By ALIA MALIK, Capital News Service
WASHINGTON - A week before midterm congressional elections, the nationwide buzz is that Democrats could take over the House of Representatives—and Rep. Chris Van Hollen, D-Kensington, could claim a smidgen of the credit if they do.
Van Hollen is co-chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee's "Red to Blue" program, which helps strong Democratic candidates in their quest to unseat Republican incumbents.
The congressman from Maryland's 8th District visited New York and Ohio last week to add still more candidates to his list of those who have the potential to defeat "red" incumbents. The Red to Blue list is now 60 candidates strong.
"It can be a whirlwind tour," he said. "In many of these places you touch down and do a string of events . . . and then it's either back home or on to the next one."
As co-directors, Van Hollen and Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz, D-Fla., coordinate and oversee the program, raise money and connect candidates with the media, Schultz said. Once a week, their day starts with a 7 a.m. meeting with DCCC chairman Rahm Emanuel, D-Ill.
Van Hollen's campaigning style has strengthened the program, Schultz said.
"He's very thorough," she said. "He really spends a lot of time on all the details of these races."
Van Hollen participates in, as well as runs, the program. As one of the Democratic incumbents serving as mentors to Red to Blue candidates, he has been making trips to other states for endorsement announcements, press conferences and volunteer recruitment events. When the candidates were too far away, like in Arizona or Nevada, they came to him instead and staged functions here.
"We've actually had quite a few in the Washington area, including our district," Van Hollen said.
Even when he's home, he works with his candidate "buddies" by phone, helping them research their message and assemble a campaign team. He gives out his cell phone number so candidates can call with questions or for advice, some of his beneficiaries said.
Democratic candidate Joe Courtney, who is running against Rep. Rob Simmons in Connecticut's 2nd Congressional District, said Van Hollen has done research to back up Courtney's position on Iraq, arranged for high-profile "surrogates" like House Majority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., to stump for him and directed DCCC funds his way. Polls have shown him and Simmons to be statistically tied.
"If you've got a dead-heat race as a challenger, I think it's working," Courtney said.
Jill Derby, also running a neck-and-neck race as a Democrat for Nevada's 2nd Congressional District, has received equally personal attention. Van Hollen called political action committees for her, and advised her on fundraising and the personal pressures of campaigning, Derby said.
"He gives really good advice," she said. "He's taught me that politics is local and to know my district and trust my instincts."
Those are lessons Van Hollen knows well from his first run for Congress in 2002, which he won in an upset against eight-term Republican incumbent Connie Morella. Van Hollen said Pelosi and Emanuel asked him to lead Red to Blue because his race "provided a good example."
As head of the DCCC's candidate recruitment committee, Van Hollen's involvement in this effort is not recent. He has been recruiting candidates since the election cycle began in February of last year, he said.
"We were at this when people really didn't that think we could take back the House," he said.
Before candidates could qualify for Red to Blue, they had to demonstrate strength in fundraising and attracting volunteers, Van Hollen said. The DCCC also looked at how Democratic the district was and whether the incumbent was vulnerable. Not surprisingly, the districts of scandal-ridden Republicans like Tom DeLay of Texas and Robert W. Ney of Ohio are among those targeted.
Since the first phase of Red to Blue began in the spring, Van Hollen has spent "a fair amount" of time on it, although he's not taking his own campaign for granted, he said.
His Republican challenger, Jeff Stein of Rockville, couldn't say his challenger's double focus had affected the campaign odds, which favor Van Hollen.
Van Hollen, Stein said, is more motivated by political ambition than substance.
"Everything's fake," Stein said. "He's not really doing much in terms of offering much into the political dialogue, the issues."
Van Hollen declined to predict next week's election results, but expressed optimism.
"Right now I'd rather be in our shoes than their shoes," he said. "I think we have a lot of momentum."