Van Hollen: ’10 Won’t Be Like ’94 — We’ll Be Better Prepared

It’s about the ground game, the base, and using the Republicans’ weaknesses against them–and even then it will be a hard slog.

In the clearest articulation yet of his strategy to avoid huge losses at the polls this November, the chairman of the House Democrats’ re-election committee, Rep. Chris Van Hollen (D-MD) says vulnerable members will be better prepared than their counterparts were in 1994, when a huge wave of Republicans swept into office and took control of Congress. And this time around, the Republicans have a number of problems of their own: Sarah Palin, the radicalized tea party movement, an association with Bush-era economic policies, and, more generally, a sense among the electorate that they don’t represent a real alternative.“To the extent that there’s a national message, the message will be, again, do you really want to go back to the Bush economic policies, because one thing is pretty clear is that that’s question is fresh in voters minds,” Van Hollen told me and two other reporters after a breakfast roundtable discussion this morning. “When you ask them who’s responsible for the huge deficits, they still appropriately lay more of the responsibility [on George Bush].”

In response to a question from TPMDC, Van Hollen said that the Democrats’ health care victory has measurably bolstered the energy of the activist base of the party–though it’s unclear what impact passage of the law has had on the GOP base, which will ultimately determine whether Democrats can shrink the enthusiasm gap this November.

“We’ve seen a big increase in enthusiasm among the Democratic activist voters, and you can measure that in terms of emails, phone calls, and at the DCCC you can measure that in terms of grassroots online contributions which took a huge jump after the passage of health care reform,” Van Hollen said. “It restored a lot of peoples faith that were able to get things done, that we were able to deliver on a promise that the president campaigned on.”

What impact health care reform will have on the Republican base, Van Hollen said, remains a big question mark. “[W]hat they’re clearly trying to do by this repeal the bill effort is to keep the energy that was there on the right against the bill and try and channel that somehow in these elections,” he added. “And I’m not sure whether that’s going to be sustainable or not. We’ll have to see.”

That’s not to say he’s overly confident. “It’s clear we have a tough political challenge ahead of us,” Van Hollen said. In that regard, he met early this year with Vic Fazio and Martin Frost–veterans of the post Clinton Care tsunami–to arm himself against a repeat of the ’94 midterms. That landslide came as something of a surprise. This time around, Democrats know they face a difficult season, and are taking steps, even in small ways, to prepare themselves, and their 41 or 42 “frontline” members to be as competitive as possible.

“You can start your campaigns earlier, you can put together a good field operation earlier, you can try to make sure you raise money to get your message out,” Van Hollen said. “And those can have an effect at the margin.”

Separately, Van Hollen said, Democrats will use Republican weaknesses to their own advantage–and those weaknesses are by and large a factor of their association with polarizing and controversial members of their party, factions of their base, and the tough votes they’ve had to take as a result.

“The fact that every single Republican in the House voted against Wall Street accountability is something that voters will be hearing about in the next election,” Van Hollen promised.

Van Hollen believes that Palin, and her work on behalf of Republican candidates, “will energize Democratic activists. It will remind them of all the reasons its important for them to come out in these elections.”

“[W]hile governor Palin is effective at rallying the tea party movement constituency, she can be a very polarizing figure, and if you’re an independent voter, I’m not sure having Sarah Palin endorse one of the candidates is going to make you more likely to support that candidate,” Van Hollen added. “In fact it may well have the opposite effect.”

I asked Van Hollen to what extent the national Democratic party will use months worth of file footage, photographs, and news stories to tie Republican incumbents and challengers to the tea party movement. And though it doesn’t appear as if Democrats will blanket the field to tar their rivals by broad association to the far right, they will take note when Republicans try to curry favor with tea partiers and others.

“To the extent that the Republican nominee makes wild statements in order to be embraced by certain elements of the tea party movement, I think that will come back to haunt them in the general election,” Van Hollen said.