By Matthew Mosk
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, March 7, 2007
Last year, Rep. Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.) sat in the minority, with little seniority, calling for lobbyists to disclose when they're gathering stacks of campaign checks for members.
Now, his party is in power, he heads the Democrats' key fundraising arm, and he'll be judged in part by his ability to collect those bundles of checks from lobbyists.
The Democratic takeover last fall fostered change across Capitol Hill, but few are feeling the effects as directly as Van Hollen, the third-term congressman from Bethesda who will guide his party's 2008 House election efforts.
Van Hollen took over the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee in December, and the next month he distributed a four-page memo outlining his plans for protecting newly elected lawmakers. Central to that plan is the goal of raising $650,000 to $1 million for those "front line" lawmakers by June 30.
"We dived in immediately," Van Hollen said in an interview. In 2006, Democrats had identified 12 lawmakers in vulnerable districts who needed help from the party to secure reelection. This time, the list includes 29, because Democrats were so successful in districts that usually lean Republican -- and they want to hang on to them. "It's our goal to make sure these members do everything they can to strengthen their position early on, and we want to help them," he said.
At times, that has meant engaging in the fundraising tactics that Republicans employed and Democrats decried. In recent weeks, Democrats enlisted support from their newly minted committee chairmen, who drew on the strength of their leadership posts to collect contributions. It has also meant scouring the terrain for donors as presidential candidates are vacuuming up contributions at a record pace.
Typically, about a third of the money raised by the DCCC comes from member contributions, a third flows from direct mail and Internet solicitations and a third comes from individual donors, records show.
In many instances, that money comes from lobbyists tasked with collecting checks from colleagues, clients, family and friends -- bundlers. It's the same crowd Van Hollen took a crack at last year, when he attached his disclosure proposal to legislation in committee.
"I'm still pushing the legislation," Van Hollen said last week. "And I don't see that it clashes with what I'm doing now."
Van Hollen said he is hopeful the proposal to have lobbyists' disclosure forms detailing what they gave directly, as well as what they raised from others, will have a chance at passage this session. Until then, "we're going to play by the same rules that exist for everybody else."
His Republican counterpart, Rep. Tom Cole of Oklahoma, said Democrats are discovering what it is like to be in control after being out of power for more than a decade. That power has obvious advantages and some disadvantages -- putting Democrats on record in some tough votes on issues, such as Iraq, that the GOP hopes it can use in the next round of campaigning. By his count, Democrats will be trying to protect 61 lawmakers in seats where voters twice went for President Bush.
"I think our people generally recognize that 2006 was a once-in-a-generation election," Cole said. "They won't get two 2006's in a row."
Van Hollen's predecessor, Rep. Rahm Emanuel (Ill.), said there is no question Democrats will face challenges in 2008. He said his experience working alongside Van Hollen in 2006 has buoyed his confidence for the upcoming effort.
Emanuel recalled confronting a tough choice late in the last campaign, when he needed to choose between two Democrats who needed a quick infusion of cash. (He wouldn't name them because he said the dilemma involved two current lawmakers.)
Van Hollen identified another race where Emanuel could find the money, so he could help both of the vulnerable Democrats.
"It freed up about $1.5 million, so we didn't have to choose between two different candidates," Emanuel said. "Yes, he's got to raise the money, develop the message, recruit the candidates and protect the incumbents. But to do that, he needs judgment. And that's what he showed."