By Ben Pershing and John Wagner
Monday, August 2, 2010; A04
Republicans are casting the November elections as a referendum on President Obama, but the results could also help shape the fortunes of Rep. Chris Van Hollen, a fast-rising Maryland Democrat facing a tough test.
After moving through the ranks with bright prospects ahead, Van Hollen has the unenviable task of steering his party through what could be its worst election cycle in 16 years. For Van Hollen, in his fourth term representing Montgomery County and his second as chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, the performance in 2010 will likely help determine the next step in his political career.
Can Van Hollen move further up the House Democratic leadership ladder if the party loses the majority on his watch? What if Democrats lose dozens of seats but retain control of the chamber -- will that be perceived as a victory? And does he actually covet a career in the House's upper ranks, or would he rather run for statewide office in Maryland?
"My time horizon is this November," Van Hollen said in an interview last week, begging off questions about his goals and what would constitute a success on Election Day.
"The goal is to retain a majority in the House," he said. "Obviously, we want to do as well as possible in difficult circumstances."
On the surface, Van Hollen has an enviable portfolio. He has the title of assistant to the speaker, one he is expected to keep if Democrats retain control. He is a prodigious fundraiser, a member of the powerful Ways and Means Committee and one of a handful of House Democrats with a pipeline into the Obama administration via his predecessor as DCCC chairman, White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel.
But he's also tasked with guiding the party through a brutal election cycle. For Van Hollen's reputation, victory in November will be about managing -- and beating -- expectations.
"There's not some particular number of seats he'll get credit or blame for," said Steve Elmendorf, a lobbyist who served as top aide to then-House Minority Leader Richard A. Gephardt (D-Mo.). "At the end of the cycle, will members believe the DCCC did all it could possibly do to protect them?"
The question for Van Hollen at the cycle's end will be whether he can get something in return for putting in his time as DCCC chair. His best avenue may lie in the House, but it's unclear when an opportunity would arise.
None of the top three House Democrats -- Speaker Nancy Pelosi (Calif.), Majority Leader Steny H. Hoyer (Md.) and Majority Whip James E. Clyburn (S.C.) -- has revealed plans to leave anytime soon, though most members and aides privately expect some turnover at the top if Democrats lose control of the House.
In the short term, Van Hollen's ability to rise could be limited if Pelosi departs and Hoyer stays on. Although having two leaders from one state is not unprecedented, geography definitely won't help Van Hollen as long as Hoyer remains in leadership.
Van Hollen's past actions suggest that he may be interested in moving over to the other chamber in Congress.
"I know that Chris at one time was very focused on the U.S. Senate," said Rep. C.A. Dutch Ruppersberger (D-Md.).
Van Hollen flirted with the idea of running to succeed the retiring Sen. Paul Sarbanes (D) in 2006 but ultimately decided against it. Benjamin L. Cardin (D) won the seat instead and now appears entrenched for years to come, while Sen. Barbara Mikulski (D) is expected to win another six-year term in November.
That leaves Van Hollen without a clear shot at the Senate. If a seat does open up, he could face competition from any number of ambitious Democrats, including Rep. John Sarbanes, whose family name would be an asset.
Even in a difficult environment, Van Hollen has gotten credit from Republicans and Democrats alike for helping to win special elections in three swing districts this cycle -- two in New York in 2009 and one in Pennsylvania to replace the late Rep. John P. Murtha (D) in February. In each case, the DCCC flooded the contests with resources and advised Democrats to campaign on local issues rather than themes dictated by Washington.
Similarly, Van Hollen has urged Democrats to vote their districts, even if it means defying party leaders on major bills such as climate change and health-care reform. This tactic may help preserve some seats but it has drawn criticism from liberals, who are upset to see the lawmakers who played it safe getting as much party support as those who cast tough votes for Obama's agenda. Van Hollen has also kept the DCCC well funded; the committee had nearly twice as much available cash over the National Republican Congressional Committee at the end of June.
"I think people understand that he's about as capable a guy as you could have in this situation," said former congressman Tom Davis (Va.), who used to head the NRCC. "They've drawn a very bad hand here."
If Van Hollen were to look toward Annapolis, he could be a strong candidate for governor in 2014, according to several Maryland analysts and strategists. But multiple prominent Democrats, including others from the Washington region, are already eyeing the governor's mansion.
Among the more notable Democrats are two from Montgomery County -- Maryland Attorney General Douglas F. Gansler and Comptroller Peter Franchot -- as well as Lt. Gov. Anthony G. Brown, a former state delegate from Prince George's County.
"I've never heard him express anything close to an interest in an executive position, but if that's what he wanted to do, he's an incredible campaigner, and he would instantaneously be credible," said Jerry Pasternak, a longtime aide to then-Montgomery County Executive Douglas M. Duncan (D).
All that's certain for Van Hollen right now is that he won't be in charge of House Democrats' campaign efforts after November, and for that he is thankful.
When it comes to his current job, Van Hollen said, "I definitely believe in term limits."