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In another sign that House Democrats view the SCHIP stalemate as beneficial to their 2008 political fortunes, Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee Chairman Chris Van Hollen (Md.) told his colleagues on Monday that DCCC polling proves the issue is weakening the re-election prospects of incumbent Republicans.

Van Hollen, in a Nov. 5 letter circulated within the House Democratic Caucus and obtained by Roll Call, revealed that internal DCCC surveys showed Democratic challengers gaining ground because of the battle over the State Children’s Health Insurance Program. Van Hollen contended that Republicans who refuse to back the Democratic proposal to extend SCHIP could face a voter revolt in their home districts.

“Last week we saw the latest evidence that our fight to provide health coverage to 10 million children through SCHIP is continuing to resonate with the American people — especially in key Congressional districts,” Van Hollen wrote. “As [DCCC poll] findings confirm, vulnerable Republicans who continue to vote in lock step with George Bush against SCHIP will be held accountable by their constituents.”

Van Hollen cited internal DCCC polling in Michigan’s 9th district, where Democrats are targeting Rep. Joe Knollenberg (R), and in Missouri’s 9th district and Virginia’s 2nd district, held by Reps. Kenny Hulshof (R) and Thelma Drake (R), respectively.

Knollenberg is a major Democratic target this cycle, and Drake’s district is one the DCCC targeted in 2006 but has no challenger for yet. Hulshof’s district gave President Bush 59 percent of the vote in 2004 and has not been considered a major battleground in recent cycles.

The National Republican Congressional Committee dismissed Van Hollen’s claims as baseless and misleading, contending that the contents of his letter proves the Democrats are more interested in politicizing SCHIP than in passing a bill that provides health care to needy children.

NRCC spokesman Ken Spain said Democrats tried the same argument in the special election campaign in Massachusetts’ 5th district last month, but that it failed to resonate. Although now-Rep. Niki Tsongas (D) won that race, her 6-point victory was much closer than the overwhelmingly Democratic nature of the district suggested it should have been.

“If Democrats want to continue to politicize the issue of children’s health care, then we welcome them to it,” Spain said. “So far the Democrat-led Congress has only reaffirmed the perception that they cannot get a single thing done and their approval rating shows it. That is the polling number I would be worried about most if I were them.”

Nearly a third of the House Republican Conference has voted for the Democratic-supported extension of SCHIP. But a majority has helped sustain Bush’s veto of the bill. SCHIP was first passed in the 1990s when Republicans controlled Congress.

Democrats have criticized Republicans for refusing to support the current bill, as it would increase spending over current levels and insure more children. Republicans argue the bill would allow illegal immigrants access to government-subsidized health insurance and expand eligibility of the program to include children of parents who can afford private coverage.

Democrats believe Republicans’ votes against the current bill to expand SCHIP could be fatal in next year’s elections. To underscore this point, Van Hollen in his letter referenced a DCCC-sponsored poll of Knollenberg’s district conducted Oct. 30-Nov. 2 by Greenberg Quinlan Rosner Research, a Democratic firm based in Washington, D.C. The poll of 413 likely voters had a margin of error of 4.8 points.

Van Hollen said it was proof positive that Knollenberg is vulnerable because of his position on the current SCHIP bill. The poll memo prepared by Greenberg Quinlan Rosner Research noted radio ads by the DCCC and television spots by the American Federation of State County and Municipal Employees — both hitting Knollenberg on SCHIP — and credited them for softening up support for the Congressman among voters.

According to this survey, portions of which were obtained by Roll Call, Knollenberg’s lead over his likely challenger, state Lottery Commissioner Gary Peters (D), was at 7 points — 42 percent to 35 percent — a 5-point drop from the advantage the incumbent held in April.

Knollenberg’s 7-point lead turned into a 7-point deficit after respondents were read both a push question characterizing his position on SCHIP, and the Democratic and Republican arguments for and against the program.

“As you may know, Joe Knollenberg voted AGAINST preserving and expanding the State Children’s Health Insurance Program, which provides health care to children in low-income families,” this portion of the poll read.

“Let me read you two statements about this: Democrats say that Knollenberg voted three times against the bipartisan plan to provide 10 million children with access to affordable health care, including 100 thousand children here in Michigan.

“Joe Knollenberg says he supports children’s health insurance, but this plan is socialized medicine which would insure children from families making more than $70,000 per year.”

Knollenberg campaign manager Mike Brownfield did not dispute the poll’s findings out of hand. But he accused the DCCC poll of distorting Knollenberg’s position on SCHIP and said he’s seen no evidence that the Congressman has suffered at home as a result of his votes against the bill being pushed by the Democrats.

“What we’re looking at is the strong support he’s always had,” Brownfield said. “He has voters who are telling him ‘thank you’ for his position.”

Spokesmen for Drake and Hulshof reacted similarly. They slammed the Democrats for “playing politics” with children’s health care rather than choosing to fashion a compromise that could pass the Congress with a veto-proof majority.

Republican pollster David Winston said he has yet to see any evidence that suggests Republicans are in trouble because of SCHIP.

Winston said voters support government-subsidized health care for children and definitely want some form of an SCHIP bill to pass. But he said voters tend to support those Republicans who have voted against the current proposal when they hear why they have done so.

Winston, who is a Roll Call contributing writer, said voters are particularly sympathetic to Republicans when they find out that the current Democratic proposal covers adults.

“When Republicans lay out an alternative [proposal], what you find is that the debate is much different,” Winston said.

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