Josh Kurtz: Van Hollen’s Burden

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They finally figured out last week who U.S. Rep. Chris Van Hollen’s general election opponent is going to be. Mike Phillips, a telecommunications consultant, was declared the winner of the Republican primary by something like 35 votes.

It hardly matters. Van Hollen should get his customary 70 percent of the vote on Election Day.

But Van Hollen does have bigger worries. As chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, he’s monitoring dozens of competitive House races across the country. Their outcome will determine whether Republicans seize control of the House after just four years out of power, or whether Democrats are able to hold on to what at the very least is certain to be a severely diminished majority.

For Van Hollen, the stakes couldn’t be higher. He won’t personally be held responsible if the Democrats lose their majority, but as chairman of the DCCC, and someone who holds two leadership positions in the House – he doubles as assistant to the Speaker, a top policy position – he has a lot riding on the nationwide election results.

If Republicans take over, there will be a wave of recriminations in Democratic circles, and even though he’s won plaudits among most political professionals for the way he’s run the DCCC, Van Hollen will inevitably get swept up in its undertow. Not only is his position in leadership at risk, it’s not hyperbole to say that his political future could be highly affected by what transpires on Election Day.

Even if the Democrats somehow hang on to the majority – and Van Hollen will get a fair amount of credit if they do – it’s possible they’d shake up their leadership team, and you never know what might happen to Van Hollen then. He’s close to both Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) and Maryland’s own Steny Hoyer, the House majority leader. Hoyer is bound to emerge from this election less unscathed than Pelosi – a favorite target of both Republicans and conservative Democrats, who are fearful of any association with her.

Right now, the numbers don’t look good – for Van Hollen or the Democrats. All the big-name independent political handicappers, like Charlie Cook and Stuart Rothenberg and Larry Sabato, believe the Republicans will take over in the House. Nate Silver, who runs the popular, numbers-driven blog, calculates that Republicans have a 65 percent chance of winning the majority.

Thanks in no small measure to Van Hollen’s fine work at the DCCC during the last two election cycles – he was head of recruiting for the 2006 cycle and chairman in 2008 – Democrats have a fairly large cushion in the House. Republicans need a net gain of 39 seats in November to win the majority. Factor in the likelihood that Democrats, despite facing a terrible political environment, will flip two to five GOP-held seats, and Republicans need to grab close to 45 Democratic seats to take control.

Van Hollen has done all he can to get Democrats prepared for the onslaught. Even in the heady days following President Obama’s inauguration, when Republicans seemed completely in retreat, Van Hollen was warning his colleagues that they would be facing a difficult election cycle. With some success, he asked prospective retirees to make a decision early, and he lashed members who were running for re-election to raise money and get organized quickly.

Incredibly, some of the most vulnerable House Democrats now look like they’re going to win. Freshman Rep. Walt Minnick (D), who is sitting in an Idaho district that gave Obama only 36 percent of the vote in 2008, is the strong favorite in his race. Alabama Rep. Bobby Bright (D), whose district takes in part of Montgomery plus a lot of rural areas and gave Obama just 37 percent, seems to be in pretty good shape. Some other Democratic incumbents in conservative strongholds look like they’re going to hang on, like Rep. Rick Boucher in southwest Virginia, where Obama took just 40 percent of the vote two years ago.

Van Hollen also has colleagues who haven’t had a tough race in years fighting hard, like Rep. Ike Skelton (D), the chairman of the House Armed Services Committee. Skelton, who is 78, last had a tough re-election race in 1982, but he seems poised to win again in his conservative Missouri district.

In some cases, Democrats have been plain lucky. In South Dakota, for example, Rep. Stephanie Herseth Sandlin (D), a rising star, was thought to be in mortal danger until her Republican challenger, a Palin-esque state legislator named Kristi Noem, confessed that she’d received 20 traffic citations through the years. That resonates in a state where Herseth Sandlin’s predecessor had to resign because he killed a motorcyclist while blowing through a stop sign. Now that race is a tossup.

But for all these encouraging storylines for Democrats, there are danger signs all across the country. In an election year when Republicans are up and Democrats are down, the Democrats simply hold too many seats in deep conservative territory not to sustain terrible losses.

And some of the losses will hurt Democrats particularly hard: 10-term Rep. Chet Edwards (D-Texas), a perennial GOP target who Pelosi touted for vice president in 2008, was 19 points behind his Republican challenger in the latest public poll. He will probably lose. House Budget Committee Chairman John Spratt, who represents a conservative South Carolina district, wanted to retire this year but was persuaded to stay a little longer. He’s been campaigning as if his heart isn’t truly in it, and could lose as a consequence.

And as Election Day draws nearer, more and more districts are popping up, like Whack-a-Mole, where Democrats are suddenly in trouble.

It could be a fairly liberal district, like Iowa’s 2nd, which takes in the college town of Iowa City. Obama won there by 21 points in 2008 and the sophomore Democratic Congressman, Dave Loebsack, won by 18. But now he's in trouble.

Or it could be a very conservative district, like Mississippi’s 4th, along the Gulf Coast. Ten-term Democratic Rep. Gene Taylor won his last race by 49 points even as Obama was losing the White House election by 35 points. His district has also popped up on the competitive radar only recently.

By my count, there are now 110 House races that can be described as fairly competitive this fall. That’s an unusually high number; as recently as 2004, only about one-third that many House districts were in play. Of those 110 seats, only nine are held by Republicans – so you get the idea of the grave danger the Democrats are facing.

Which doesn’t mean that all hope is lost for the Democrats. There’s still five weeks of fighting left, and Van Hollen is doing his best to buck up the troops, promote the Democrats’ cause, and remind voters of his party’s accomplishments since taking control of both ends of Pennsylvania Avenue in January 2009. In many key races, Democrats still have the financial advantage over Republicans.

It probably won’t be enough. And many of Van Hollen's colleagues aren’t helping the cause; they’re running as far away from the party’s record as they possibly can.

But that just about says it all for the Democrats. Whether you like or hate what they’ve done, they took over with multiple crises unfolding simultaneously and they accomplished a lot. But at the slightest hint of voter anger, they turn tail. For that reason alone, they probably deserve the beating they are about to get.

Josh Kurtz is editor of Environment & Energy Daily, a Capitol Hill publication. He can be reached at .

Previous Center Maryland columns by Josh Kurtz:

Not Rhee-a-listic

Tomorrow’s Headlines Today!

20th Century Comes to Baltimore County

Primary Colors

Murphy the Smurf

A Gene for Public Service

No Agnew Here

The Full Montgomery

Shock and Tawes

Uly's Gold

Death and Deadlines

Bad News for Democrats From Washington to Washington County

Mr. Smith Goes ... Where?

End of the Line for Vallario?

Mission: Control

Post Plays Favorites

Red Storm Rising

Michael & Me

Wanted: Fresh Blood


Black and Blue?


Take Me Back to Old Virginny

The Political Lives of Peter Franchot

Bob and Weave

How to Make Prince George's County King

Kane is Able

To Be Frank

Gay Rights and Political Wrongs?

The Washington Post Goes to War

Snow Job

Unsolicited Advice for Ehrlich — Wait Till 2014

The Early Bird Gets the Worm?

Wayne's World May Be Another Planet

Miller Time Comes Early

Owings Owes an Explanation
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Josh Kurtz has been writing about Maryland politics since late 1995. Louie Goldstein, William Donald Schaefer and Pete Rawlings were alive, but the Intercounty Connector, as far as anyone could tell, was dead.

But some things never change: Mike Miller is still in charge of the Senate. Gerry Evans and Bruce Bereano are among the top-earning lobbyists in Annapolis. Steny Hoyer is still waiting for Nancy Pelosi to disappear. And Maryland Republicans are still struggling to be relevant.

The media landscape in Maryland has changed a lot, and Kurtz is happy to write weekly for Center Maryland. He's been writing a column for the website since it launched in January 2010.

In his "real" job, Kurtz is editor of Environment & Energy Daily down on Capitol Hill. But he'll always find Maryland politics more fascinating.

Kurtz grew up in New York City and attended public schools there. He has a BA in History from the University of Wisconsin and an MS in Journalism from Columbia University. He's married with two daughters and lives in Takoma Park, Md. He hopes you'll drop him a line, or maybe go out for a meal with him, because he's always hungry -- for political gossip.