Van Hollen Doesn't Want To Repeat 1994 Surprise

As chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, it's Rep. Chris Van Hollen's job to make sure Democrats don't lose control of Congress in November elections. Historically, it's been difficult for a new president's party to hold onto all their seats. Van Hollen tells Steve Inskeep that he doesn't want a repeat of 1994 when Republicans won mid term elections.

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STEVE INSKEEP, host:

Of course all this debate takes place in an election year, and its looking like a surprisingly tough election year for Democrats as they struggle to hold on to their majorities in both the House and Senate.

We're going to talk next with Congressman Chris Van Hollen of Maryland, who heads the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee. It is his job to make sure his fellow Democrats hold on to their seats and keep the majorities they have in the House.

What is your plan to prevent this being a repeat of 1994, when Republicans won back control of the House and Senate from Democrats?

Representative CHRIS VAN HOLLEN (Democrat, Maryland): Well, first of all, our members have been preparing from day one for what they know will be a tough election cycle. A lot of people got surprised in 1994. Even a week before the election, many people didnt see this tidal wave coming.

We're going to make it very clear that this election is not just a referendum on the status quo. In each congressional race it will be a choice between two candidates with their different visions of the future. And I think it will become increasingly clear that the Democrats have been fighting for middle-class Americans, working very hard to get the economy turned around. And so whether its Wall Street reform, reigning in the insurance companies, our Republican colleagues' agenda is simply the Bush economic policy on steroids. That's the same policy that got us into this mess. It's not a prescription for the future.

INSKEEP: Why do you think that some significant slice of people who voted for Democrats in the recent years aren't seeing progress now?

Rep. VAN HOLLEN: Well, the economy is not where any of us would want it to be. I mean we still have a lot of people out of work and we have embarked on an effort to get people back to work. In the last jobs report, you had more people going to work than had lost jobs, so that was a very important milestone.

Are we where want to be? No, but the question is where do you go from here, and people have a choice between continuation of the progress we're making. The other is turning back the clock to the same economic policies that got us into the mess in the first place.

INSKEEP: Would you like voters to be thinking about the health care law when they step into the voting booth in November?

Rep. VAN HOLLEN: People should take a look at the headlines in recent newspapers. You just saw a number of insurance companies say they're no longer going to kick people off when they get sick. Small businesses just received notices that they're going to immediately qualify for a 35 percent tax credit to provide their employees with health care. Parents are going to be able to keep their kids on their insurance policies until they're 26 years old. These are all things that would not have happened without the passage of health care reform.

INSKEEP: Why do you think the health care bill, which must be the largest accomplishment of this Congress so far, seems to be just as unpopular, maybe even less popular today than when it was passed into law?

Rep. VAN HOLLEN: Well, I don't think that's the case. The reason I think people had such uncertainties about the health care bill was the process. It was a messy, messy process. But as the smoke has begun to clear and people actually focus on what's in the bill, they're beginning to like what they see, which is why the numbers have improved in terms of people's support for health reform.

INSKEEP: Now, let's remind people, there's 435 seats in the House of Representatives. You're in charge of the Democratic Campaign Committee. About how many seats are in play and will decide who controls the House of Representatives in the fall, as you count them?

Rep. VAN HOLLEN: Well, you're talking about just over a 40-seat swing. And this is a very challenging election cycle. Historically it always is. If you go back to the time of Abraham Lincoln, there have been only two elections where a new president's party has picked up seats in the mid-term. Overlay on that the fact that the Democrats have picked up 55 seats in the space of three years, two elections...

INSKEEP: Meaning you've got a lot of new seats to defend.

Rep. VAN HOLLEN: We have a lot of seats in swing political territory.

INSKEEP: Are you telling your Democratic colleagues, look, this is not a situation where we just lose a few seats, we really could lose control of the House of Representatives?

Rep. VAN HOLLEN: No, we're not going to lose control of the House of Representatives.

INSKEEP: But are you telling them that's a possibility?

Rep. VAN HOLLEN: This is not going to be 1994 all over again. What I have told my colleagues from the very first day, right after President Obama was sworn in, was prepare for a very challenging cycle. And as a result I believe our members have been preparing in terms of their regular outreach to their constituents, but also being fully prepared to deal with the misinformation that we believe will be thrown out by their Republican opponents.

INSKEEP: Congressman Van Hollen, thanks very much.

Rep. VAN HOLLEN: Thank you.

INSKEEP: Congressman Chris Van Hollen heads the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee. By the way, we expect to hear tomorrow from the House Republican leader, John Boehner, and some of you have been telling me questions that you would like to hear. You can reach me on Facebook or on Twitter at NPR Inskeep. You can also follow this program at MORNING EDITION.

You're listening to MORNING EDITION from NPR News.

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