WASHINGTON - After leading his party to a gain of at least 19 seats in the House, Rep. Chris Van Hollen has agreed to another two-year term as chairman of the committee that works to elect more Democrats to the chamber.
The challenge now confronting the Montgomery County Democrat is holding on to all the seats his party picked up in 2006 and 2008. Democrats rode public anger about the war in Iraq, the financial crisis and President Bush to an 81-seat majority over the past two elections, but many won in Republican districts that will likely prove difficult to defend.
Van Hollen, who won a fourth term last week representing the 8th Congressional District, credits his party's electoral success this year to a decision to "stay on offense" - out-raising Republicans and recruiting Democrats to run deeper into GOP territory.
Going forward, he says, the task is different.
"There will, of course, be some offense," he said yesterday. "But there will be a whole lot of defense."
A second term chairing the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee was the one leadership position he wasn't seeking, Van Hollen said last week. But Democratic aides said yesterday that House Speaker Nancy Pelosi had prevailed on him to stay on the job for another cycle.
He will also become an assistant to the speaker - a policy role that should help in his political responsibilities.
"How we do in the next election will depend on how we govern between now and then," he said. "And I think that if the Obama administration and the Congress can be seen as successful working together for the next two years, that will obviously put us in a very strong position."
Pelosi is expected to announce Van Hollen's appointment this week. The 49-year-old former Senate staffer gained national attention in 2002 after he defeated Kennedy family member Mark Shriver in the Democratic primary for the 8th District. He went on to unseat eight-term Republican Rep. Constance A. Morella in the general election.
Tapped by Pelosi to build on the party's House gains in 2006, Van Hollen recruited moderate and conservative Democrats to run deeper into Republican territory and oversaw record money hauls to begin advertising against GOP incumbents earlier than ever.
The organization spent more than $2 million to support the upset bid of Democratic Queen Anne's County prosecutor Frank M. Kratovil Jr. in Maryland's Republican-leaning 1st District. Kratovil, who leads GOP state Sen. Andy Harris by 2,154 votes with about 8,000 absentee and provisional ballots still to be counted, is expected to declare victory today in a race that has already been called by the Associated Press.
That would give Democrats a 20th House seat in the 2008 elections with four races still undecided. That's on top of three special-election pickups during the past two years.
Already, Democrats say, they have picked up the most new seats ever by a party in the election immediately after one in which it gained a new majority. House Majority Leader Steny H. Hoyer said last week that Van Hollen had done "an excellent job"; Pelosi called him "maestro."
"No one could have done a better job to strengthen our Democratic majority in the House and enable us to continue to address the priorities of all Americans," Pelosi said last week.
Van Hollen played a role in the Democratic gains of 2006 as co-chair of the DCCC's "Red to Blue" program, which steered money to challengers in districts held by Republicans.
That earned him the chair of the whole outfit for the 2008 election. He also won a seat on the tax-writing House Ways and Means Committee, a valuable position from which to raise money. He is spoken of as a potential future Senate candidate.
Van Hollen said last week that he was considering a run for chairman of the House Democratic Caucus, a position left vacant by the departure of Illinois Rep. Rahm Emanuel to become chief of staff in Barack Obama's White House. That would have meant a showdown with current Vice Chairman John B. Larson of Connecticut, a confrontation Pelosi appears to have headed off.
With Obama's victory, Van Hollen is looking forward to his first term serving alongside a Democratic president.
The first priority, he said, will be an economic recovery package. If negotiations with the Bush administration fall through, he said a package passed after Obama is sworn in could include "all or some of President-elect Obama's tax relief for the middle class."