No one expected Chris Van Hollen to be the next Rahm Emanuel.
During Emanuel's five years as a congressman and his tenure as chair of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee (DCCC), he earned a place in Washington mythology as a cursing, raging political kneecapper. By contrast, Van Hollen is variously described as "Type B," "a nice guy," and the kind of politician who can make public service "a noble cause." He didn't go negative during his 2002 campaign for Congress but still triumphed over a 16-year GOP incumbent. One of Van Hollen's campaign consultants told The Washington Post that he "fit right [in] with all the smarty-pants" in his district, a Maryland suburb of Washington, D.C.
Now the mild-mannered Van Hollen, who succeeded Emanuel as chairman of the DCCC, is heading up what is arguably the most aggressive political operation in the country. Despite their differences in personality, Van Hollen got on well with Emanuel and other Democratic leaders during his first two years in Congress, and that led to a stint as Emanuel's top lieutenant and the committee's chief recruiter for the 2006 election cycle. Few were surprised when Van Hollen was named chair for 2008.
The transition was seamless, because over the past few years, Emanuel and others have dramatically restructured the committee, remaking it from a soft-money-raising old boys' club to a centralized, national political operation. This ongoing transformation is due to more than Emanuel's hand; it is driven by a team of Democrats who took advantage of major changes to campaign-finance rules, built a top-notch political-communications operation, and expanded the electoral map.
After winning three special elections this year, House Democrats under Van Hollen are expected to continue expanding their majority, perhaps by as many as 15 seats, with an impressive 80 in play. The results of their strategy will be felt in 2009 as the next president negotiates with the Democratic Congress over future legislation. Their majority could be the largest in over a decade, but it remains to be seen whether its broad ideological composition will support a progressive agenda--or challenge it.
In march 2003, on the very night President Bush launched the Iraq War, House Democrats gathered to hear DCCC Chair Robert Matsui tell them the situation was grim. The recent McCain--Feingold campaign-finance reform legislation barred party committees from accepting "soft" money--big donations from labor, corporations, and wealthy individuals, which could only be used for issue ads and get-out-the-vote drives--effectively cutting the DCCC's budget by two-thirds. These changes were expected to benefit Republicans; soft money was considered a Democratic province, and the GOP wielded the influence of the majority and a massive list of small donors. In 2002, the DCCC was outspent by $100 million, even as it garnered $56 million in soft money, over half its budget. "They basically reached out to labor unions and said, give to this member of Congress," says Brian Wolff, who started working for the DCCC in 2003 and is now its executive director. "Nothing was programmatic here before."
Ironically, the campaign-finance reforms many thought would kill the party committees actually paved the way for the DCCC's evolution. With soft money off the table, independent expenditure committees, which had existed legally since the late 1990s, became increasingly prominent. These committees can expressly attack or support a candidate (as long as they don't coordinate with a campaign) and must be funded with hard money. Without soft money, IECs became a principle tool for party committees to run aggressive field and communications operations.
Democrats also had to increase their access to smaller donors. "[McCain-Feingold] forced us to do what we should have been doing all along, which was including more people in the political process," Wolff says. As the committee's 2006 executive director, John Lapp, puts it, Wolff made donating "sexy." This meant "turning writers into raisers"--Wolff's term for encouraging donors to create fundraising networks of their own. Online fundraising grew under his tenure but doesn't raise the bulk of the committee's money. About a quarter of its funding comes from the dues members of Congress pay from their own campaign accounts. This cycle, the DCCC has pulled in over $100 million, more money than any party organ but the Republican National Committee.
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, who rose to power in large part because of her own ability to raise money, sent Wolff, her political director and a proven fundraiser, to the DCCC when she became minority leader. Today, he is one of the committee's most important players. As a four-cycle veteran in a job where most staffers leave after one go-round for jobs in lucrative consulting firms or leadership offices, he brings institutional memory and political discipline to bear. Starting during the 2004 cycle, Wolff organized two programs, one to defend incumbents and the other to turn over Republican seats, each with rigorous metrics that included a focus on raising money. Emanuel comes from a fundraising background as well; he was the finance director of Bill Clinton's first presidential campaign. As DCCC chair, he had a legendary obsession with candidates' "call time"--the hours spent on the phone dunning for contributions.
This combination of IECs, small donations, and increased candidate fundraising allowed the DCCC to outspend its Republican counterparts in 2006, for the first time since they lost the majority. But money is just a tool; the choice of where and how to use it is what decides elections.
As the public began souring on the Iraq War and on President Bush in 2005, the turning tide of opinion created openings for a new type of Democratic candidate. One such candidate, Darcy Burner, is now locked in a close congressional race and is a favorite of the Netroots. But in 2003, she was part of the sea change in American political opinion. A manager at Microsoft, she was holding her newborn son and putting together a care package for her brother, a soldier deployed to Iraq, when she realized that nothing could help her child more than changing the direction of the country. Burner began volunteering for progressive causes, and in 2006, she ran for Congress in a Washington district that has never elected a Democrat, picking up the support of Emanuel's DCCC--an institution not yet known for backing political neophytes in tough districts. She lost that race by three points but decided to run again with the DCCC's aid.
"Rahm was smart enough to politically intuit that the country was changing, and [it was] the phrase he used over and over again: The wave won't carry us if we don't have enough people out there on the surf," says Artur Davis, a congressman from Alabama and the DCCC's recruitment chair. "Chris Van Hollen has been a superb successor. I always compare the two of them to Bill Walsh and George Seifert. Bill Walsh built the 49ers, and when he retired, George Seifert turned around and won a Super Bowl himself."
Emanuel has taken an unprecedented role in DCCC operations this cycle, focusing on protecting incumbents, especially the "majority maker" class of 2006. It's as though Bill Walsh stayed on as defensive coordinator during George Seifert's first season. In Emanuel's main role as Democratic Caucus chair, he makes sure new members' offices are focused on their districts, running smoothly, and on message. He also advises the members politically--after all, he recruited many of them--and keeps tabs on DCCC projects.
Despite his many advantages, Van Hollen faces a tougher challenge than Emanuel did. At the start of this cycle, his committee had nearly as much debt as its counterpart, the National Republican Congressional Committee (NRCC). Worse, parties don't usually gain seats following a wave election--the last time it happened was 1976, when Democrats gained just one seat, after having picked up 49 in the 1974 post-Watergate cycle. Strategists also worry it will be tougher to run on a change message with Democrats controlling the entire Congress, especially during a presidential election year when Democrats face re-election in 60 districts that George W. Bush won in 2004.
But Van Hollen has help. "It used to be that Tony Coehlo ran the DCCC [in the early 1980s], and he did it alone," Democratic lobbyist Tony Podesta says. "Now there are probably upwards of a dozen people who are very involved." With Emanuel taking more responsibility than any past chair, the committee team includes Davis, Debbie Wasserman-Schultz, James Clyburn, Dennis Cardozo, and, of course, Pelosi. She appointed Emanuel and Van Hollen and speaks with them regularly. Pelosi also keeps close confidence with Wolff--she called twice during my hour-long interview with him--all while coordinating the party's message with other leaders and fundraising for candidates.
When Emanuel took charge in 2005, his largest contribution was centralizing the strategic aspects of congressional campaigning. He began a rapid-response operation and gave campaigns strict instructions on field programs, staffing, and message--mandating whether individual campaigns would respond to events and what they would say. Van Hollen has only expanded that operation. Emanuel hired a veteran research director, but much of the DCCC's opposition research was done by outside firms, and a "book" on a single candidate could take six to eight weeks. Under Van Hollen, the DCCC's in-house researchers offer immediate access to their findings, and Wolff brags he has the largest rapid-response team in Washington. Van Hollen has also brought much of the field operation in-house, hiring seven staffers to run voter-contact and persuasion programs. Last cycle, the DCCC had a presence in 35 districts; now staffers say they have deployed in 50.
This cycle, "early" was the watchword for the DCCC. It's a necessity keenly felt by former DCCC Chair Vic Fazio, who ran the committee during 1994's Republican rout. "We ended up spending money on incumbents, some of whom we never anticipated spending on," he says. "After all, we had this majority that would never go away." Though Emanuel set the tone for advance preparation, Van Hollen has emphasized it, in part because Washington now lives in a state of permanent campaigning. The DCCC began researching its own incumbents early to determine who was vulnerable, started recruiting new candidates before Pelosi was even seated as speaker, and launched tracking operations to watch even potential Republican candidates. Wolff has also underscored the importance of early contact to "inoculate" voters against negative advertising. He cites a special-election victory: "When the lies started coming in on the air, [voters] were like, 'Uh, that's not Travis Childers. We know Travis Childers.'" And the DCCC outdid itself in early July, when its independent expenditure arm announced a $35 million ad buy. It was an unusually bold move--most committees wait until later in the cycle to identify key races and purchase time in small increments, even though they miss out on discounts. "We saved $15 million; we bought our media early," Wolff told me.
The DCCC's work has already paid off. In a March 2008 special election in Indiana, the committee was ready with an early attack ad thanks to its foresight in recording Republican candidate Jon Elrod doing campaign work on the statehouse floor. DCCC staffers also want a share of the credit for the 29 Republican incumbents who are retiring from office. They argue that early campaign ads drove some out of the races; more staid observers suggest that the prospect of at least four more years in the minority led some older Republicans to call it quits.
Troubles at the NRCC have made the DCCC's job easier. Although NRCC Chairman Tom Cole is an experienced operative, his clashes with Minority Leader John Boehner have created friction within the caucus, especially following the announcement that its former treasurer embezzled as much as $1 million, making fundraising tough. In addition, the political environment has made it difficult for the NRCC to recruit quality candidates. "Very good recruits can see the writing on the wall," says Tim Sahd, National Journal's House race analyst. "They're not going to give up their cushy jobs in the state legislature and their high-paying business jobs if the Republicans aren't going to win this year." As the Democrats continue to push into GOP territory, Cole can barely find solid candidates to defend open seats, much less challengers for blue districts.
Now much of the Republican operation has essentially been outsourced to Freedom's Watch, an independent political group financed by conservative billionaire Sheldon Adelson and headed by former White House press secretary Ari Fleischer. The group hired Karl Rove as a consultant and put veteran former NRCC staffer Carl Forti in charge of its House operations. Legally prohibited from coordinating with campaigns, Freedom's Watch's strongest suit will be defending conservative districts it knows well; in fact, its reliance on soft money puts it in the same boat as the DCCC of the 1990s. While the extent of Freedom's Watch's plans remains unclear, operatives speculate that the group will run a full media package--including research, rapid response, and advertising--and possibly fund organizing efforts in the field. As Wolff observes dryly, "You don't put that kind of talent somewhere and not back it up with financial resources."
0ne of emanuel's prize recruits last cycle was Congressman Heath Shuler of North Carolina. A local football star whose NFL career flamed out, he was courted by both Republicans and Democrats; everyone from Emanuel to President Bush reached out to him. Shuler chose to run as a Democrat and won.
As a member of the fiscally conservative Blue Dog Coalition, Shuler is the kind of candidate Van Hollen and Emanuel rave about--one who fits his district. The DCCC has emphasized these candidates who can win seats traditionally considered off-limits to Democrats and expand the map. Though he fought with Democratic National Committee Chairman Howard Dean over funding the former Vermont governor's 50-State Strategy in 2006, Emanuel only opposed targeting all 50 states immediately, preferring to prioritize the most promising areas. But both strategies have resulted in an unconscious lean toward the old Democratic coalition of Franklin D. Roosevelt: socially and fiscally conservative populists and Western-libertarian types joining the liberals and minorities who remain the backbone of the party.
"If you look at the map, in order to increase the majority, you don't go pick up Democratic seats, because you already hold those seats," says Sarah Feinberg, Emanuel's spokesperson. "You pick up either red districts or purple districts, [or] districts that may be blue but that have been represented by a Republican."
As Shuler puts it, "Rahm understands districts such as mine. There are things that we have to disagree [about] because of my personal beliefs and my district's beliefs, that we may differ from the party. Rahm ... never tried to change my mind. Being pro-life is a perfect example. The party is a pro-choice party, we feel strongly in my district that being pro-life is very, very important."
Now, Shuler is helping Van Hollen continue the trend by campaigning with Travis Childers, the Democrat who won a special election in Mississippi this year. He also speaks highly of Bobby Bright, who is running in southeastern Alabama. Van Hollen had Shuler speak to Bright during the DCCC's successful attempt to recruit him as a candidate. "He committed to running for Congress and [will] be another great Blue Dog member," Shuler says.
it's clear that the DCCC is changing the party: raising more money, starting earlier, and expanding into regions it has not contested in over a decade. But though the Democratic majority is changing, thus far it has been defined in opposition to a lame-duck president. With a new president in office in January, expensive issues will be on the table, from health care to the crumbling economy. There will likely be debates reminiscent of the old 1990s fights between Blue Dogs and liberals as the party in power tries to set its agenda. Social issues may present the starkest contrast, but the biggest rifts in a future Democratic majority are likely to be over the budget.
"The New Dems and the Blue Dogs are going to gain a disproportionate number of members in 2008," says Simon Rosenberg, head of the progressive group NDN. "If Obama gets elected, can Pay-Go survive? The things that worked for us in the early '90s are not going to work for us today. [There will be] a battle between a politics of investment versus a politics of austerity."
Typically, conservative Democrats are budget hawks, demanding lower deficits and spending cuts; their signature rule, Pay-Go, demands that any new spending be paid for with cuts elsewhere. But deeper tension comes from the fact that many conservative Dems were inspired to run because of the economic hardship of their constituents--Shuler talks about aiding laid-off factory workers and paying down the deficit without noting the tension implicit in the two goals. This rhetoric is at odds with that of more left-leaning Democrats searching for a post-Bush economic consensus that large investment is needed to kick-start the economy and create universal health care while deficit reduction remains a long-term goal. It is possible that Blue Dogs will not fight against spending programs, or that Congress may find itself passing legislation that attempts to address these problems but doesn't go far enough. It is clear, though, that future conflicts could be more complicated than anachronistic battles between "tax and spend" liberals and conservative Democrats.
By most accounts, the increasing number of conservatives in the Democratic caucus is simply the price paid for the ability to set the agenda--they've made a big bed and now they have to lie in it together. But some on the left expect a more full-throated progressive party. Matt Stoller, a blogger and political activist, is one of them. Frustrated by arguments that progressives can't win in conservative or moderate districts, he says the idea that conservative Democrats have an advantage is false. "It's not that they're more conservative; they're just corrupt," Stoller says. "The Blue Dogs, these so-called conservatives, their donations, it's all corporate PAC money. The advantage that they have is not that they're conservative--that's bullshit."
Despite ideological divides, observers agree there is confidence in Pelosi's leadership and her ability to keep the caucus together. She has taken great pains to make certain that the class of 2006 is demonstrating progress on the promises it made during its campaigns, ensuring, in a jarring break with tradition, that they manage signature pieces of legislation on the House floor, including the "6 in '06" Democratic platform. "The speaker has one of the most difficult jobs in the world, because the Democrat Party's tent is so large," Shuler says. "A high percentage of the majority makers were in very moderate to conservative districts. That's why I felt like we had a lot of input ... to make sure that policy going forward really appeals to moderates."
With the likelihood that the Senate Democrats will not be able to reach a filibuster-proof majority of 60 votes, debates between different factions of House Dems could have a broad effect on the national political agenda. It remains to be seen whether the expected Democratic majority can push through large-scale legislation on health-care reform, Iraq withdrawal, and economic recovery. Observers on all sides have criticized the lack of accomplishment in the past Congress; those on the left are especially incensed about the failure to act on Iraq and the capitulation on the wiretapping bill. Though members and staff are quick to cite what did pass and point out the obstructing roles played by Senate Republicans and presidential vetoes, insiders feel the same frustration. The only time Wolff cursed during our conversation was when we came to the subject of Congress' failure to begin a withdrawal from Iraq. But he sees it as an electoral incentive: "You can run from the majority on a change message. You can because we're not finished."
When asked to forecast November's results, Van Hollen says, "I have cautioned my colleagues against irrational exuberance." He's right--no matter what happens in November, if the Democrats don't make significant progress in January, they could see their mandate slip away. Recent political events, from the GOP victory in 1994 to the Democratic resurgence in 2006, ought to prevent them from talking about any kind of durable majority.
Democratic operatives try to brush aside concerns about the potential for disagreements on a future legislative agenda, pointing out that, no matter what, being in the majority is better than being in the minority. Lapp, the former DCCC executive director, calls it a "high-class problem." But like Rosenberg, others predict a complex negotiation about what the party's agenda is going to be in the new year.
"There's a lot of pent up demand around here; you see it committee by committee," says Davis, the Alabama representative. "There's a lot of sense that our time has come and our moment is now, here's what that ought to mean legislatively. There are a lot different theories about that. That's going to be the big challenge ... figuring out what our priorities are."