Democrats Search for Pelosi-Backed Successor

These Democrats wanted Chris Van Hollen, a close Pelosi ally, to be their next leader. Now what?

At the beginning of the 114th Congress, a group of seven House Democrats came together and made a plan: They would back Rep. Chris Van Hollen to serve as the party's next leader.

Then Van Hollen decided to run for Senate instead, and those members were left looking for a Plan B. They don't have one yet. Neither does the caucus.

That matters because House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi is 75 years old and Minority Whip Steny Hoyer is 76. Pelosi has yet to telegraph when she plans to leave office, nor does she have a favored successor in place—though she was widely thought to be grooming Van Hollen for that role. She has also never gotten along well with Hoyer.

Part of the motivation for the pro-Van Hollen group, the existence of which was first disclosed by The New York Times, was to rally behind someone who was both ready for the top job and liked enough by the current leader that the transition would go smoothly.

So, for members of the "Van Hollen Seven," is there another candidate who would fit that bill?

"Those conversations are really premature at this point," said Rep. Steve Israel, a member of that group and a longtime Pelosi ally.

Other Van Hollen backers also demurred from naming a favorite to succeed Pelosi. "In terms of going forward, I don't know," said Rep. Beto O'Rourke, who was present at one of the group's meetings. "While I was happy to attend that, I did not think it was going to be public. I do not want to speculate on others."

Rep. Paul Tonko also declined to weigh in on efforts, past or present, to line up support for a caucus leadership hopeful. Most of the Van Hollen team characterized its plan as a vague attempt to cultivate the caucus "farm team," saying there's no imminent need to find a replacement-in-waiting.

But at least one of Van Hollen's supporters knows who he wants to see next atop the caucus. "If Hoyer is running for leader and Ms. Pelosi is gone, I'd be with Mr. Hoyer," said Rep. Dan Kildee.

Kildee's statement is notable because the formation of the Van Hollen group was seen as an effort to find someone who could supplant Hoyer, Pelosi's longtime No. 2. Many believe Pelosi has a grudge against Hoyer, and will not step aside until another front-runner becomes apparent. (Since his entrance into the Senate race, Van Hollen himself has said Hoyer, a fellow Marylander, should be the next to lead the caucus if Pelosi steps aside.)

Pelosi's office pleaded ignorance of such talk. "Leader Pelosi has always said she's here on a mission, not a shift," said Pelosi press secretary Drew Hammill. "The leader has been honored by the support of her colleagues and believes the decision about who will lead the caucus is up to the members."

The aide suggested that the real leadership jostling underway is the race for the caucus vice-chair position, which will be vacated by Rep. Joseph Crowley in the next Congress. Already, Reps. Linda Sanchez and Barbara Lee have thrown their hats in the ring for that post.

Pelosi has not indicated whether she plans to run again next year, and some of Hoyer's allies are already declaring him the de facto heir apparent should she retire. "If Leader Pelosi decides to step down from Congress, Steny will be the next Leader," said Rep. Joaquin Castro, a chief deputy whip to Hoyer. "He's very well respected across the caucus. More than that, no one can beat him."

Other Hoyer allies were less willing to anoint him the next leader or commit their own leadership votes—especially with Pelosi still around—but praised his efforts to groom young members and build consensus.

"Steny's greatest strength is building a tent that invites and creates space for all Democrats," said Rep. Kyrsten Sinema, a member of the Blue Dog Coalition and of Hoyer's whip team. "He's been a real unifying force. "¦ Mr. Hoyer's been really, really good about finding younger and newer members, and finding a place for them to grow."

Rep. Denny Heck recalled receiving a phone call from Hoyer after undergoing emergency gallbladder surgery last summer. "I don't even know how he found out I was in the hospital," Heck said. Nonetheless, he called speculation on future leadership races a "waste of time." Others mentioned Hoyer's campaign assistance, visits to their districts, and openness to his members.

"He works with legislators with many different perspectives and political ideologies within the Democratic caucus, and he does it very effectively," said Rep. Katherine Clark, a recent addition to the whip team. "He's just a very kind and truly genuinely open, friendly person." Clark stayed away from any explicit leadership endorsements, but added: "I don't rule anything out for Steny Hoyer."

Those alliances give Hoyer a strong head start if and when the time comes to vote on a new leader. The question may be whether another of the Democrats' leadership hopefuls can stand out enough from the others to make it a clear one-on-one challenge—which some think the Van Hollen recruitment was designed to determine.

That list includes the likes of Israel, Crowley, Caucus Chair Xavier Becerra, and Democratic National Committee Chair Debbie Wasserman Schultz. Many also list Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee Chairman Ben Ray Lujan as a rising star.

"At a certain point after Leader Pelosi and Steny Hoyer finish their work, the caucus should begin developing the next generation, and I think that's a healthy conversation to have, but not until Leader Pelosi and Steny Hoyer complete the work that they're doing here," Israel said. "I'm a big fan of the New York Mets, and you're always thinking about the farm team and who you're going to bring in years later." Israel would not speculate on Hoyer's role if Pelosi were to step down before him.

"If you listen to all the rumors that go around this town, it would be a full-time job," said Rep. Joe Kennedy, of the next-in-line talk. "It's a really talented caucus." He too offered praise for Hoyer, whom he considers a mentor.

Kennedy is considered part of the caucus's standout tier of newer members, who might one day have their own chance at leadership roles. He's listed alongside Kildee, Castro, O'Rourke, Tulsi Gabbard, and Eric Swalwell.

But some are worried that younger House Democrats are growing discouraged, and that some of their brightest stars are seeking greener pastures elsewhere. "I'm a little concerned that some of them—like [Rep.] Pat Murphy, who's running for Senate, and others, are contemplating leaving the House," O'Rourke said. "Chris Van Hollen's leaving the House. I really want to see our caucus retain and promote as much of its talent as we possibly can. "¦ That is definitely a concern."

This article has been updated.