Christopher Van Hollen Jr. took one look at a proffered cup of champagne and shook his head no. What he really needed yesterday was some sleep, but staffers at his Kensington campaign headquarters kept poking their heads into his cramped office, delivering the latest congratulatory communique.
Overnight, he had become a national Democratic star, one of just two party challengers to knock off a Republican House incumbent on Election Day. "On behalf of all the Democrats in the country, thank you for being one of the few bright spots," one phone message read.
It wasn't supposed to be this way. Back in the spring, when the economy was tanking and corporate scandals multiplying, the Democratic Party gleefully predicted it would recapture control of the House. And Maryland's 8th District was ground zero in the fight.
Rep. Constance A. Morella was one of just six Republican members standing in the way of a new Democratic leadership that would stop tax cuts to the wealthy, jump-start a prescription drug benefit under Medicare, protect the environment and pass stricter gun control laws. Or so went Van Hollen's mantra.
Instead, Republicans expanded their House majority and took back the Senate on Tuesday, opening the door wide for President Bush's ambitious agenda. Now, last year's tax cuts may be extended, oil drilling allowed in Alaska's wildlife refuge and jury awards and business regulations curtailed.
The state senator who "got things done" will start his tenure on the Hill at a significant disadvantage -- for the first time in his 12-year political career, he will be a member of the minority party. As a freshman, he will be relegated to some basement office football fields away from the Capitol and likely assigned to an obscure policy committee rather than the powerful Appropriations slot he covets.
But the pragmatic Van Hollen, a skilled parliamentarian who time and again in Annapolis won uphill fights against his own party's leadership by crafting compromises, seems ready to adapt.
There will be times, he said yesterday, when his role will be to sound the drumbeat against the Republicans, to make a strong case for the liberal priorities the 8th District favors even if the legislation has no chance of passage. While Morella cast many votes against her party's leadership, she rarely rebuked its members publicly.
In other instances, he said, he will try to work with Republicans. The intercounty connector, a long-planned road project to relieve traffic congestion by linking Interstates 270 and 95, offers a prime example.
Next year, Congress will decide which major road projects to fund across the nation. Van Hollen hopes to build a partnership with Maryland's Republican Gov.-elect Robert L. Ehrlich Jr., who campaigned in favor of the connector, to win federal dollars. While the Bush administration might not be keen on aiding a freshman Democrat from liberal Montgomery County, he figures it would be interested in boosting the state's first Republican governor in more than 30 years.
"On every issue, you have to make a decision as to whether you are going to advance the cause more by standing up and fighting and trying to move the ball further down the court of public opinion or by compromise," he said.
The 43-year-old Van Hollen enters the House with numerous advantages not shared by other first-term Democrats.
His come-from-behind primary victory against a member of the Kennedy political dynasty and his nearly picture-perfect campaign against the popular Morella has earned him a reputation as a giant-killer in party circles.
Yes, the district he won was specifically redrawn to elect a Democrat. At the same time, it hasn't escaped party leaders' notice that Morella was one of just two of the 23 Republicans for whom President Bush campaigned to be defeated.
"He's the starting point for what we need to do to take the House back in 2004," said Jenny Backus, a spokeswoman for the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee. "On a tactical level, he ran a fantastic campaign, combining the right message for his district and an unbelievable grass-roots field operation."
Given that his race took place in the Washington suburbs, there's hardly a member of Congress who doesn't know his name. His legislative background, which builds on the years he spent as a staffer on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, means he knows how to maneuver in the caucus rooms where key decisions such as committee assignments are made.
His youth and his majority Democratic district could allow him to rise in the party ranks, permitting him to take risks that members in more marginal seats could not, said Amy Walter, who analyzes the House for the Cook Political Report.
"He's well-positioned to make the argument that he should be part of the next generation of leadership," Walter said.
Van Hollen isn't thinking that far ahead. The first order of business will be to put together a transition team that can set up the kind of district office run by Morella. Her legendary constituent service and ubiquitous presence in the district -- she has joked that she would attend the "opening of an envelope" -- will be a hard act to follow, but Van Hollen knows that voters expect nothing less.
But between now and January, he also plans to get some rest. One year and eight months after he began running, the workhorse Van Hollen figures his family deserve a few days off together.
"One thing I have to do is take a vacation," he said. "Somewhere where it's warm and sunny."