Van Hollen eyes 'blue wave' hopes, but midterm map is tough for Democrats

Why We Wrote This

The “blue wave” is a real thing, right? Except that a Democratic resurgence actually faces some big hurdles. Today's Monitor Breakfast featured the man at the center of Democrats’ hopes to retake control of the Senate.

Michael Bonfigli /The Christian Science Monitor
Maryland Sen. Chris Van Hollen, Chair of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, speaks at the Monitor Breakfast on May 24, 2018, in Washington.

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At a Monitor Breakfast Thursday, Chris Van Hollen, chair of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, emphasized one thing that his colleagues need to do in the fall’s election campaigns: talk about “issues that people care about,” such as the cost and availability of health care, and flat wage growth. For example, the senator from Maryland noted that Doug Jones staged a stunning win in deep-red Alabama by doing just that. Yes, Mr. Jones was also running against a deeply flawed rival, Judge Roy Moore. But Jones helped himself by avoiding polarizing partisan fights, and talking “about the Children's Health Insurance Program and how that was important to people in Alabama,” Senator Van Hollen said. Democrats need a net gain of two seats to retake the Senate. Although the party is energized, it’s not an easy road. Many races are in Republican-leaning states. Analysts say Democrats need to play their hand just right, including winning at least two of the GOP’s three most vulnerable Senate seats, in Nevada, Arizona, and Tennessee. “Senate Democrats are very bullish,” said Van Hollen. “But we are taking nothing for granted.”

Despite all the talk of a “blue wave” this November, Democrats are facing the real possibility that President Trump may break the mold – again – by holding on to his Republican majorities in Congress.

Public sentiment that the country is on the “right track” has risen to a 10-year high. Mr. Trump’s approval ratings are also ticking up. Unemployment has dropped to 3.9 percent.

But Sen. Chris Van Hollen of Maryland, the Democrat tasked with helping his party win as many Senate elections as possible, is still professing confidence.

“Senate Democrats are very bullish about the direction of the 2018 elections,” Senator Van Hollen, chair of Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, told a Monitor Breakfast Thursday. “But we are taking nothing for granted.”

That the Democrats can even contemplate winning a Senate majority is extraordinary. It’s true they need only a net gain of two seats to take over, and historically, the president’s party usually loses seats in midterm elections. But they face a tough “map” – 26 Democratic senators are up for reelection, including 10 from states won by Trump in 2016.

Senate-race analyst Jennifer Duffy of the nonpartisan Cook Political Report puts the Democrats’ chances of winning a majority at 35 to 40 percent, with an equal chance that the Senate winds up tied.

“There’s a much less chance that we have a status quo election, where Republicans have 51 seats” out of 100, Ms. Duffy says. “There’s almost no chance that [Republicans] actually gain seats.”

Senator Van Hollen argues that red-state Democratic incumbents will win reelection this fall by talking pocketbook issues – especially the cost and availability of health care, and flat wage growth – and focusing on the needs of their voters.

Take West Virginia, a state that Trump won by 42 points. Democratic Sen. Joe Manchin is vulnerable, but not a goner. The May 8 primary didn’t give Senator Manchin his preferred opponent, retired coal baron and ex-convict Don Blankenship. But GOP nominee Patrick Morrisey, the state’s attorney general, has soft spots – including the fact that he’s a native of New Jersey and failed to win a Republican primary for a House seat there in 2000.

“I don’t think the people of West Virginia will want a New Jersey reject, when they’ve got somebody with West Virginia in his DNA like Joe Manchin,” Van Hollen said.

The Trump effect

The November midterms will test another proposition that’s central to the outcome: Will Trump voters turn out without Trump himself on the ballot? In the Obama era, Democrats learned the hard way that without the president himself on the ballot, they got shellacked. Democrats now hope the same principle holds for Trump voters.

But Trump will do everything he can to turn out his voters, including hold rallies in key states. And some indicators are suggesting a more hospitable environment for Trump-backed candidates.

Polls that gauge public sentiment on whether the country is heading in the “right direction” have moved steadily upward, now averaging almost 40 percent. That could help Republicans, says veteran GOP pollster Neil Newhouse.

“I understand how unpopular President Trump is, and the intensity behind the Democratic vote, but how much does this increasingly positive mood of country, which is economically driven, soften the blue wave?” Mr. Newhouse asks.

The blue wave is real, he adds, “but do the Democrats gain 20 seats or 40 seats in the House?” The Democrats need a net gain of 23 seats to take over that chamber.

Peter Fenn, a longtime Democratic strategist, also sees potential that the wave could soften, and take some of the edge off Democrats’ advantage, if they mishandle their message.

“I worry that we stay on Trump’s personal stuff,” he says. “You know, we don’t have to talk about Stormy Daniels.”

At the Monitor Breakfast, Van Hollen pointed repeatedly to Sen. Doug Jones, the Democrat who won the special election in Alabama last December, as the model for how to succeed in a red state (though he did not mention Senator Jones’s deeply flawed GOP rival, former Judge Roy Moore).

“He talked about issues that people care about; he didn't get involved in a big polarizing partisan fight,” Van Hollen said “He talked about the Children's Health Insurance Program and how that was important to people in Alabama.”

Impeachment and the Clintons

Of course, there are miles to go before Nov. 6, and the Democrats need to play their hand just right, including winning at least two of the GOP’s three most vulnerable Senate seats, in Nevada, Arizona, and Tennessee. And that means making sure their voters turn out. Democrats still have an edge against Republicans in voter enthusiasm, but there are factors that could mitigate that: impeachment and the Clintons.

While prominent Democrats like Van Hollen and House minority leader Nancy Pelosi discourage talk of trying to impeach Trump if the Democrats retake control of the House, there’s an anti-Trump constituency that wants to go there. When asked about impeachment and special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation into Russian meddling in the 2016 election, Van Hollen quickly turns the discussion to kitchen-table issues.

“Let’s just let Mueller continue to do his work. Let’s find out what the facts are here,” says Van Hollen. Voters “care about rising health care costs. They care about trying to modernize our infrastructure.”

As for who might show up on the campaign trail, including the Clintons and former President Barack Obama, Van Hollen says he would not discourage anyone from participating – even someone as polarizing as 2016 presidential nominee Hillary Clinton.

“We welcome support from everybody who wants to help, including Secretary Clinton and former President Obama,” Van Hollen said, adding that “every campaign will decide for themselves whether they want somebody to be out on the campaign trail.”

If Trump’s very being is energizing to many Democratic voters, so too might figures like Mrs. Clinton be to Republicans. Even her husband, former President Bill Clinton – once the gold standard as a campaigner – has become risky as a surrogate. Part of the issue is the #MeToo movement, and his past as a womanizer. Also, says Duffy, “he’s not good at staying on message, and he’s still pretty angry. So he might do more harm than good.”

To view the C-Span video of the Monitor Breakfast with Van Hollen, click here.

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