DCCC Chair Chris Van Hollen on Lessons Learned and the Road Ahead

by , posted on Saturday, May 8th, 2010 at 6:00 am

In Red to Blue: Congressman Chris Van Hollen and Grassroots Politics, author Sanford Gottlieb tells the story of Chris Van Hollen’s successful grassroots campaign for Congress in 2002, and the lessons Van Hollen, and others, took away from that campaign in subsequent election cycles.

Van Hollen’s district

is MD-08, located in Washington DC’s Maryland suburbs. In the primary he beat frontrunner Mark Shriver, a Kennedy cousin with a lot of money to spend and a consultant by the name of David Axelrod on his team. He then went on to unseat longtime incumbent Connie Morella in the general election that fall. Morella was a well-liked, liberal Republican who had been long thought to be unbeatable, having enjoyed more than a little bit of support from local Democrats through the years on election day. And Van Hollen pulled this off in a Republican year. This was the first congressional election to be held after 9/11. The Republicans won back control of the Senate in 2002 and added to their majority in the House. Only two Democrats unseated incumbent Republicans that year. Chris Van Hollen was one of them.

Van Hollen has brought this experience to bear in his subsequent work at the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee (DCCC). And he was not the only one to go to school on that 2002 campaign. As Gottlieb puts it:

David Axelrod told Van Hollen in 2008 that he had learned some lessons from being on the other side of the 2002 primary. It was a really good grassroots campaign, Axelrod said, with the passion on Van Hollen’s side. Van Hollen carried the lessons learned in 2002 into the successful effort to build a House Democratic majority in 2006. Axelrod and David Plouffe may have applied those lessons in the 2008 50-state race for the White House. (Gottlieb, Red to Blue, 32)

Last week Van Hollen appeared with Gottlieb at a book event in Washington, DC and talked about his attempt to apply those lessons learned to his work with the DCCC. Van Hollen’s introductory remarks, plus the question and answer session that followed, are presented below.

CVH: I had served in the Maryland legislature for twelve years, four years in the House of Delegates and eight years in the State Senate, and I had the opportunity to get involved with a lot of issues and work with a lot of people in the community, primarily on a grassroots basis, working with different organizations. Whether it was having safer handgun laws in Maryland, or whether it was working with health groups to try and prevent teen smoking and increase the tobacco tax.

So when I ran for Congress in 2002 I was fortunate. I was able to reach out to a group of people who cared about issues, who were focusing on a lot of issues that I worked on in the state legislature, and that became the basis of our campaign. It was a grassroots, bottom-up effort. And as a result of our ability to pull together a lot of people from different backgrounds and interests in the primary, we were able to build a lot of energy around things people really did care about. And that is what made the difference in the campaign, both in the primary and in the general election of 2002. We were able to put together a very broad activist base who focused on particular issues, but then also went and spoke to people in their communities about the issues they cared about.

And interestingly, Mark Shriver’s campaign consultant at the time was David Axelrod. He had a good team. We also, it turns out, had a very good team. Our team started as a group of volunteers and then we brought some others on over time, but it is absolutely true that when it came to the field operation and the volunteer organization we had a much stronger base.

One of the people who is here tonight is Johanna Berkson, who currently works at the DCCC, but let me just tell you a little story. [applause] It’s illustrative of the campaign we ran, because she walked into our headquarters one day, I don’t even know, I can’t remember what motivated her to do it. She’s a tennis player, instructs people in tennis at the University of Maryland, College Park, she graduated from there, and she was interested in getting involved in the campaign. We immediately put her to work, and she got involved on different parts of the campaign, and then got very involved on the fundraising piece of the campaign. Our fundraising was primarily, again, trying to put together house parties and trying to ask people to contribute, based on calling their neighbors and friends and that kind of thing. And Johanna ended up doing that. Then pretty soon she proved herself indispensable and she was hired on the campaign. We had a low budget, believe me, but she was hired. Then afterwards remained engaged and went to work with me in my Washington office and now works at the DCCC. But her story is kind of the story of how our campaign got together because there were lots of people who joined us as a result of that effort.

Now, just to fast forward a little, because I’m not going to go into great detail about that campaign, other than the fact we liked the outcome, and I want to thank anybody here who was part of that effort, but there were important lessons learned there that I’ve worked to try and transfer to our work in the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, and which we employed in the last couple of cycles, and which will be essential in this cycle, which is going to be a very, very tough cycle for a number of reasons which I’ll talk about.

But the lesson was, number one, you always have to raise enough money to get your message out. You don’t have to raise more than the other guy, in fact in both the primary and in the general our campaign was outspent in 2002. We did not have as much money as competitors in either the primary or the general. But it is also true that you have to at least have enough to get your mail out, to get your radio ads out, to get some television, to get television ads on the air. And so that’s a requirement. That’s a necessary but not a sufficient condition to win.

In order to win, I believe, you have to put together that great grassroots operation that reaches out and includes people in the community. And while a lot of campaigns use paid people to go door-to-door –- and that’s not a bad thing, I mean that’s a good thing to have as part of a campaign because when you have paid people to go door-to-door you can make sure that they’re always there right on time and that kind of thing –- however, from my perspective, you need to build around that. The main focus of your grassroots effort has to be a volunteer base. So you have to have people in the community who are willing to go knock on doors, talk to their neighbors, and say, you know, “please support Chris Van Hollen” or whoever the candidate may be. And just importing people to do that is not in and of itself enough. You really need people who are invested from the community who can go out, because they’re much more passionate about convincing their neighbors about why this election is important and why they need to get involved.

So this cycle, as in last cycle, we are making sure that in our campaigns we try and build that kind of local volunteer-based grassroots effort to supplement any paid efforts that are going on. And in an off-year election, where all of you know you tend to have much lower turn out than a presidential election, that kind of grassroots activity is going to be absolutely essential to bring people out.

One of the big challenges we have on the Democratic side this cycle is the political energy level of voters. I’m really glad we passed health care reform because it was a great thing for the country and it’s something we’ve been working on for a very long time, to try and plug a big hole. I’m also glad we passed it because there are a lot of people who had become very dispirited when the early obituaries had been written on health care reform. And the fact that we were able to revive that and get it passed, I think, helps regain the confidence of a lot of people who had otherwise lost confidence. However, even having passed that, if you ask people today, people on the right are still more energized and likely to vote in this election than Democratic activists in the Democratic base. It’s just the intensity level right now, I’m talking about nationally, remains primarily on the right, which means that if you’re calling up voters and asking “How likely are you to vote in this election?” what we’re finding is that a lot of folks on the right are saying we can’t wait to get out to the polls in this election, and there’s still a little more complacency on the other side. It’s something that we’re going to have to remedy between now and election day. And having a good community-based, grassroots effort is part of that. That kind of outreach to neighbors, explaining why elections are so important.

So we’ve tried to borrow on some of the lessons we learned back in 2002 in these elections the last couple of cycles, and they’re gonna be very important in this cycle, because this cycle the Democrats are facing a situation where we have a historical challenge. Since Abraham Lincoln was President of the United States there have been only two times in U.S. history where a new President’s party has won seats in the first mid-term election: 1934 under Franklin Roosevelt and 2002 under George Bush. And in George Bush’s case you had congressional redistricting take place nationally after the 2000 census, and that redrawing of the lines actually benefited the Republicans, which in part explains 2002. But my point is, from Abraham Lincoln to today, other than those two times, new President’s parties have lost seats in elections and in most cases lost lots of seats.

You layer on top of that the fact that the Democrats have picked up 55 seats in the last three years. The last two elections, 2006, 2008, we’ve picked up 55 seats. Most of them being in swing territory, difficult political territory, sort of the 50/50 districts, where the independent voters were the swing voters, and it’s very clear that in order to win in those districts, to keep hold of those seats, in addition to having that turnout, we also need a majority of independent voters. And as of right now, primarily because of the state of the economy, we do not have the independent vote on our side to the extent that we did in the past. So we’re going to have to work very hard to regain those voters, even as we make sure we keep the activist voters energized, and more energized than they are today.

We sometimes have the debate within the Democratic Party: “What do you want to focus on? Do you want to focus on getting out the activist voter base? Or do you want to focus on independent voters?” We do not have the luxury of that choice. In these swing districts that we’ve won both things have to happen, and that is our challenge.

The good news is we’ve recognized the challenge from the beginning of the cycle, even as we were all, on the Democratic side, celebrating the election of Barack Obama and majorities in the Congress. We got to work, trying to make sure that, to the extent things were within the control of our candidates, that we would be prepared. And that is our effort, and that’s what the “Red to Blue,” the title of the book, is. A program we have in the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee. We have two programs, one is the Frontline program, and that’s to protect incumbent members from tough districts. Then Red to Blue is on offense, and we are remaining on offense in a number of seats around the country, recognizing that when you pick up 55 seats you’re obviously now playing on a smaller amount of political territory, by necessity. We haven’t given up the fight where we can field good strong candidates, but it’s going to be a different kind of dynamic this time, obviously, than the last two races.

So, let me end there, and thank

Sandy, because in addition to Johanna, Sandy, and I see Gladys, exemplifies the kind of volunteers that helped fuel our campaign and helped fuel the success of the 2002 election, and I believe are the real heroes in our democracy, because they are the citizens who take their responsibility seriously about getting involved. Regardless of what party they may be in, those people who take it upon themselves to get involved in a meaningful way make our democracy work. So, thank you. This book is dedicated to Dorothy Davidson, coordinator of our volunteers during that, and so it really is dedicated to all the volunteers who make our democracy work. So, thank you all for being here and I’d be happy to try to answer any questions.

Q: Chris, you said we need an issue that fires up the base and also gets swing and independent voters, and I can’t think of a better issue than Wall Street reform. Keep pounding away on those guys, okay, because that’s political gold and it’s the right thing to do.

CVH: Thank you, and thank you for all the work you do with Progressive Maryland, which has been great, under your leadership, in terms of building grassroots efforts in Maryland.

Let me just say a word about the Wall Street accountability legislation. I agree with you. This is sort of Exhibit A in the kind of fight that we’re having between those who want to protect business as usual and the status quo, which got us into this mess to begin with, and those who want to reform the system and put in place real checks and balances and make sure that never again are taxpayers left holding the bag for the decisions, bad decisions made by Wall Street. I mean, we want a system where bad decisions on Wall Street affect the people who’ve made the bad decisions, and don’t threaten everybody else throughout the economy. And that we have a system that makes sure that never again that everybody else is sorta held hostage to those bad decisions. So, we’re really pleased that we passed it in the House in December.

I was always frustrated by the fact that, largely because we were all still in the health care debate, people didn’t even realize we passed a Wall Street reform bill in the House. I actually talked to Axelrod at the White House, said “Come on guys, aren’t you gonna talk about it?” and I think for one Sunday they went out and talked about it, but, you know, almost of necessity the conversation went back to health care reform. But now that that’s done and the focus is on Wall Street accountability, I’m pleased that the Senate did what I can tell you those of us in House have been asking them to do for a long time, which is to have a real filibuster, and it worked! It worked! [applause]

They’ve only tried to filibuster, really, maybe twice in the last couple months and both times it worked. One was when Senator Bunning from Kentucky held up the emergency funding for unemployment compensation. A couple of Senators went to the floor and said “Okay, we’re gonna debate it.” And on Wall Street reform it was the same thing. Some of the folks who have been around the Senate a long time take the view that “Oh, someone’s gonna object. Let’s just move on to something else.” But I think they’ve realized finally that on an issue like this, when the American public sees the opponents of reform stalling, it does, over time, create pressure on them to come around because of the magnitude of this issue. So, I’m very hopeful we’ll get something done and I’m hoping that the Senate doesn’t water it down, because I believe that, you keep the pressure on it, we will get a reform bill.

Q: I’m a Montgomery County native, but I’ve been up in Maine for several years, and in 2008 I think a lot of us took your race against Connie Morella as a model for Tom Allen trying to knock off Susan Collins. I know I spent a lot of time on it, at the doors and on the phones saying “Yeah, she’s a nice lady, but look who she organizes with” and, as you probably know, it didn’t work. I was wondering if you could explain, obviously there are differences between Montgomery County and the state of Maine, but how far does that strategy go of saying “you may like the person, but look at the party, look at the leadership that person is supporting”?

CVH: Yeah, that’s a good question. I have to confess I don’t know all the ins and outs of that, Tom’s race. I’m a big fan of Tom Allen, I think he would have been a great Senator. We’d have our 60 votes for sure in the Senate these days if he’d prevailed. A couple things. One is scale. I would recommend Senate races also have a model where you have a big grassroots effort, but it is obviously harder to implement in as aggressive and complete a manner on a total statewide basis. It requires even more organization. Although clearly the fact that the Obama campaign did something on a national scale shows it did scale. So I don’t know to what extent in the state of Maine you guys were able to take that model and really take a grassroots operation statewide, number one.

Number two, again, I just don’t know all the dynamics of the race. What happened in the Eighth congressional district [of Maryland] was that, in the general election, when the National Republican Campaign Committee came in and started hitting me with negative ads, it was kind of a wake-up call to a lot of Democrats who had been voting for Connie Morella. The issue we then raised with voters was “Well, if it’s true that Connie Morella is so independent minded, and always voting with the Democrats, why is it that the National Republican Campaign Committee is spending all this money running ads against that Van Hollen guy? You know? Clearly they have a big interest, the national Republican Party, in keeping Connie Morella there.” And when that question got posed, a lot of people said “You know what? That makes sense. Why is the national Republican Party’s fighting so hard for somebody who says she’s always voting with the Democrats?”

And, again, I don’t know all the dynamics in the Maine race. That’s what had to happen, because obviously, if you have somebody like Connie Morella, who is winning by 65% of the vote in the year 1998 and before, that kind of change in the voter’s minds had to take place. Because no longer was she seen as just a Republican who wasn’t harming the agenda. She was seen as somebody who was enabling the Tom DeLay Republican agenda at the time, and that switch is what changed things. Because, you know, Connie Morella is a nice person, and the day she was defeated she still had very high favorable ratings, but people, I think rightly, concluded that she was enabling. Obviously she was part of what became, what was, the Republican majority. I spent another four years, after being elected, in that Republican majority, and I can tell you, well, you know all the results. It was not a happy place to be in the minority party. She was a part of the majority that was stopping progress on some big issues and people woke up to that. I guess in Maine they didn’t.

Q: I wanted to ask a question about the 2008 election cycle. It seems to me there was a series of special elections early in the year that were very important in helping you set a frame for what could happen in November, to suggest the possibility that there was a Democratic tsunami coming. The first of those, in Illinois with Bill Foster, a physicist, with no background in politics, moves to Washington DC to become a non-partisan $1-a-year man, and two years later he wins a congressional seat that been held for twenty years by Dennis Hastert. And then a couple more special election wins follow and suddenly there is a frame there which is setting the narrative for the fall.

I’m wondering if you could go into a little more detail than there was room for in the book, to explain the kind of work that the DCCC does in situations like this, with somebody like Bill Foster, to recruit, mentor, develop them, to take them where you helped take Bill Foster, I gather.

CVH: Sure. Well, Bill Foster was somebody who, as you said, was a scientist, he was a businessman. He’d gotten interested in politics in the 2006 cycle and actually moved temporarily to Philadelphia, the Philadelphia area, to work on the Patrick Murphy race. And he, like we at the DCCC, believed in the field operation. He was actually involved in helping chart the field operation in Patrick Murphy’s race in 2006. So, he was somebody who was interested in politics, but what he had not done before was put together a big organization to run for Congress. And in these elections it’s absolutely essential that you put something together fairly quickly, to get up and running, and that is where the DCCC has, does have a good track record

We are able to go in and help provide expertise in terms of putting together a staff that has a good public outreach and press operation, that has somebody who’s focused on the fundraising piece, who has somebody who is focused on the field operation piece, and we work very hard to provide the resources to do that. In Bill Foster’s case we were able to build a fairly extensive grassroots operation within, very quickly. Then we were able to draw on our members of the Democratic Caucus and others to provide him the resources that he needed, that his campaign needed to get on the air. And, of course, the other piece of it is contrasting yourself with your opponent in a way that speaks to the voters. In that case, he was running, it was Oberweis, the ice-cream man, and there were lots of points of contrast with him that we could emphasize.

There are two good examples this cycle, two that we’re very pleased with. One with Scott Murphy, who won in NY-20, which is the Gillibrand seat. When she was appointed to the Senate seat, Scott Murphy ran. Scott Murphy had no background in politics –- I shouldn’t say no background –- he had no background in elective office, hadn’t run for anything. He was an entrepreneur. And it was at a time, this was back earlier last year when jobs were the number one issue that was on people’s minds, and we were able to bring together a good organization around him, maximize his ability to raise money. It was an interesting race, because here you had Scott Murphy, who had zero name recognition, zero, no involvement in politics, and he was running against the Republican leader in the New York State Senate, a guy by the name of Tedisco. And the big issue, we looked at the issues, and the defining issue we decided at that time was the economic recovery bill, the stimulus bill to get the economy turned around. Not a single Republican in the House, not one, voted for the economic recovery bill that recharged the economy. And Scott Murphy came out for it early on. He was the entrepreneur, jobs. And Tedisco, his Republican opponent, refused to take a position for a very long time and finally came out against it. That provided a lot of energy around Scott Murphy’s campaign. We had one big defining issue in the middle, you know, people losing a lot of jobs back then and here’s a guy who says he didn’t want to support the stimulus effort to get things turned around, and Scott Murphy ran on that, as a businessman And by God the guy who had zero name recognition beat the guy who started out with much higher, he was the State Senate President, or Republican leader, I should say.

And then Bill Owens, in upstate New York, NY-23, same thing. Bill Owens had no electoral background. This was in the middle of the summer, during the, all those town hall meetings, when everyone was raging out there. And once again we were able to very quickly get an organization around Bill Owens, a good volunteer organization. The economy was the issue, and, as you probably know, in that race another couple things developed which is that the local, the Republican Party there nominated someone by the name of Dede Scozzafava, who was a moderate Republican, and that’s when Sarah Palin and all the other folks came in to support this right-wing guy who’s running for reelection, he was a tea party candidate. And so everything blew up on the Republican side and Bill Owens had a steady campaign, again, based on the economy, based on his experience as a local businessman, active in the community and good works, and he won.

And now we have another special election coming up. These special elections, I gotta tell ya, I’m getting tired of them. We have one in May, on May 18th, up in Jack Murtha’s old seat. Mark Critz is our candidate. He’s running against a self-financed businessman this time. We have a great field operation over there and this is a tough, tough seat. Charlie Cook, who’s the guy who looks

at the races and is the odds maker, just put this as tilt Republican. We’re okay if he wants to call it that way, leaning right now. It’s neck and neck, and we’re gonna be fighting it out, and people are gonna be watching this race because you can be sure that if the Democrats lose the Republicans will say after Massachusetts this is another sign, although this is no Massachusetts. This is a tough seat for Democrats. I mean, Jack Murtha represented an area. This district did not vote for a moderate. It’s the only district in the country, here’s a good piece of trivia, it’s the only district in the county that went for John Kerry in the 2004 Presidential election that did not go for Barack Obama in 2008. The only one in the country, as far as I can tell.

Then we’ve got another special election in Hawaii that’s a whole ‘nother story, which is unfortunately a mess, because we have two Democrats and one Republican in what would be for sure a Democratic seat if we didn’t have that line-up.

So, anyway, I went beyond your question, but in Bill Owens’ case and Scott Murphy’s case, they were very similar to the situation of Bill Foster, and the key was, these are people who were people who really got involved because they genuinely want to change things, and I think that authenticity came across in their campaigns, but the key was putting together this grassroots network and getting the money to go on the air, at least to match the other guys, so, you never know.

Q: How likely do you think it might prove that a company runs against you next fall?

CHV: The question, if you heard it, was how likely is it that a company is going to be running against me in my election. The answer is a company has declared against me. What’s the name of the company? It’s …

Audience: Murray Hill

CHV: Murray Hill is an upstart and up-and-coming P.R. firm. Just for those of you confused, they’re spoofing the Supreme Court’s decision in Citizens United and we’re playing along with them. So, as you know, under the Citizens United case, the Supreme Court case, it was a 5-4 decision that was handed down not that long ago. The Supreme Court essentially said that the Constitution requires us to treat corporations the same way we treat individuals for the purpose of spending money in campaigns. It was an outrageous, radical decision. Justice Stevens, who we’re all going to miss very much, wrote the minority opinion in that, and laid out very clearly that this was a threat to grassroots democracy because it does open the floodgates to millions and millions of dollars of corporate money being spent.

So Murray Hill, which is a P.R. company, decided to ride the wave of popular disgust, at least a lot of disgust with this, and said “Look, by God, if corporations can spend as much as they want to elect candidates, why shouldn’t they be able to run as well?” So they went down, I think, to try and file with the Maryland Board of Elections, and they said “Well, sorry, the Supreme Court hasn’t decided quite that question yet.”

It’s interesting you ask this on this day, because earlier today I introduced in the House, along with Mike Castle and Walter Jones, two Republicans, and Bob Brady from Pennsylvania, we introduced legislation to mitigate the damage that will be done as a result of the Citizens United case. And in the Senate Chuck Schumer just introduced it, and he’s still looking for a Republican co-sponsor, so we need to find a Republican co-sponsor there in the Senate. We’re gonna try and get this thing done. We have to get this thing done.

Q: That actually brings up another question that wasn’t what I was gonna ask, but I’m actually curious as to what some of those mitigating ideas would be to undo part of Citizens United. The question I really wanted to ask was, just for the political junkie in me, I’ve lost track over the last couple of months, what does the open seat situation look like for 2010.

CVH: Well, you would think that from reading all the news coverage that you had far more Democratic House members retiring than Republican House members. Most people would think that from reading the news coverage. That’s just not true, factually. As of today, with Bart Stupak, I think we’re at 16 or 17 Democratic retirements, and the Republicans are around 19, today. Just to give you a point of comparison, in 1994, which of course was the Gingrich landslide, 28 Democrats retired that year, so we haven’t gotten into 1994 retirement levels on the Democratic side.

Now, having said that –- you have more Republican retirements than Democratic retirements, that’s true –- it is also true, as I think all of us know, that not all retirements are equal. I mean if Eleanor Holmes Norton were to retire from her seat, you could be sure that a Democrat would win that seat. For some of these Republicans that are retiring, it’s very difficult, very difficult, for the Democrats, and despite our efforts we’ve not been able to recruit, in some cases, strong Democratic candidates in those races. Whereas with some of the Democratic retirements, they are taking place, some of them, in the swing districts, I mean Bart Stupak’s is one example, there are many other examples. We have two members from Arkansas retiring. Those are tough seats. We’re gonna compete. John Tanner of Georgia’s retiring. Tough seat. We’re competing. But you get my point, which is that it is true that more Democrats have retired from very competitive seats than Republicans have retired from competitive seats.

The good news is we’ve worked very hard to limit the number of retirements this year. As I’m sure you can imagine, members of Congress retire for a range of reasons. Many of them are personal. You know, people have been there for a while, they want to try something else. What we at the DCCC try and do is to minimize the extent to which fear of losing is part of the reason for retiring, and I’m confident that we have in many cases been successful in preventing people from retiring for that reason.

Q: You said you were gonna mitigate ….

CHV: Yeah. The question was: How do you mitigate the Citizens United decision? You cannot go at it head on, because this was a constitutional decision. In other words, there are laws on the books that prohibited corporations from spending money in campaigns directly. And what the Supreme Court said was that those corporations have a constitutional, have a First Amendment right to spend an unlimited amount of money in campaigns. So you can’t go and pass a law saying you can’t do it. That was the whole thrust of the decision, allowing them to do it on constitutional grounds. It was an outrageous decision. You should read the dissent.

So, how do you deal with that? We deal with it in a couple of ways, but the biggest way is through requiring disclosure of spending. So, if corporations are going to be allowed to spend, we believe voters have a right to know who is spending this money in these elections. There are a lot of corporations that would like to spend their money surreptitiously. They’d like to funnel their money to other organizations and be able to have the impact of spending the money without their name being the focus. I mean, after all, if you have a big public corporation, have shareholders, that wants to sell products, it may not be the best marketing strategy to be running ads with their name at the bottom, because it will be required to be named. Because we have, for example, some disclosure requirements. In addition, it would have to say paid for by X Corporation. We also require that the CEO appear and do a “stand by your ad” statement. “I’m the CEO of X Corporation and I approved this ad.” Not only that, but we also require that the top five financial contributors to the organization that run that ad be identified on the television screen, and that the top funder also get on and say “I’m the top funder of this commercial and I approve this ad.” We believe voters have a right to know that information. Does that stop a corporation from spending? No. But it does mean that if you’re one of those people who wants to spend without anybody knowing about it, it would stop you.

I’ll give you another example. And we could not put an end to this. Turn on your tv today and you’re gonna see some ads that are running right now opposing the Wall Street accountability legislation on the grounds that the Wall Street accountability bill is bad for small business. It’s where they’re gonna institutionalize bailouts. I mean, the whole purpose of this bill is to make sure we never have that happen again, but they know from their Frank Luntz talking points that the only way to defeat this is to pretend that they are opposing bailouts. So they don’t want to institutionalize these bailouts, that’s their argument. But if you look at the “Paid for” thing, it says “Paid for by the Consumer Competition Advocacy Group.” And, you go online and they don’t have to disclose their contributors. I mean, they could be the biggest firms on Wall Street running that thing. During the health care reform bill, it would say Chamber of Commerce, but you wouldn’t know that the biggest funder had been the insurance companies, except people creatively somehow dig that up. But they weren’t required to disclose it. So, under this bill, with those ads, pure issue ads, we’re still not able to change it, but what we will do is if you’re now a national corporation taking advantage of this new Supreme Court decision, spending money and running those kinds of political ads, you’re gonna have to disclose who your funders are, and as I said today, when we introduced the bill, if you’ve got nothing to hide, you’ve got nothing to worry about.

Q: Will it pass?

CVH: I think it will pass. Let me mention two other things, cause it’s important. In there we prohibit, we outright prohibit, U.S.-based corporations that are controlled by foreign interests from running any ads. We prohibit that. We think under the Supreme Court decision we can do that, because we’re not limiting U.S.-controlled corporations. We also say that if you’re a federal contractor, receiving taxpayer dollars as a federal contractor, you’re not allowed to go out and spend money politically. There are a number of reasons we believe that may hold up under the decision.

Q: Right before you got here, Sandy talked about the changing demographics in Montgomery County, which was interesting for how things have changed. And part of the change was the 2008 election, was that the electorate was different, both for the Presidential election as well as for the congressional elections. Can you talk a little bit about how we can potentially keep a changed electorate for 2010? Cause that’s gonna be key for how we maintain some of these seats.

CVH: I’m sorry, you were pointing out that the 2008 electorate was different than the 2006 …

Q: Than the 2004 electorate and the 2000 electorate.

CVH: Yeah. Very good point and a big challenge in this election. Let me just let that sink in, underscore that. You’re absolutely right, because one of the things the President was able to do in his campaign was to bring out a lot of voters who had never voted before. A lot of younger voters, a lot of minority voters. And while it’s true that in a mid-term election we all know you will not have Presidential turnout levels, Presidential year turnout levels, we need to make sure that the relative mix of voters is equivalent to 2008. Because that was the mix of voters that came out to give not just the President his victory, but in many of these districts helped bring some of our members over the finish line.

So if you were to have a big drop in younger voters in some of these districts, especially with big universities, or if you were to have a drop in African-American voters, some areas with high African-American populations, or in some with Latino voters, or other minority voters, you’re absolutely right, that will change the complexion, the composition and the complexion of the electorate, and that would not be to the advantage of our members. We need to get that mix of voters out again. And it is going to be very challenging. Which is all the more reason why we need a grassroots, community-based organization.

In addition, those voters are going to have to be persuaded that the President’s success in the next two years is dependent upon having a robust Democratic majority to work with. And that’s absolutely true. I mean, you know, we wouldn’t have been able to pass health care reform if we lose … you know, we have a pretty robust majority, we only passed it with three, four votes. Same for a lot of these other bills. So, the President’s agenda is at stake in these elections, and for the voters who came out for the first time to vote for the President, it’s important that they all understand that while his name’s not on the ballot, his future success is on the ballot.

And finally, this is one area where the White House and the DNC are gonna focus their mid-term efforts. They’re gonna focus their efforts at bringing out the first time Obama voters from 2008, and it will be a great experiment in whether or not we can get those first time voters to come out in a mid-term election. We’re all hoping it’s a successful experiment.

Q: My question has to do with the perception, or the reality, of political polarization. Some people attribute it to the rise of television ads, political parties, gerrymandering. Do you agree that there’s a reality of political polarization? And if so, what do you attribute it to and how might it be cured?

CVH: Well, I think there’s undoubtedly political polarization today. I mean if you look at the votes in the House, not a single Republican voted for the recovery bill. Not a single Republican voted for the health care reform bill final passage. Not a single Republican in the House voted for the Wall Street accountability. So, there’s no doubt that there’s political polarization, at least in that sense. And obviously in the rhetoric it gets fairly heated. Now, as you know, if you talk to historians they will tell you there have been a lot of other periods when there has been a lot of political polarization, they’ve had a lot of rancor in campaigns. And there are reasons why it happened then and there are reasons why happens now. I believe there are a couple reasons. One is partly attributable to the way everyone gets information, I believe. It’s the great paradox, right? Even though we have a proliferation of information sources, more than ever before, people tend to go to the ones that already agree with their point of view. So you’ve got people that tune to Fox News, agree with Fox News, they tune to whatever particular show on MSNBC, they listen to that. Same with talk radio. You’ve got Rush Limbaugh, you’ve got a whatever. So people are not as exposed, frankly, to the other ideas. So that’s one thing.

But there are two other major factors. One is – this is admittedly a Democratic perspective, and I think the facts bear it out – the Republican Party has become much more ideological narrow than the Democratic Party. They have ideological purity tests. If you go back to when Rush Limbaugh made the statement that he wished the President would fail, a couple of Republicans spoke out, they had the temerity to speak out and challenge Rush Limbaugh. The very few who did within 48 hours apologized to Rush Limbaugh. Why did they do that? Because their phones rang off the hook in their offices. They got blasted by all the other talk radio shows. People were picketing their offices. So they folded. And we saw today in Florida, with Governor Crist, who decided to run as an independent. Why did he get beaten up? Because he joined with President Obama at one point as part of the economic recovery bill. The big hug, remember? The President came down, the Republican Party left him. Spector, same thing. What happened in that race, the special election I talked about, in upstate New York? The local Republican who was nominated was a moderate, Sarah Palin came in, that wasn’t good enough.

What’s the consequence of that? It means that Republicans, they’re all worried only about their primaries. So they’re driven much farther to the right. After they’ve demonized the President and the Democrats it’s kind of hard for them to reach across the aisle and make common cause on this stuff. Now Democrats, by contrast, have won seats in these swing districts, part of the reason you hear a lot of complaints about Democrats when we can’t get every single Democrat to support a particular issue. But that’s why we have a majority right now. It’s because we picked up seats in these more moderate swing districts. Does that temper the purity of the party positions on some issues? Yeah, it does. On the other hand, it means that Democrats aren’t always just pushed to one [position], and frankly, if we are, if the pressure is to push people out just on one vote or another vote, we will quickly lose the majority, because I can tell ya in every case they’ll be replaced by a Republican, and they will be replaced by a Republican who votes against us on every single issue. So I think that’s a factor.

And the third thing about this is it was very clear this cycle developed a very cynical political strategy of trying to defeat everything the President stood for. I mean it is a political calculation that they made. Senator DeMint said, infamously, that you break the President on health care, you will break his Presidency, it will be his Waterloo. And there was a very well-researched article on Mitch McConnell. From very early on he told all his members in his caucus that they were going to deny any successes to the President of the United States and the Democrats, and that was going to be their strategy. So, I think as the American people learn more about that “stop everything the President’s for,” they won’t like it. But the Republicans see, they believed over the summer and over the last couple of months that that was working for them. I think on Wall Street accountability that strategy may have met it’s limits, because they got an issue that they couldn’t spin themselves out of, even with Frank Luntz’s talking points. But that is another reason you see the polarization, because it is a part of a calculated strategy.

Q: Congressman, I know you have spoken with James Hansen. Could you tell us something about the conversation you’ve had with James Hansen? And ongoing?

CVH: Does everybody know who James … James Hansen is a scientist at NASA, a scientist on global climate change. During the Bush Administration he spoke out about the facts of climate change and took a lot of heat from his political taskmasters in the Bush Administration about how he should quiet down. To his credit he continued to speak up.

I saw him at the Earth Day rally the other day, where both of us spoke on energy policy and climate change issues, and we talked about the best strategy going forward on energy. The House passed an energy reform, energy bill, as you know, last year and the Senate has been thinking of bringing one up, though talks seem to have floundered recently, the talks between Senator Kerry, Senator Graham, and Senator Lieberman.

But what we were talking about was the overall approach to global climate change and sorta the simplest way to get at the issue. I think many people agree, and I share this view, just, to put the politics aside, develop sorta the simplest model, you have to have a price on carbon. So that means you need to increase the cost of carbon in order to give people a financial incentive to reduce it, and there are a number of proposals out there to, you know, essentially do a carbon kinda tax. And then you have to have a dividend piece, to make sure that the money raised through that process goes back to the consumer, because it is true that if you don’t dividend that money back that consumers will be paying more for their energy. So you want a pricing up front as an incentive for people to buy cleaner energy, but you wanna make sure that they then have money in their pocket so that a family that’s having trouble make ends meet isn’t losing out on this deal at the end of the day.

I had introduced a bill in the House that had the dividend, we had a cap and dividend. It was a cap proposal, but a very narrow cap. And while we got portions of that idea into the House bill, we did not completely get it in the House bill, obviously. It is a simpler way to go for it, but the fact of the matter is to get the bill out of the House we had to build a broad political coalition, and while the House bill isn’t perfect, it is still, in my view, a big step forward. If we are not successful in moving forward with this model, then I think we will have to revisit the other ideas, and I think the other ideas would be, as I say, more straightforward approach to it. Right now it seems to be clear that in the Senate you’re not going to get anything like the House bill through. And they may need to revisit this issue. And this year on energy, while I would like to see a comprehensive solution like the one Hansen and I talked about, my best guess is you’re gonna see a more piecemeal approach, which would leave open the option of coming back next year to something along the lines we had discussed.


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One Response to “DCCC Chair Chris Van Hollen on Lessons Learned and the Road Ahead”

  1. Erin Platt says:

    Interesting post, I am not much of a Van Hollen fan:


    Rahm, where’s the money for 0H-05?
    By John Amato Thursday Nov 29, 2007 8:20pm
    There’s been a bit of a struggle going on at the DCCC because many members want to help finance Robin Weirauch’s run in the special election on December 11th, but Rahm Emanuel is stubbornly opposed to opening up the wallet to help a grass roots progressive pick up a very winnable seat.

    Both Sherrod Brown and Gov. Ted Strickland won in that predominantly Republican area and along with Rep. Tim Ryan and the rest of the Ohio Democratic congressional delegation have been adamantly urging Van Hollen to help finance her run. Now I find out that Gov. Strickland will be campaigning with Robin all day Saturday. She’s opposed to NAFTA so you can see why Rahm is turning a blind eye to her and behind the curtain, pulling a Wizard of Oz move and refusing to let the cash go. It’s irritating so many people that Gen. Wesley Clark wrote a letter to his whole list that says:

    Robin Weirauch is running for the open seat in Ohio’s 5th congressional district. Voters will be hitting the ballot box in less than two weeks on December 11.

    A victory in OH-5 will send a message across Ohio and America that voters are ready to turn the page on George W. Bush and the Republicans. Contribute to Robin’s campaign today!

    As the daughter of a retired Master Staff Sergeant in the United States Air Force, Robin will do more than simply repeat slogans like “Support the Troops.” She will fight to bring a responsible end to the war in Iraq and make sure our veterans receive the health care they deserve.

    Strong words from Clark and that shows you how critical they feel this seat is.., And as Howie Klein says :

    And thank you, General Clark, for doing what Chris Van Hollen should do– with or without Rahm Emanuel’s blessing.

    If you can, please email the DCCC and ask them to help fund her run and send a shot across the bow of the entire NRCC, which is almost bankrupt. We need more and better Democrats representing our progressive ideals and Robin certainly is one.

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