Chris Van Hollen, the polite, courtly representative of Maryland's suburbs just north of D.C., was on the verge of losing his promising status in the Democratic ranks.
Viewed by members of the party as an up-and-comer, the 51-year-old Van Hollen led his party's House campaign efforts over the past two election cycles. As is patently obvious, things didn't turn out so well this year. And this left him in an uncertain position, even as his four terms in the House of Representatives had, thus far, signaled nothing but upward mobility.
Van Hollen decided that, after two cycles at the helm of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, enough was enough. He was interested in joining the Democratic leadership, but, as Democrats lost their majority in the House of Representatives, with it they lost a slot in the hierarchy: With no Speaker of the House, the Democratic leadership shrank, and everyone would be forced to take one step down the ladder. James Clyburn and Steny Hoyer engaged in a race for whip. The fates of several Democratic congressional leaders looked uncertain.
Things were crowded at the top, and it appeared that Van Hollen could be pushed aside, despite being an ally of Speaker Nancy Pelosi, and despite having ascended impressively to the DCCC role in 2007, after just two terms in the House.
Fortuitously, however, Van Hollen has landed: He will serve as the top Democrat on the House Budget Committee, a position that will carry added importance in the next Congress.
Van Hollen won the job this past Wednesday, as Democrats voted on their caucus leaders for next year. He was the only committee leader to be decided that day, along with Pelosi, Hoyer, Clyburn, Caucus Chairman John Larson, and Vice Chair Xavier Becerra--the rest of the committee slots will be filled after Thanksgiving--and was included, in the voting schedule and in the post-vote announcements, as part of the leadership club. Van Hollen won the position with a unanimous vote of the incoming Democratic caucus. He had not sat on the committee during the previous four years.
Pelosi helped pave the way for Van Hollen to secure his new role, as did, significantly, outgoing Budget Chairman John Spratt of South Carolina, who lost his seat in the 2010 wave.
One would think that, if the 2010 midterms had lessened Van Hollen's standing in anyone's eyes, it would be those of defeated incumbents. But Spratt, who has long been a target of Van Hollen's counterparts at the National Republican Congressional Committee, endorsed Van Hollen to succeed him on the committee, just eight days after losing his own seat despite the DCCC's efforts. Spratt had served in the House for 28 years.
In fact, Van Hollen doesn't seem to be collecting any blame for the massive losses of 2010, despite Democrats losing control of the House on his watch.
"I have, since the election, talked to virtually every Democrat who won or lost, and I have yet to hear from a single one who said the DCCC should have dome more, should have done it differently," Congressman Steve Israel, who served as Van Hollen's recruitment chairman and will now take the reins as DCCC chair*, told me the weekend after Election Day. "All of our candidates, win or lose, recognize that we did everything humanly possible, that Chris did everything humanly possible."
Spratt wasn't the only defeated Democrat to voice support for Van Hollen after Election Day.
"While we came up short during a hard fought election cycle, it wasn't because of a lack of support or hard work on Rep. Van Hollen's part," said Arizona Congressman Harry Mitchell, a Blue Dog who lost on Election Day, when asked about Van Hollen's performance at the DCCC. "There is certainly a reason for us to be disappointed, but when you think about what was accomplished over the last four years, there are even more reasons to be proud. Chris went to bat for a number of us, and as a colleague, I remain grateful for his leadership."