WASHINGTON – As the second-ranking Democrat in the House, Congressman Steny Hoyer is using his political might to campaign nationally for fellow Democrats in the final weeks before the Nov. 7 election.
The area’s longest-serving congressman, Hoyer is all but assured a 14th term representing Maryland’s 5th District. With no Republican challenger, his only opposition comes from little-known and underfunded Green Party candidate Steve Warner.
So, with his political base intact, most of Hoyer’s time has been spent on the road. And in the long run, the journeys may help him move up in the House leadership hierarchy.
Hoyer has been to 58 districts to campaign this election cycle — including high-profile ones in Texas, North Carolina, Florida, New Mexico, Connecticut and Indiana — and he plans to visit at least six more, said Press Secretary Tim Schlittner.
That travel benefits his constituents, Hoyer said.
“I cannot represent them as well as I want without the help of an awful lot of people around the country,” Hoyer said Thursday after speaking to a government class at University of Maryland, College Park.
“I can be as vigorous, as able, as hardworking as possible, but I need 217 other people to vote for those programs,” he said.
His message on the stump is the same as at his Capitol Hill press briefings: Republicans are failing on the economy, Iraq, gas prices, health care costs and bungled emergency management in the face of disasters such as Hurricane Katrina.
“We come to a stumbling, halting, unproductive conclusion to a year in Congress,” Hoyer said in late September, invoking his favorite catch-phrase, the “do-less-than-‘Do-Nothing’ Congress.”
Lawmakers, he said, have failed to do substantive work because of deep divisions within the Republican Party and the inflexibility of the Bush administration.
“It is either done their way or not done at all,” he said.
But Hoyer is lending more than his criticism to other’s campaigns: He is adept at raising money as well.
“He plays well on a national stage,” said Zach Messitte, a political science professor at St. Mary’s College of Maryland.
As of Aug. 31, Hoyer donated $619,000 to 77 federal candidates through his political action committee, AmeriPAC, according to the Center for Responsive Politics. This is on par with his committee’s overall donations of $792,500 in 2004 and $645,000 in 2002.
His efforts are appreciated by colleagues, especially those in competitive districts.
“As a senior member of the House leadership, it was very good to have him (Hoyer) there,” said Ron Klein, who is running a tight race in Florida’s 22nd District against entrenched Republican incumbent E. Clay Shaw Jr.
Hoyer helped Klein raise at least $50,000 last year at a Capitol Hill fundraiser with other Democratic heavyweights, The Palm Beach Post reported. His PAC has contributed $10,000 to Klein’s campaign this cycle.
“He’s checked in,” said Klein. “He’s been pretty helpful.”
But there is a byproduct of Hoyer’s goodwill campaigning, said Messitte, also the director of the Center for the Study of Democracy. He is shoring up support to rise in Democratic leadership should the party win the majority, which, Messitte cautions, is not a done deal.
Schlittner confirmed that if the Democrats take back the House, Hoyer intends to run for majority leader, an elected position within the party.
Hoyer lost the election for minority leader to Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., in 2002. If the House goes Democratic, Pelosi will likely be elected speaker.
But Hoyer’s position is less assured.
With Rep. John Murtha, D-Pa., intending to run as well, the race for majority leader could be hotly contested, said Messitte, and may come down to differences on Iraq policy.
Murtha, a Vietnam veteran, turned heads last year when he called for the immediate withdrawal of troops from Iraq.
Hoyer’s views on the war are more moderate, and he needs to do all he can to win over fellow Democrats. As a senior member of the House Appropriations Committee which holds Congress’ purse strings, he is in a good position to dole out favors.
And while Messitte stopped short of saying that Hoyer is trolling for votes, he noted that there will no doubt be some political “horse trading” involved.
“Every dollar he raises for a Democrat’s campaign in some other state is a wink and a nod for a vote for him as majority leader, said Maryland Republican Party Chairman John Kane.
Kane called Hoyer the “frequent-flyer-mile king,” and said that he is out of touch with his constituents.
But Hoyer’s clout goes beyond day-to-day jockeying for position. First elected as a state senator 40 years ago, he quickly moved up the ranks and became the youngest Maryland Senate president in state history.
He has served as a congressman in the 5th district since winning a special election in 1981.
If Hoyer were to become majority leader, “not only would Maryland be fortunate, the nation would be as well,” said Maryland Democratic Party Chairman Terry Lierman.
Still, said Lierman, “It’s much too early to cut up the pie.”