Why Chris Van Hollen isn’t talking about a ‘blue wave’

Maryland's junior senator is a top Democratic strategist - and at a table full of reporters, he knew better than to predict his party would take over the Senate in November.

Michael Bonfigli/The Christian Science Monitor

Chris Van Hollen is an old friend of the Monitor.

The freshman Democratic senator from Maryland began appearing at the Monitor Breakfast 10 years ago, when he was in the House and chaired his party’s campaign committee. His job was to recruit good candidates, raise money, and build on the Democratic majority.

That was 2008, and with Barack Obama at the top of the ballot, then-Representative Van Hollen had the wind at his back. The Democrats gained 21 seats. Two years later came the “shellacking” – and a sudden, big Republican House majority.

But enough ancient history. Ten visits to the Monitor Breakfast later, now-Senator Van Hollen is back to chairing his party’s campaign committee, this time for the Senate. And it’s the Trump era, so who knows what will happen in the Nov. 6 midterms.

At the Monitor Breakfast on May 24, Van Hollen notably did not utter the words “blue wave” – politico-speak for major gains by Democrats. He declared himself “very bullish” about the Democrats’ prospects in the Senate, but he knows he has a terrible “map.” Twenty-six Democrats are up for reelection, 10 of them in states that Donald Trump won in 2016 – some of them deeply red, like West Virginia and North Dakota.

Still … it’s President Trump’s first midterms, and the “party in power” almost always faces a backlash. The energized Democrats need a net gain of only two Senate seats to grab a majority, and they can taste it. 

At the May 24 breakfast, I could see why Senate Democratic leader Chuck Schumer asked Van Hollen to chair the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee just days after he won his Senate seat. He’s considered one of the party’s top strategists, and he even likes talking to reporters. Facing 25 of us, and the cameras of Fox News and C-SPAN, he was relaxed and disciplined. He’s as comfortable talking budget and foreign policy as he is discussing the tough challenge Sen. Bill Nelson (D) of Florida faces from Rick Scott, the state’s wealthy, soon-to-be ex-governor.

Van Hollen, in fact, comes across as a suburban dad – because he is. He lives in Montgomery County, just outside Washington, and is one of the few senators who can get away with having just one home. That luxury gives him a little extra time to take on the mammoth task of handling strategy for 35 Senate races – and that tough map.

His first Monitor Breakfast as a senator made headlines – perhaps fleetingly, as Trump announced he was canceling his summit with North Korea’s Kim Jong-un literally 10 minutes after the breakfast ended. In any case, in my story, I led with the possibility that Trump could break the mold – again  – and actually hold on to both houses of Congress. USA Today focused on Van Hollen’s message that rising health-care costs, and not the Russia investigation, will drive voters this fall. The Washington Post and Washington Examiner jumped on his comment “welcoming” the Clintons’ involvement in the midterms.

To watch the C-SPAN video of the breakfast, click here.

Let me add that over the years, many Republican campaign committee chairs have also appeared at Monitor Breakfasts. And we have invited Van Hollen’s Republican counterpart, Sen. Cory Gardner (R) of Colorado, to come speak at our breakfast. In September, Rep. Steve Stivers (R) of Ohio, chairman of the GOP’s House campaign committee, is scheduled to appear.

To those who love politics, as I do, these breakfasts are a feast.

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