unlike his flamboyant predecessor, Rahm Emanuel, the current chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, Maryland Rep. Chris Van Hollen has all 10 fingers and doesn’t curse as much. His style is so markedly different, and low-key, that any profile of him inevitably wonders whether such a nice guy can finish first in the rough scrum of politics. Asked by a reporter why he stayed on at the DCCC for another cycle, after successfully adding seats to the Democratic majority in '08, he said with a laugh, "The speaker made me an offer I couldn't refuse, as they say in The Godfather. She understood this would be a difficult cycle, not a time to bring on someone who needed training wheels.' "

Attracted by the promise of a new title, assistant to the speaker, and a beefed-up staff, Van Hollen took on the challenge of preserving the Democratic majority in what looks like it could be a very Republican year. At a Tuesday morning breakfast sponsored by Third Way, a centrist Democratic group, Van Hollen said he has 42 "frontline members" he is defending, plus 13 Republican seats identified as possible takeovers. Pressed by a reporter to identify the number of seats Democrats could lose that he would consider a success, he politely declined, saying only, "We will hold the majority. This will not be 1994."

He explained that in '94, voters saw the Republicans as a viable alternative. This time, the Democratic strategy is to get people to focus on what it would mean if they were to hand Congress back to the Republicans. The Republican brand is still in the doghouse with the voters. And running on repealing health-care reform is not a winning strategy as people become familiar with the bill's benefits. Van Hollen characterized Republicans as "copilots with the insurance companies." Initial reports are positive from Democratic members at home for spring break in their districts. "It's not like people are all of a sudden converts," says Van Hollen. They want to know what's in the bill, and how it affects them and their families. "They're uncertain about the bill, but they like what they see."

As for the numbers, a loss of 40 seats would give the GOP control of the House. President Obama's role in the fall campaign will vary from district to district, and the president will "take his cue" from individual members, says Van Hollen. With all the predictions of doomsday for the Democrats, Van Hollen reminded reporters that Obama's approval rating, which hovers around 50 percent, is at least 8 points higher than Bill Clinton's and Ronald Reagan's when they faced their first midterms. Reagan escaped relatively unscathed; Clinton watched the House majority go to the Republicans for the first time in 40 years. Van Hollen would probably settle for something in between.