By Paul Bedard, Washington Whispers
Rep. Chris Van Hollen was a soccer coach long before he arrived on Capitol Hill as a Maryland Democrat. And he's fast finding that strategizing with young players for a one- or two-goal victory, especially against more aggressive teams, works just as well for his job as chairman of the group tasked with electing Democrats. "Being well prepared," he says, "can influence things."
As chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, Van Hollen is facing a GOP wave that is growing like the one that crashed on the Democrats in 1994, giving Republicans control of the House for the first time in decades. And now the worst has arrived for the Democrats, in the form of bad polls and voter anger. But Van Hollen is ready, as he set his game plan early, in the heady days of President Obama's inauguration. His motto: "Prepare for the worst." He started back in the spring with a quiet meeting of Democrats who were in charge in 1994, picking their brains for ideas on how to avoid a repeat. What they told him was to prepare early, raise money, and tutor members who are in tough re-election fights.
Here's how the coach reacted: He put 42 Democrats in the "Frontline Program," designed to assist the candidates most vulnerable to Republican challengers. He encourages new members to keep in close touch with voters and, if it helps, even vote against Speaker Nancy Pelosi's programs if that's what voters back home want. "Vote your conscience, your Constitution, and your constituents," Van Hollen urges. And he has kept retirements low and has fended off other Democratic leaders trying to recruit star House members to run for the Senate and for governor.
Still, Republicans are hopeful of beating at least 25 to 30 Democrats—the average loss by a first-term president's party—and some are talking about as many as 50. The reason, says Ken Spain of the National Republican Congressional Committee: Midterm elections are referendum elections. "If Democrats continue with their agenda of government takeovers at the expense of our nation's economy, Republicans stand to make substantial gains," he says.
Van Hollen isn't scared, though. First, he has an advantage his 1994 Democrats didn't. Voters, says pollster Scott Rasmussen, experienced a Republican-run Congress from 1995 to 2007, and they didn't like it. Second, Obama is still popular, so Van Hollen plans to energize Democrats by warning that a healthy majority is needed to push the president's agenda. "We're not just playing defense," explains the coach. "We're also on offense."
Illustration by Ed Wexler for USN&WR.