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Van Hollen Sees Wide Playing Field in 2008

Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee Chairman Chris Van Hollen (Md.) predicted Monday that a “significant number of seats” will make up the House playing field in 2008, vowing that Democrats will stay on offense even as they seek to defend their newly minted majority next year.

In an interview Monday with Roll Call reporters and editors, Van Hollen also predicted that the presidential election will be more helpful than hurtful to Democratic candidates across the country.

“We may disagree on which seats are in play,” Van Hollen said of himself and National Republican Congressional Committee Chairman Tom Cole (Okla.). “But we both would agree that there’s lots of seats in play.”

House Republicans have said they intend to expand the playing field by targeting many of the roughly 60 seats that are held by Democrats but were carried by President Bush in the past two White House contests.

But Van Hollen disputed the notion that those incumbents would be automatically vulnerable in a presidential year, noting that about half of those are entrenched incumbents who previously have weathered difficult political conditions.

“They have already survived a Republican [presidential] headwind in their districts before. Every one of the Members that were here before this past year,” he said. “So I think they are battle tested and I think they will do fine. I also think, at least right now, the political environment will favor our incumbents as they go into it.”

Van Hollen argued that the political environment next year may not be that different from 2006 — when Democrats picked up 30 seats in the House on their way to winning the majority.

The Democrats’ success in the past cycle has aided early recruitment efforts this year, Van Hollen said, with prospective candidates “more willing and eager to take a look earlier on and sign on.

So far, the DCCC has 16 would-be challengers who have given commitments to running next year.

Democrats are particularly encouraged by the commitments of Charlie Brown to run against Rep. John Doolittle (R-Calif.), Dan Seals to run against Rep. Mark Kirk (R-Ill.), Larry Kissell to run against Rep. Robin Hayes (R-N.C.) and state Rep. Steve Driehaus to run against Rep. Steve Chabot (R-Ohio).

All but Driehaus are candidates who ran and lost in the 2006 cycle.

But another byproduct of Democrats’ success last year is an increased number of vulnerable freshmen who defeated Republicans in moderate- or conservative-leaning districts.

“We are aware of the fact that is the first place a Republican committee would look and we are making sure that our Members there are doing a good job at reaching out to their constituencies,” Van Hollen said. “These are people who ran terrific races, I think, that connected with their voters and they understand they need to cement that relationship with their voters.”

Almost all of those at-risk freshmen are among the 29 Members in Frontline, the DCCC’s flagship fundraising program for vulnerable incumbents.

Van Hollen said the committee is on target for meeting its fundraising goals. He maintained that their practices for cultivating cash would remain largely unchanged from their days in the minority and dismissed the notion that they would adopt the “K Street Project” model and “pay to play” methods that Democrats criticized Republicans for in the past election.

“We are simply moving forward just as we did in the minority trying to raise funds,” he said. “My guess is that the Republicans will continue to be able to have access to a lot more fundraising then we do, but we do well with what we are able to raise and we think we spend it more effectively and more efficiently.”

One of the biggest unknowns remains what the open-seat landscape will look like next year.

Using the 1996 election as a historical indicator — because it was the last one that took place after a shift in control of the House — Van Hollen said increased GOP retirements are to be expected. He said that the cycle after Democrats lost control of the House in 1994, members of the new minority retired at twice the normal rate.

“The open-seat issue remains an open question,” Van Hollen acknowledged.

Van Hollen said the DCCC will continue to target vulnerable GOP incumbents who are perennial targets but survived the strong Democratic tide of 2006. He also said there are about 32 Republicans who won re-election by a margin of less than 10 percent and that there were more Republicans than Democrats overall who won by small margins.

He also said Democrats will be helped by increased voter turnout in a presidential election year in some of those districts, and he again noted Democrats’ optimism that the party has new room for growth among suburban voters.

“There were lots of very close races last time and we think every one of them is an opportunity going forward,” he said. “You could make a strong argument that we will do even better in the presidential election year.”

Even with historic victory in 2006, Van Hollen said Democrats still have room to expand the playing field further next year.

Van Hollen said the DCCC will strive to recruit strong candidates in several potentially competitive seats that have been left on the table by Democrats in recent cycles. He mentioned Michigan specifically as an example of a state where several opportunities lie.

He said the DCCC will again look to target ethically challenged Members, specifically referencing Rep. Gary Miller (R-Calif.), who is under federal investigation.

“One of the lessons from the last election, even if you have a district which is a Republican-leaning district, if there is an ethics problem with either the Member in that district or even in some cases the immediate predecessor, people look for a change,” he said.

As far as any negative political ramifications for his party because of the Iraq War, which is expected to again play a significant role in the 2008 elections, Van Hollen noted that all of the vulnerable Democratic freshmen voted in favor of a supplemental bill last week that sets a target date for troop withdrawal from Iraq.

He said those freshmen have the pulse of their districts on Iraq, because they’re “fresh off the campaign trail” and that many took a leading role in the debate.

“I would worry more if I were on the other side of this vote,” he said.

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