Van Hollen Weighs Leadership Options

Posted October 29, 2008 at 6:37pm

Days from an election that could roughly double Democratic margins in the House, Rep. Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.), the quarterback of the majority party’s campaign push, remains mum about whether he would reprise the role next cycle.

Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) — who is responsible for appointing the head of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee — has offered the job to Van Hollen again, sources confirmed. It presents a tough call for the Maryland Democrat.

A second term would preserve Van Hollen’s seat at the leadership table at a time when expanded Democratic majorities, and a possible Democratic White House, could unlock the party’s big-ticket priorities. And it would allow him to continue building a national Rolodex of donors and operatives handy for a future Senate run that he is widely thought to be eyeing.

But it would also mean another two years of a grueling traveling schedule — and more time away from his wife and the two of his three children still in school — with the unglamorous task of defending Democratic gains rather than adding to them. “Those are the competing factors,” a senior Democratic aide said.

Several sources close to the lawmaker said he is pouring himself into the final days of the campaign with stops this week in New Jersey and Florida, and is putting off any decision about his next move until after Tuesday’s balloting.

“He genuinely decided this is something he’s going to take a look at post-election,” said one Democratic strategist with ties to the committee.

An ideal scenario would present Van Hollen with an as-yet-unknown third option. The House Democratic leadership ladder looks stable at the top, but if Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.) wins the White House, he could raid its ranks to stock his administration with Democratic Caucus Chairman Rahm Emanuel (Ill.), or, more likely, Majority Whip James Clyburn (S.C.). Either way, Van Hollen would likely have an opportunity to run for an elected post.

Democratic aides and strategists said other opportunities could open. Van Hollen could flex his legislative muscles heading up a new policy task force. Or Pelosi could create a special leadership role for him, as she did for Rep. Xavier Becerra (D-Calif.) when she named him assistant to the Speaker, an unelected slot.

Pelosi has demonstrated that she is willing to shuffle the leadership deck to reward a proven Democratic benefactor. After Emanuel engineered the party’s 2006 victory, she persuaded then-Caucus Chairman John Larson (D-Conn.) to stand aside and let Emanuel take the slot in the majority. Larson settled for the vice chairmanship.

“Depending on how things shake out, he’ll have, if not a senior title, a senior adviser role in Democratic leadership,” a Democratic strategist said. That, several sources agreed, would be the least Pelosi could do to reward his performance at the helm of the House Democrats’ campaign arm.

Stepping into the job under Emanuel’s outsized shadow, Van Hollen was expected to focus on helping Democratic freshmen hang on to seats that they won in conservative districts by surfing the 2006 wave. Instead, thanks to tight management, aggressive fundraising and recruiting — and outside factors, namely the continued collapse of the GOP brand, massive Republican retirements and the economic meltdown — House Democrats are poised to repeat gains on the scale that recaptured the majority for them two years ago.

“I would hope the Speaker would ask him to do it again, and I would hope he would accept,” said former Rep. Martin Frost (D-Texas), the last lawmaker to serve back-to-back terms leading the DCCC, in the 1996 and 1998 cycles.

Frost said his second term was easier “because you learn so much from the first. You’ve learned the ropes and done the job, and you’ve built up relationships with contributors, with staff and with political people around the country.”

The Texas Democrat is hardly the only example in recent history of a repeat performance leading a campaign arm. When Republicans ruled the House from 1994 through 2006, three of the four National Republican Congressional Committee chairmen served two consecutive terms at the committee. They credited that continuity with helping House GOPers build a powerful national campaign operation. They could divert from that model next year by dumping NRCC Chairman Tom Cole (Okla.) after his first term. Cole has said he has not decided whether he wants to return.

Likewise, in the Senate, Democrat Charles Schumer (N.Y.) is wrapping up his second turn running his party’s campaign operation and is mulling an unprecedented third term.

Democratic strategists said Van Hollen is likely to view the decision through the prism of his clear ambition — a Senate seat.

Van Hollen cut his teeth as a young lawyer in the late 1980s, working on the staff of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.

He flirted with a Senate run in 2005 when former Sen. Paul Sarbanes (D-Md.) announced he was retiring but ended up clearing the way for then-Rep. Benjamin Cardin (D), who had the backing of then-Minority Whip Steny Hoyer (D-Md.). Sen. Barbara Mikulski (D-Md.) is up for re-election in 2010, when she will be 74 — but she is widely expected to run again, meaning Van Hollen’s next shot at crossing the Capitol is not likely to come until 2016.

To the extent that it would keep him in leadership, another spin at the DCCC could bolster an eventual Senate bid. On top of burnishing his fundraising network, the position lends him prestige with voters attuned to national politics.

“Unlike most other states, Maryland, particularly in the D.C.-suburbs, is very Capitol Hill-centric,” said Blair Lee, a former Democratic strategist in the state who is a now a commentator on its politics. “We make our living off the federal government. The folks in this region are very aware of who’s a big shot on the Hill, and it’s a feather in his cap to rise up that ladder.”

Van Hollen may be Pelosi’s first choice to head the DCCC, but the Speaker has a bench to call on if the Free Stater turns her down. At or near the top of the list, several Democratic sources agreed, is Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz (Fla.), who now co-chairs the committee’s “Red to Blue” program.

Wasserman Schultz said she is “singularly focused” on that role “and on my own re-election and on electing Barack Obama.” She noted the DCCC decision rests with Pelosi, but said that regardless, she will continue to work for the committee.

“I’m a team player and will continue to be a team player,” she said.

Rep. Artur Davis (Ala.), who works alongside Wasserman Schultz on the Red to Blue program, is frequently mentioned, though he appears to be weighing a run for governor in 2010. Likewise, Rep. Joe Crowley (N.Y.) remains on the list of possible contenders for the post, though he has signaled to leaders that, with young children at home, he would like to take a pass.

Other possible Van Hollen successors include Reps. Bruce Braley (Iowa), Steve Israel (N.Y.), Kendrick Meek (Fla.), and Mike Thompson (Calif.).