Van Hollen to Face His Future Soon

Posted July 23, 2010 at 6:07pm

Rep. Chris Van Hollen is headed toward a crossroads.

For the ambitious two-term chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, there’s no easy path forward. The Marylander doesn’t want a third stint at the DCCC next cycle, and there aren’t any open slots in the party’s elected leadership.

Even if there were, the midterm elections that appear sure to result in deep Democratic losses could dim his rising star, and he has no shortage of rivals among the generation of party leaders younger than 70.

Democratic leadership aides, former Democratic officials and other Members predict that if they retain the majority, Van Hollen will likely keep his title as Assistant to the Speaker, instead of testing his luck and challenging Caucus Chairman John Larson (Conn.) — or someone else.

“I think Chris is going to be the type of person who is going to sit back and evaluate his opportunities, but he’s not going to be disruptive,” former DCCC Executive Director Brian Wolff said. “Good things come to those who wait.”

Wolff said Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) could try to avert a leadership scuffle by handing Van Hollen, a wonk at heart, an expanded policy portfolio. “There are a lot of carrots in the Caucus that don’t have a title with them,” Wolff noted.

But some insiders suggest Van Hollen could be tempted to take on Larson, who is seen by many as the most vulnerable member of leadership, if he was sure he could win. He’d have several obstacles, including having to convince Members that it’s fair to have two men from Maryland in the top four slots in leadership.

Van Hollen begs off speculation about his future.

“I am focused 100 percent on trying to retain a Democratic majority in the House of Representatives,” he said in an interview Friday. “That is getting my exclusive attention these days. We’ll get past this election and see what happens after that.”

It’s no secret that if Van Hollen had his druthers, he’d already be in the Senate by now. But with Sen. Barbara Mikulski (D-Md.) cruising to another term and first-term Sen. Benjamin Cardin (D-Md.) sure to run for re-election in 2012, Van Hollen has been moving up in House leadership.

Democrats are also eyeing Van Hollen’s $3 million personal campaign kitty — the kind of money you need for a Senate bid but far more than he needs for re-election. If he starts doling it out to House colleagues in large amounts, a leadership bid could be afoot.

Van Hollen, 51, took a risk after helming the party’s campaign apparatus in 2008 to a big victory, when he stood down from a challenge to Larson for the Caucus chairmanship. At Pelosi’s behest, Van Hollen returned to the DCCC, added the title Assistant to the Speaker and secured the Member services portfolio that had been the purview of the Caucus chairman when former Rep. Rahm Emanuel (Ill.) held the post.

The twin responsibilities raised Van Hollen’s national profile beyond his peers and gave him a natural base to eventually climb the ladder to the Speakership but also exposed him more than any other leader of his generation to the pitfalls of a difficult midterm election.

If freshman and sophomore Democrats under his wing get wiped out, Van Hollen invariably will get tarnished, several Members said.

That damage could be allayed somewhat by dismal expectations for the party’s prospects, as leadership aides have already started suggesting quietly that anything short of losing the chamber should be seen as a victory for leadership.

“I don’t think anybody’s looking at him saying ‘What an easy job you have this cycle,'” Wolff said.

And two of Van Hollen’s potential future rivals, Reps. Debbie Wasserman Schultz (Fla.) and Joe Crowley (N.Y.), also are DCCC vice chairmen and are tied somewhat to the election results.

But one House Member said Van Hollen, whose career has been marked by his willingness to take on frontrunners in political races, made a “huge mistake” not challenging Larson after the last election. The Member said Van Hollen should have left the DCCC on a high note and shown some independence from the Speaker.

“He had to know you weren’t going to do as well as you just did,” the Member said. But by hinting he was going to run and then pulling out, Van Hollen “looked weak, like Nancy slapped him and he just fell in line.”

Van Hollen, however, said he agreed with the Speaker’s judgment.

“As you know, the Speaker thought it was important that you didn’t have someone at the DCCC this term who needed training wheels,” he said. “Obviously we had a very successful cycle in 2008 following 2006, and she thought it would be the right thing to do for the team, and I agreed with her. Politics in the House is a team sport.”

Van Hollen has plenty of successes to point to — from a huge fundraising advantage over the National Republican Congressional Committee to a winning streak in a string of contested special elections, save for Hawaii, where two Democrats split the vote against a sole Republican.

“We sat down on Day One after the last elections and began preparing,” Van Hollen said. “We have done everything within our power and will continue to do everything we can in our power to do the best we can in difficult circumstances.”

Van Hollen gets near-universal respect from his colleagues for his intellectual firepower and combination of policy and political chops. He is one of the party’s stalwarts on Sunday television and cable shows, most recently pouncing on NRCC Chairman Pete Sessions (Texas) on “Meet the Press” after Sessions failed to name a single item the GOP would cut to balance the budget and used the phrase “go back to the exact same agenda.”

But while he is respected and well-liked, some Members say privately that he doesn’t quite have the interpersonal warmth of Wasserman Schultz.

Van Hollen also had a rough patch earlier this year when he pushed the DISCLOSE Act through the House, taking flak from moderates who didn’t want to vote on another bill opposed by business groups and from liberals incensed at a carve-out he negotiated with the National Rifle Association.

His critics said Van Hollen should have put the campaign finance bill in a drawer or found another way to write it to protect vulnerable Members.

Van Hollen’s allies say he has gone toe-to-toe sometimes against other liberals in his party when he felt the politics weren’t on their side. In addition to cutting the NRA deal, he was a lonely voice in leadership urging a delay in bringing up the controversial cap-and-trade bill last year — advice that looks better and better in hindsight after Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) threw in the towel last week on passing climate legislation before the August break.

But a senior Democratic aide said Van Hollen hasn’t been the advocate for moderates that Emanuel was in leadership meetings. “I look at him and he is a liberal policymaker, and it’s hard to square the fact that he’s a liberal policymaker with being DCCC chair.”

That sentiment isn’t universally held.

One freshman lawmaker said Van Hollen has a keen political mind and has helped Members avoid tough votes, get their legislation moved or get a pass to vote “no.”

“He’s been a welcome and thoughtful ally,” the Member said.