Who's in Charge of the Democratic Caucus? A Field Guide to Leadership Races

After the not-so-stunning losses of the 2010 midterms, Democrats now must decide who will lead their caucus next year, and some influential members are competing for the jobs.

Democrats will vote next Monday, Nov. 15, according to one Democratic member, and one thing so far is almost certain: current House Speaker Nancy Pelosi will be in charge once again, this time as minority leader.

When a party loses majority in the House, it loses one leadership spot--the job of Speaker disappears--so it will be a crowded race at the top of the Democratic ranks.

As the politicking unfolds, here's a field guide to the leadership spots, who currently inhabits them, and who might inhabit them in January.

How the voting will happen: Essentially, the Democratic caucus will make its own rules, but the votes are expected to be taken by secret ballot at a meeting that will include the newly elected members that took over Republican seats, who will be in town for orientation. Members will likely vote for each position in succession, so if one member loses, he/she can conceivably run for the next slot, seeking to bump an incumbent down in order.

Minority Leader: Speaker Nancy Pelosi is running for this, the head job in the Democratic caucus, though a few had speculated that she perhaps would step aside after the Democrats' midterm losses. The conservative Blue Dog Coalition, weakened after the midterms, is expected to put forth a moderate/conservative challenger to Pelosi, and North Carolina's Heath Shuler has said he would challenge Pelosi if no other viable candidates emerged. Democratic aides do not expect anyone to seriously threaten Pelosi's hold on the top spot. The only member who could conceivably challenge her is Majority Leader Steny Hoyer--and he has not signaled any intent to do so.

Minority Whip: The whip serves a specific function, to tally and gather votes for leadership-backed bills, but its status grows in the rank-order when a party loses power: Having been the third-highest ranking Democrat in the House, Democratic Whip James Clyburn will seek to keep his job, which is second from the top this time around. Current Majority Leader Steny Hoyer has mounted a challenge, and this race will be the most hotly contested of any. It will be the center of the action.

Hoyer represents a moderate base of Democrats in the House, and he defeated Pelosi's ally, the late John Murtha, to become Minority Leader in 2006. Discontent moderates, though fewer in number, could deliver a victory to Hoyer, though Clyburn will be difficult to beat, as he'll enjoy the backing of the Congressional Black Caucus, the Congressional Hispanic Caucus, and members of the House Progressive Caucus. Hoyer, at present, has been saying he has the votes to win, and has been publicizing his endorsees. While this race pits two powerful members against each other, it's apparently remaining as cordial as possible, as the two are friends. Hoyer and Clyburn have already met since the race began. Pelosi is reportedly looking to strike a deal to avoid this contest.

Caucus Chairman: Currently held by Connecticut's John Larson, either Hoyer or Clyburn--whoever loses out--could be "bumped down" into this slot, bumping Larson out of the picture. Larson is a close ally of Pelosi, but serving as caucus chairman has given him far less opportunity to stand out over the past few years, while Hoyer and Clyburn have held relatively high profiles. Given that reality, Larson may be in the weakest position of any incumbent Democratic leaders. Clyburn is not interested in running for caucus chairman--he's held that position before, and he sees his whip race as an attempt to hold onto what he's got, not an attempt to move up--and Hoyer, the second most powerful Democrat in the House, clearly wants to hold the second-highest post but could fit in this role.

Caucus Vice-Chair: The spot is currently held by Xavier Becerra, a relatively charismatic, relatively up-and-coming nine-term congressman from Los Angeles. As a member of the Progressive Caucus, he represents both that group and the Congressional Hispanic Caucus in the leadership. Given that his future in House Democratic politics seems bright, it's unlikely that Becerra will be bumped out of this spot, though Larson could attempt to supplant him if he's supplanted for Hoyer or Clyburn.

Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee Chairman: While not a caucus leadership job, this is an important and powerful position nonetheless, as its occupant is responsible for raising money and electing (and re-electing) members of the party. Current Chairman Chris Van Hollen is stepping down after two cycles, leaving as the frontrunner New York's Steve Israel, who served as Van Hollen's recruitment chairman during the past election cycle. Israel declined to discuss a bid when I asked him over the weekend, saying he's "just completely focused on supporting Nancy Pelosi" in her bid for minority leader. Other possible contenders: Florida's Debbie Wasserman-Schultz, an influential deputy whip who headed up incumbent retention efforts at the DCCC, and New York's Joseph Crowley, who served as the DCCC's vice chair for finance this past cycle.

Factors to consider: While Pelosi seeks to avoid any messiness in the Hoyer/Clyburn contest for whip, it will also be important that large constituencies in the Democratic caucus are represented adequately in leadership. That means that moderates and the Blue Dog Coalition (who back Hoyer), the Congressional Black Caucus (who back Clyburn) and the Congressional Hispanic Caucus and House Progressive Caucus (who back Becerra) will all need to be represented. It will be tough to make them all happy. Chris Van Hollen, meanwhile, currently serves as Assistant to the Speaker, but has been considered a rising star in the Democratic caucus. Will he make his way in? Pelosi is expected to have tremendous influence on who occupies the lower rungs, though her hand-picked candidates have been defeated before (for instance, Hoyer's victory over Murtha in 2006 for Minority Leader).

It's a crowded race at the top, but by early next week, some dust will have settled at the Capitol.