From NBC's Domenico Montanaro
Despite a noxious political environment and recent retirements of members in competitive districts, the man tasked with trying to stave off a terrible midterm election for House Democrats says his party will hold onto a majority.
Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee Chairman Chris Van Hollen (D-MD) called predictions of a Republican House takeover nothing more than "hyperbole."
"That hyperbole is just that," Van Hollen said, particularly of predictions made by his Republican counterpart Pete Sessions (R-TX) and House Minority Whip Eric Cantor (R-VA).
But after two cycles of big gains for Democrats, signs -- 11 months from next year's election -- are pointing to that majority looking a lot narrower than once thought.
"We've been saying from Day One at the DCCC that this is going to be a challenging year," Van Hollen told reporters gathered at the Democratic National Committee's headquarters. He added, "We told members to prepare for a very challenging year," to "fasten their seat belts and get ready from the start."
Republicans would need 40 seats to regain the majority in the House, a tall task. Consider that in the past two cycles -- in which Democrats made big gains -- not once did they gain that many.
The last time that many seats were taken over by either party was in 1994 when, after 40 years of Democratic rule, Republicans won an astounding 52 seats in Bill Clinton's first midterm election. Historically, since World War II, the party out of power has picked up an average of 26 seats in a newly elected president's first midterm.
But one reason for Democrats' 1994 bloodletting: retirements. Democrats have had far fewer retirements thus far this time around. But with four Democratic members from competitive districts in the past month calling it quits, talk has begun in Washington that Democrats could be facing a similar fate.
That's not going to happen, says Van Hollen.
"While there may be additional Democratic retirements," he said, "we do not expect a large surge" like in 1994. He added, "This is not going to be 1994 all over again."
In addition to the lower number of retirements so far, Van Hollen cited Democrats' successes in special elections in Upstate New York this year, the conservative Tea Party movement, which threatens to move Republican primaries even further to the right, and that he anticipates the economic outlook will get better.
If the economy gets better, Democrats will get the deserved credit for that, Van Hollen said. On the other hand, "Republicans have been totally AWOL," he said.
Van Hollen also credits: (1) Democrats being better prepared ("In '94, they were caught totally off guard."); (2) The DCCC's "Front-Line Program," in which they identify early particularly vulnerable incumbents; (3) Staying on offense (It's a "smaller playing field" because of the last two cycles," Van Hollen said, but Democrats are "competing vigorously" unlike in 1994); and (4) The Republican brand is "terrible."
To back up that latter point, Van Hollen cited the NBC/WSJ poll out yesterday showing the Tea Party movement being viewed more positively than Republicans.
That's true, but the Tea Party movement was also viewed more positively than Democrats. In response to that point, and the challenge that Democrats, the party in power, face due to the overall anti-Washington sentiment that is bubbling, Van Hollen said, "As we turn the corner [on the economy], the question will be who's on your side. When we get to the point of positive job creation, that'll be a big psychological boost to the American people."
And Republicans haven't helped in that effort, Van Hollen said. "The facts are," he said, "they walked off the field."
The reason for the dissatisfaction now, he said, "We haven't turned the corner yet."
Another potential problem for Democrats next year is the liberal base's disaffection and complacency, particularly among new and young voters who helped elect Barack Obama.
"Obviously, off-year elections pose certain challenges, especially among young voters," Van Hollen said. "We need to make it clear what's at stake in this election."
NOTES: Asked about Howard Dean's comments about the health care legislation moving through the Senate, Van Hollen said, "This is a long way from over. We don't have a final product yet. … Howard Dean has a very important voice in this debate. He's helped move the process forward. The Senate will complete its work and the House and Senate will work together for a final product."