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Voters won't like 'secret money' behind GOP, says optimistic Democrat

The head of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee says a push to spotlight third-party groups funding Republican races will pay off.

October 21, 2010|By Michael A. Memoli, Tribune Washington Bureau

Reporting from Washington — The man charged with preserving Democrats' majority in the House said Thursday his party's effort to shine a spotlight on the "huge" spending fueled by undisclosed donors had narrowed the gap as election day neared.

Speaking with reporters in Washington at a breakfast sponsored by the Christian Science Monitor, Maryland Rep. Chris Van Hollen, chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, also predictably predicted that Democrats would hold their majority in a new Congress. And, he said, Nancy Pelosi would again preside as speaker of the House.

An increasing number of Democrats are stating publicly that they will not support the San Francisco congresswoman in a vote for speaker come January, but Van Hollen said she had "an enormous reservoir of goodwill" in the caucus.

"She's been fighting this fight harder than anybody," Van Hollen said, "and she would be the first to tell you that this campaign is about something that's much bigger than her."

Republicans have been relentlessly tying vulnerable Democrats to Pelosi in television ads, using past votes for her as party leader as a weapon just as much as votes for healthcare reform or the stimulus package.

In an interview with Charlie Rose, Pelosi herself said she had "every anticipation" she would remain leader of the House.

"Our members are battle ready. Many of them have won two elections that were very tough elections," she said. "They've won in very difficult districts in terms of Democratic numbers. And they know how to win those elections and communicate with their voters."

Van Hollen echoed that argument Thursday but acknowledged that even as the Democratic committee cautioned members at an early stage about the difficult election likely to come, no one could have prepared for the huge sums being spent in House races by third-party groups such as American Crossroads. Van Hollen estimated that Republican-allied groups were outspending Democratic supporters by a 5-to-1 margin.

When "one of these third-party groups parachutes in from outside the district, it obviously changes the dynamic in the race," he said. "That is something obviously in some of the races people are having to contend with."

A counteroffensive from the members themselves on up to the White House has helped as the campaign winds down, he added.

"Voters recoil at the idea of big, moneyed special interests spending secret money to try and influence their vote," he said, citing national polling on the issue. "And when you tie what we do know about [who is] funding these ads to issues that voters care about, I do think that it's a very powerful combination, because then voters have that 'A-ha!' moment."

Van Hollen said the influence third-party groups are having on the election, a result in part of the Supreme Court ruling in the Citizens United case, has been "very corrosive." That ruling struck down a federal law barring corporations and unions from spending money in direct advocacy for or against candidates for elected office. The failure of the Senate to pass the Disclose Act, which would have required groups to identify themselves in television ads, among other provisions, was "a failure for American democracy."

The Democratic campaign committee chair offered no specific prediction about the makeup of Congress come January, other than to say Democrats would control it. He based that assessment on a shrinking enthusiasm gap and the strength of Democrats' turnout operations, including a $20-million effort of his committee.

His Republican counterpart, Texas Rep. Pete Sessions, said in an interview with ABC on Thursday afternoon that as many as 100 seats were in play, and Republicans were poised to win at least 40.

"Those other 60 seats will be within the margin of error all the way up until election day," he said, "and turnout will decide that."

Republicans need to win a net of 39 seats to control the House.

mmemoli@tribune.com

twitter.com/mikememoli

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