06/06/2010 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Chris Van Hollen: GOP Prematurely Popping Champagne, No Chance For '94 Repeat

Responding to Democratic doomsayers who see the potential for an electoral bloodbath in 2010, the man in charge of running House races for the party sought to calm rattled nerves within his party.

"We are going to make sure this is not 1994 all over again," Rep. Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.), chair of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee said on Tuesday. "I think our Republican colleagues are prematurely measuring the curtains in their new offices and prematurely popping the champagne bottles."

Speaking to reporters at the centrist think tank Third Way, the Maryland Democrat relayed that the party had already taken concrete steps to avoid a repeat of the massive off-year election wipe out it suffered the last time a Democratic president was in his first term in office.

Van Hollen met in January 2009 with Vic Fazio and Martin Frost -- two former DCCC chairman -- to game out the way to avoid such a scenario. Since then, constituent outreach and communications have been ahead of schedule, he said, while fundraising activities have kick started.

"It is clear we have a tough political challenge ahead of us and the issue, from the beginning... has been not whether or not the Democrats have a tough climb this year, but how steep it is," Van Hollen acknowledged in his opening remarks.

The environment is, indeed, a tough one. Last week, Bill Clinton's former pollster Stan Greenberg, who manned the ship during the 1994 midterm elections, admitted feeling a bit of déjà vu as the Democratic Party approached this off-year contest.

"If the election were now, we would have a change election; we would have a 1994," he said, before peppering his prediction with caveats about the ability of an improved job market to help turn the tide.

On Tuesday, Van Hollen brushed aside the fatalism. "We will hold the majority," he predicted, after declining to peg how many seats he feels the party will actually lose.

Just how the Democratic Party plans to minimize its losses comes down to a multi-part strategy. Van Hollen stressed that leadership wanted to localize each race, "making them a district by district battle." At the same time, there would be a national message focused as much on the future as the past. Former President George W. Bush would play a prominent role -- as an illustration of the danger of a GOP re-emergence.

"In 1994 Republicans were seen as a real alternative to Democrats," Van Hollen said. "This time we will make the case that supporting the Republicans is simply turning back to Bush economic policies, the same policies that to us into this mess."

At the same time, Democrats would be buoyed by accomplishments of their own: including a recovering economy, the likely passage of financial regulatory reform (or as Van Hollen put it: "Wall Street accountability legislation") and, of course, health care.

"We have seen a big increase in enthusiasm among the Democratic activist voters and you can measure that in terms of emails, phone calls, and at the DCCC you can measure it in terms of grassroots online contributions, which took a huge jump after the passage of health care reform legislation," the congressman said. "It restored people's faith that we were able to get things done... and it is something that our members are experiencing back home."

The DCCC is also banking on the notion that the GOP would end up being its own worst adversary. Van Hollen called the rise of the Tea Party movement a "double edged sword" for Republican leadership -- an obvious source of political activism, but an unstable one as well.

Then there was the actual GOP leadership, which had done little to improve its party fortunes and, in some cases, caused more headaches than help. Van Hollen joked that RNC Chairman Michael Steele would "spend money on anything" -- an obvious quip at the recent spending debacle at the RNC.

Then he talked about former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin who had personally targeted 20 House Democrats for voting in favor of health care legislation. A handful of those 20 had actually used the targeting to their advantage, sending out fundraising appeals pointing to Palin's involvement in their race.

"I think that will energize Democratic activists," Van Hollen said of the polarizing 2008 Republican vice presidential nominee. "Again it will remind [voters] of all the reasons it is important for them to come out in these elections. And, I think, it is also not clear what impact that has on the independent voter. Because while Governor Palin is effectively rallying the Tea Party movement constituency, she can also be a very polarizing figure and if you are an independent voter, I'm not sure having Sarah Palin endorse one of the candidates is going make you any more likely to support them. In fact it may have an opposite effect. So we would welcome her involvement in these races because it reminds people of the stakes they face."