WASHINGTON -- Rep. Chris Van Hollen of Maryland will lead the national push by House Democrats to preserve their new majority in 2008, incoming Speaker Nancy Pelosi announced yesterday.
Pelosi has chosen the Montgomery County Democrat to succeed Rep. Rahm Emanuel of Illinois, the hard-charging strategist who led House Democrats back to the majority last month for the first time in 12 years, as chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee. The move puts Van Hollen in charge of the party's recruiting and fundraising efforts during the 2007-2008 election cycle.
Van Hollen's "depth of legislative experience and political savvy will make him an exceptional DCCC Chairman," Pelosi said in a statement. "I am confident he will build upon the success of our outstanding Chairman Rahm Emanuel and lead our efforts to strengthen our Democratic majority in the House and enable us to continue to address the priorities of all Americans."
Van Hollen, who coasted last month to a third term while serving as a top deputy to Emanuel on the DCCC, said that House Democrats looking to build on momentum from the elections should focus now on fulfilling their campaign promises.
"People will say, `Yes, they're following through on the commitments they made, we see a real change in Washington, we want to support that effort,' " he said. "That will help us attract candidates, and it will help us get the resources that they need."
The nomination comes a week after Van Hollen landed a seat on the tax-writing House Ways and Means Committee, whose members have access to some of the nation's most lucrative sources of campaign cash.
"There simply is no question that Chris is a rising star in the Democratic Party," Rep. Steny H. Hoyer of Southern Maryland, the incoming House majority leader, said in a statement.
Van Hollen deflected questions about his ascent.
"I'm grateful to Speaker-elect Pelosi for giving a lot of the newer members an opportunity to really fully participate," he said. "There's that old adage that sometimes new members are there to be seen and not heard. I'm pleased she's adopted a different approach."
A spokesman for the National Republican Congressional Committee questioned Van Hollen's prepartion for the job. "He's clearly got big shoes to fill," spokesman Carl Forti said. "Rahm Emmanuel cut a wide path, and I think it will be difficult for Van Hollen to keep up with what Emanuel did from fundraising to candidate recruitment."
Emanuel, who moves up to chairman of the House Democratic Caucus next month, called his colleague "a political strategist and thinker of the first order."
"As head of the recruitment team, he helped create the field that became the Democratic majority," he said in a statement. "And, throughout this election, I sought his advice and counsel in every critical decision I had to make. There is no one better prepared to take the reins of the DCCC."
Van Hollen said Emanuel would remain engaged in the 2008 campaign. The Chicago congressman tapped Van Hollen to help recruit moderate Democrats to challenge Republican incumbents in conservative districts in the 2006 campaign. Van Hollen also was co-chair of the "Red to Blue" program, which supported the challengers with money and political guidance.
Van Hollen, 47, came to Congress in the 2002 election by defeating eight-term Republican incumbent Rep. Constance A. Morella. In the Democratic primary, he had edged Kennedy cousin Mark Shriver.
"It was clear to me from his hard-fought primary victory and even tougher general election win that he had an acute political capacity rarely found in Washington," Emanuel said.
Van Hollen has compiled a generally liberal record, earning ratings of 100 from the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees and the League of Conservation Voters and 91 from the American Civil Liberties Union during the last Congress. He voted against bans on late-term abortion and same-sex marriage, and tax cuts favored by President Bush.
Before pursuing office on his own, Van Hollen worked for Republican Sen. Charles McC. Mathias of Maryland, Democratic Gov. William Donald Schaefer and the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. He served four years in the House of Delegates and eight in the Maryland Senate.
Chairing a congressional campaign committee during a presidential election cycle presents challenges different from those posed by a midterm election. Primaries come earlier, voter turnout is higher, and local races can be affected by the nominees at the top of the tickets.
Van Hollen acknowledged those challenges.
"I think a key for our purposes is to make it clear to voters that in order to be successful a new president is going to need a Congress that is also interested in changing directions," he said. "Therefore, it's essential that we continue the momentum that we've established in the last election."
At the same time, he said, "the prospects for success for the Democratic nominee will depend in part on how this Congress performs. Whoever the nominee is has a direct interest in helping this congressional leadership do well and follow through."