A month and a half before he is sworn in as the next senator from Maryland, Sen.-elect Chris Van Hollen is already a member of the Democratic leadership of that body.
Sen. Charles Schumer of New York, the Senate Democrats’ newly named minority leader, announced Friday that Van Hollen has been chosen as chairman of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee (DSCC) for the 2017-2018 campaign cycle. It means the Kensington resident will reprise a role he played during his 14-year tenure in the House of Representatives: He chaired the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee (DCCC) from 2006 to 2010.
A press release from Van Hollen noted he is the first senator-elect in history asked to take on the DSCC chairmanship. But his elevated status is something of a double-edged sword.
Nationwide, the Democrats will be defending three times as many Senate seats in the 2018 election as the Republicans. Van Hollen will have the task of holding on to 23 states where Democrats now have seats, plus two other states represented by independents who caucus with the Democrats.
Five of the Democrats up for re-election are from so-called red states that traditionally go Republican in presidential elections. At least another three are from swing states, and could also face significant challenges.
Schumer alluded to the arduous task facing Van Hollen in announcing the appointment. “Chris Van Hollen was our first choice for DSCC chairman because of his talents, his work ethic, and his experience,” Schumer declared. “He has the confidence of our caucus and will do a great job for our candidates running in 2018. The map is tough for Democrats, but I have no doubt that Senator-elect Van Hollen is up to the task.”
In fact, it appears Van Hollen may have gotten the job in part because no sitting senator was eager to take it on, given the difficulty in maintaining—let alone increasing—the 48 seats the Democrats now hold in the 100-member Senate. Given that the Republicans made heavy gains in Congress during the two off-year elections—2010 and 2014—during the Obama administration, Democratic prospects in 2018 could turn in large measure on how President-elect Donald Trump fares in his first two years in office.
There is a major sweetener in the deal for Van Hollen: At the same time he was named to the DSCC post, he was given the coveted seat on the Appropriations Committee that is being vacated by his Maryland predecessor, Democratic Sen. Barbara Mikulski. Just as Mikulski was able to use that post to funnel federal funding into Maryland on numerous fronts, it will give Van Hollen plenty of opportunities to endear himself to his new statewide constituency.
In a statement, Van Hollen said of his acceptance of the DSCC post: “…I'm honored to have the support of our caucus as I take on this new role. Democrats in the Senate are the last line of defense between President-elect Trump and Washington Republicans, and so many of the values and priorities that Americans hold dear.
He continued: “I look forward to getting to work right away to defend American values, as well as fighting for my home state of Maryland by taking up Senator Mikulski's mantle on the Senate Appropriations Committee."
At the DSCC, Van Hollen succeeds Sen. Jon Tester of Montana, who has held the post for the last two years. Tester, seeking a third six-year term in 2018, is among the Democratic senators running in states with a strong Republican tilt.
Among the other senators up for re-election in 2018: Van Hollen’s senior Maryland colleague, Democratic Sen. Ben Cardin. While he will turn 75 just prior to the next election, Cardin is said by sources to be planning to seek another term—and would be strongly favored to win if he does. However, across the Potomac River in Virginia, Sen. Tim Kaine—the vice-presidential nominee on this year’s losing Democratic national ticket—could face a tougher time in what is considered a purple state.
After first winning election in 2002 to represent the Montgomery County-based 8th Congressional District, Van Hollen won more than 60 percent pf the vote in last Tuesday’s election to overwhelmingly turn back the Republican nominee, Del. Kathy Szeliga, and become only the second U.S. senator from Montgomery County in Maryland history.
His ascension to the DSCC post follows a familiar pattern in his rise through the political ranks, in which he often has been given significant responsibilities by the party leadership of a legislative body soon after his arrival.
In 1994, Van Hollen won a state Senate seat running as a political outsider, but quickly moved to mend fences with Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller, an Annapolis institution. That helped him gain a leadership position on the powerful Budget and Taxation Committee.
Moving to Congress eight years later, he soon became close to the House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, who gave him a major role at the DCCC in 2004. Two years later, with Pelosi as speaker, Van Hollen was moved up to the DCCC chairmanship, and was subsequently rewarded with a second role as assistant to the speaker. When the Democrats lost control of the House majority in 2010, Van Hollen won the job of ranking Democrat on the House Budget Committee, despite not having previously served on that panel.