'Tea party' a 'double-edged sword' for GOP, top Democrat says

Rep. Chris Van Hollen, the head of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, says Republicans have a more engaged voting base, thanks to the 'tea parties.' But the GOP's shift to the right could hurt it in the general election, he says.

By , Staff writer

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    Rep. Chris Van Hollen (D) of Maryland, chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, speaks at a Monitor-sponsored breakfast Monday.
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While the "tea party" movement is helping fuel Republican voter enthusiasm, it is a “double-edged sword” for the GOP in centrist congressional districts, according to Rep. Chris Van Hollen (D) of Maryland, chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee (DCCC).

Speaking at a Monitor-sponsored breakfast with reporters on Monday, Congressman Van Hollen acknowledged that, “Right now, you have on the Republican side a lot of people who are running out the door to vote – especially on the tea-party wing of the Republican Party. [There is] a lot of energy there.”

But Van Hollen argued that some of that energy and enthusiasm could wane by November’s congressional elections. “To the extent the tea party movement is most represented publicly by the farthest right wing component of the tea party movement, that does have the effect of making the centrist voters more nervous,” he said.

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He explained his nervous-voter theory by saying: “As you get closer to election day, people begin to focus more on the consequences and costs of turning the Congress back over the same people who … ran the economy into the ditch to begin with.”

The high level of Republican voter enthusiasm is one of the major problems Democrats face heading into the fall elections. A recent ABC News/Wall Street Journal poll found that, among the voters who rate their interest in the 2010 elections as 9 or 10 on a 10-point scale, more than half (56 percent) want a Republican-controlled Congress.

Van Hollen called the phenomenon a “political energy deficit” adding, “there is no doubt this is a big challenge for the Democrats going into the next cycle.” The DCCC is the official campaign arm of House Democrats.

Voter perceptions of the economy are “the biggest challenge” Democrats face in the 2010 elections, Van Hollen said. “This election from Day 1 has been about the economy and jobs and how people in November feel about where the economy is headed and how it affects them personally in their daily lives.”

The DCCC chief said perceptions about the economy “are beginning to change” for the better. But he added: “There is still a large majority of people who are unsure and uncertain about the direction of the economy and that is understandable.… We all know we are not out of the woods yet, especially when it comes to jobs.”

Van Hollen said the Obama White House has “been increasingly helpful” in the DCCC’s work, pledging financial support and a focus on helping turn out those who voted for the president in 2008.

Some Democratic members of Congress have been critical of the White House’s political messaging, with its criticism of Washington. At the breakfast, Van Hollen said the president has begun “to draw clearer lines of distinction between what Democrats in Congress have done and what they stand for on jobs and the economy compared to Republicans who, as he pointed out, have been standing on the sidelines and obstructing efforts to get the economy moving again.”

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