WASHINGTON – Rep. Chris Van Hollen has quickly become one of the Democratic Party’s brightest young stars, credited with the party’s gain of at least 20 House seats in last week’s election.
But when party leaders talked him out of stepping down as head of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee to pursue other leadership roles, it looked to outsiders like his career had stalled.
Analysts and colleagues however believe Van Hollen, of Kensington, the fifth-ranking House Democrat, will continue to rise in influence.
After 12 years in the Maryland General Assembly, Van Hollen, 49, won his House seat by toppling eight-term incumbent Republican Connie Morella in 2002.
His victory over the established Republican earned him a position in 2006 as co-chairman of the DCCC’s Red to Blue program, which supported Democrats running in traditionally Republican areas. The program helped the party gain 35 seats and a majority in the House.
Van Hollen’s success was rewarded after the elections with the DCCC chairmanship. His strategy for 2008 didn’t change.
“We decided early on that the best defense was a good offense,” Van Hollen said. “Expand the playing field, expand the battleground.”
He and the DCCC got to work, fundraising throughout the country and focusing resources where incumbent Republicans appeared especially vulnerable. This time the gain was at least 20 House seats.
As DCCC chairman, Van Hollen met Democrats throughout the country and influenced elections. The position also gave him more clout in policymaking.
“It gave me a voice at the table,” Van Hollen said. “It provided an opportunity to influence the outcome of lots of pieces of legislation.”
An expanded policy role opened up last week when Rep. Rahm Emanuel, D-Ill., left his seat as Democratic Caucus chairman to become President-elect Barack Obama’s chief of staff. Many speculated the vacancy would be filled by Van Hollen or Caucus Vice Chairman Rep. John Larson, D-Conn.
Van Hollen appeared interested in the job, which would have elevated him to the fourth-ranking House Democrat, but was persuaded not to pursue it by House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif.
“He really did a fantastic job, so she wanted him to continue in that role,” said Pelosi spokesman Brendan Daly. “His future is very, very bright. Whatever he wants to do, he’ll be very successful at it.”
Pelosi may have also wanted to avoid a battle between Van Hollen and Larson, said Michael Cain, director of the Center for the Study of Democracy at St. Mary’s College of Maryland.
“I think the Democrats in Congress want to present a very united front,” Cain said. “They don’t want to have too much division going into the next session.”
Instead, Van Hollen will continue as DCCC chairman, but he’ll pick up the title assistant to the speaker, which could provide the expanded policy role he’s sought.
“I think it provides me a better opportunity to get things done,” Van Hollen said. “It gives me a platform within Congress that I think provides greater influence.”
In 2006 and 2008, Democrats were able to win many traditionally Republican seats by preaching moderate government. Now with a healthy majority in the House, their goal in 2010 will be to defend those seats.
“It’s a different challenge next time,” Van Hollen said. “The challenge going forward is going to be to make sure that the representatives from those districts reflect the priorities and values of the people in the district.”
The successes of 2008 would have allowed Van Hollen to leave the DCCC on a high note. But he’ll continue to be a big name among Democrats, even if they don’t fare as well in 2010, Cain said.
“There’s no way that anybody would be throwing him under the bus,” Cain said. “He’s got too strong of a track record.”
When his term as DCCC ends in 2010, Van Hollen should have plenty of options. He could eventually rise to House majority leader or speaker, or perhaps replace 72-year-old Sen. Barbara Mikulski, D-Md., if she decides not to seek re-election in 2010.
“There’s a lot of candidates that have won that are really going to be in his debt,” Cain said. “I think he’s going to have his chance at that leadership position. There’s no question about that.”
Van Hollen declined to discuss any specific career aspirations. He does not appear to be taking any future leadership roles for granted.
“I’ve got a full plate for now,” he said. “I think the main thing is to focus on getting the job done on the assignments that I’ve got and not close any doors.”