As speculation continues about the House Democratic leadership structure in the next Congress, Rep. Chris Van Hollen has been particularly busy.
The Maryland lawmaker is a regular presence on the cable news channels. He has appeared on the stump with President Barack Obama, and during those trips he has been featured at local fundraisers and press conferences on behalf of House candidates in competitive races.
It’s enough to make people think Van Hollen might be positioning himself to run for something besides re-election to his own House seat.
While Van Hollen is often considered part of Democratic leadership, and sometimes attends leadership meetings, he has no formal leadership position — and there’s no apparent opening for him to fill when Democrats elected to the 113th Congress hold leadership elections five weeks from now.
Van Hollen is the top-ranking Democrat on the Budget Committee. He chaired the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee for two cycles and served as assistant to then-Speaker Nancy Pelosi, who named him to the Joint Committee on Deficit Reduction in 2011.
But just as Pelosi’s move on Wednesday to delay leadership elections until Nov. 29 has prompted questions about the current Minority Leader’s future, Van Hollen’s stepped-up campaign and surrogate work potentially positions him to run for a leadership spot should an opportunity arise.
One House Democrat attributed Van Hollen’s activity to Caucus loyalty, and an effort by a former DCCC chairman knowledgeable about national politics to help however he can.
During the Democratic National Convention in Charlotte, N.C., Van Hollen made the rounds at the media filing center, offering his outlook on House races.
His fundraising appeals on behalf of Democratic House candidates have appeared in thousands of inboxes around the country. And he has donated $350,000 from his own campaign funds to the DCCC this cycle.
He spent part of the fall impersonating his Budget Committee foil, Rep. Paul Ryan, during Vice President Joseph Biden’s preparations for his debate with the GOP running mate.
But other parts of Van Hollen’s work are less visible. He has participated in a series of conference calls with Democrats in tough House races, often discussing the House Republican budget resolution written by Ryan and its local implications.
The teleconferences are either news conferences or town hall formats. The news conferences allow local newspapers to get quotes from a Democratic heavyweight. And tens of thousands of senior citizens have phoned in to Van Hollen’s tele-townhalls.
On the conference calls, Van Hollen delivers the party message on the Ryan budget and counters Republican accusations that Democrats have cut Medicare by enacting the 2010 health care law. Then, the House candidate chimes in with the local implications of the Ryan budget blueprint.
Other Democratic leaders are also active on the campaign trail. Minority Whip Steny Hoyer (Md.) has sent fundraising appeals as well, and he recently campaigned in Rhode Island for Rep. David Cicilline (D). And on Wednesday, Rep. Jared Polis (D-Colo.), who is running for Caucus Vice Chairman, made a fundraising appeal to Illinois House candidate Brad Schneider’s supporter list.
The scenario that some Democrats envision is that Van Hollen would be the beneficiary of a Pelosi-backed challenge to Hoyer for the Minority Leader’s job, should she step down after the elections. That could be the final chapter in the long and storied Pelosi-Hoyer rivalry.
But the hurdles would be significant. Hoyer appears to maintain strong support in the Caucus and he’s served loyally for years under Pelosi, giving him a strong argument that it would be his turn to lead.
Most Democrats say that support would be insurmountable for Van Hollen or anyone else.
Also, both Van Hollen and Hoyer represent Maryland districts, meaning that Van Hollen would have to mount a bold challenge to the dean of his state delegation.
“As ambitious as Van Hollen is, and even with him being a Pelosi ally, I can’t see him doing that,” said a lobbyist plugged into the House Democratic leadership, who explained that such a move could hurt Van Hollen’s standing in the Caucus and in Maryland politics. “People in the Caucus would really frown on that.”
But others keeping an eye on leadership intrigue note that leadership positions do not open up often, and that those in the party’s top echelon are very ambitious. They note that Rep. James Clyburn (S.C.), currently Assistant Minority Leader, challenged Hoyer for Whip in 2010, despite their close friendship.
In an interview about his campaign work, Van Hollen declined to discuss leadership issues.
“My read, look, she has been working nonstop first of all. Nancy Pelosi is the hardest-working Member of Congress. She is very focused on trying to elect Democrats to Congress and as she said, she wanted that to be our focus right up to elections,” Van Hollen said. “The elections that are important are the Congressional elections taking place across the country, and Caucus elections should wait until [after] the general election.”
Asked if there would be any circumstance in which he would challenge Hoyer, Van Hollen said, “I’m just focused entirely on ... Nancy Pelosi is working hard to win Democrats, I think it’d be great if she continued to be the Democratic leader.”
Another reason Van Hollen might opt to bide his time rather than take on Hoyer should Pelosi step aside is that Hoyer, at age 73, might not have a particularly long tenure in the top job. And Van Hollen is also often mentioned as a contender if a Senate seat opens up in Maryland. However, Sen. Barbara Mikulski (D) does not appear to be leaving anytime soon and Sen. Benjamin Cardin (D) is cruising to re-election next month, prompting some Democrats to conclude that Van Hollen will keep his gaze on the House.
The House Democratic leadership elections will take place Nov. 29, two weeks after Republican leadership elections but earlier than Pelosi’s initial proposal of the first week of December.
A Democratic strategist said the timing “provides an opening to a challenger for one of the top leadership positions, but not much. If there’s anyone looking to run such a challenge, they’ll need to get their ducks in a row pretty quickly.”
An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated the amount of money Rep. Chris Van Hollen transferred to the DCCC due to outdated information on the Federal Election Commission website.