Turnout in governor's races crucial for Democrats, official says

Turnout of Obama voters at the New Jersey and Virginia governors' races next week will hold a clue to the 2010 midterms, said Rep. Chris Van Hollen at a Monitor breakfast.

Jonathan Ernst/Reuters
US Representative Chris Van Hollen (D) of Maryland, Chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, listens to a question during the 2009 Washington Summit in Washington, October 20.

Next Tuesday, follow the turnout. That’s the word from Rep. Chris Van Hollen of Maryland, Democratic House campaign chief, as he heads into a tough 2010 election cycle.

The Nov. 3 governors’ races in New Jersey and Virginia are being closely watched for clues as to how Republicans and Democrats might fare in midterm elections a year from now. Key to Democratic success will be whether the 2008 “Obama electorate” turns out next week.

The numbers will be down; midterms don’t attract the crowds of a presidential contest. But if turnout among young and African American voters were to dip significantly as a proportion of turnout, “that could cause problems,” Congressman Van Hollen told reporters Thursday at a Monitor breakfast.

“So what we're going to be looking at is intensity levels, energy levels, which translate into turnout,” Van Hollen said. Those are “early warning signs on whether Democrats aren’t just showing up to the polls.”

The warning signs are already there in Virginia. A recent Washington Post poll showed that likely voters on Nov. 3 are just 12 percent African-American, compared with 20 percent in Virginia last November. Interest among young voters has dropped even more sharply. Last year, they represented 21 percent of the electorate. The Post poll shows them now at 8 percent of likely voters.

Van Hollen knows he has his work cut out for him as chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee (DCCC). The president’s party almost always loses seats in the first midterm election. But Van Hollen has a cushion. In the last two cycles, Democrats picked up 54 seats; they would have to suffer a net loss of 40 seats for the Republicans to retake the House. Nonpartisan handicappers view that as an outside possibility, but not likely.

A critical issue a year from now will be jobs. Employment probably will not be where the public wants it to be, says Van Hollen, but he has faith in voters.

“I believe the American people understand what a deep ditch we were in when the president came to office,” he says.

A year from now, voters will ask themselves, “who was on my side during this difficult economic period,” he adds. And “they will see that our colleagues [in the Republican Party] unfortunately were AWOL, they had walked off the playing field.”

The biggest challenge Van Hollen faces is defending the roughly 50 districts won by Democrats last year that Obama did not win.

The DCCC’s Frontline program, a fundraising program for the most vulnerable Democrats in the House, this year has 42 members. That’s up from 15 in 2006, says Van Hollen.

Van Hollen calls the raucous town hall meetings of August “a wake-up call” both to Democratic members and to grassroots activists. In August and September, he says, the committee took in a record amount of small-dollar online contributions – more in those two months than during all of 2007, the comparable year in the last cycle.


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