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Democrats Could Face Battle for Leader Post

Tuesday may not be the end of bitter campaigns for House Democrats. If the party loses control of the House next week, the Caucus may face a competitive and acrimonious race to determine who will be Minority Leader in the 112th Congress.

Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s top lieutenant, Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (Md.), is considered the heir apparent to lead the party if the California Democrat steps aside in the wake of a GOP rout Tuesday.

But a source close to Caucus Chairman John Larson said Wednesday that some Members have approached the Connecticut Democrat about possibly mounting a challenge to Hoyer. Democrats on Capitol Hill and K Street have also mentioned other ambitious Members who could jump into a race, including Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee Chairman Chris Van Hollen (Md.) and Caucus Vice Chairman Xavier Becerra (Calif.). An open race could also include DCCC Vice Chairmen Debbie Wasserman Schultz (Fla.) and Joe Crowley (N.Y.) ‘ prolific fundraisers who are widely believed to harbor leadership ambitions.

The source close to Larson said there was some ‘buzz’ among Members about Larson running for Minority Leader if Pelosi steps aside.

‘There are some folks talking to him,’ the source said, stressing that his current plan is to remain Caucus chairman. ‘Right now, he just wants to get past the election and make decisions from there.’

Hoyer’s allies insist the Caucus would quickly coalesce around him if Pelosi were to bow out of leadership, but others predict a push to inject fresh blood into a leadership structure that Pelosi and Hoyer have captained for eight years.

Although he is already part of the leadership team, Larson could find a well of support from progressives who backed the late Rep. John Murtha (D-Pa.) over Hoyer in a hard-fought race for Majority Leader four years ago. Hoyer handily won that contest, but his strongest base of support comes from the Caucus’ moderate ranks, which will almost certainly be depleted after the elections.

‘John Larson has a good handle on the Caucus, and if he decided to run for leader, folks would have to take that seriously,’ a Democratic leadership aide said Wednesday.

But an aide to a senior appropriator who backed Larson for Caucus vice chairman in 2006 said Larson lacked a ‘gravitas factor,’ adding, ‘I just don’t see Larson as having the kind of base that Hoyer does.’

‘I don’t understand why he would do it, and I can’t see him winning,’ the aide said.

K Street sources predict that Larson’s chances for ousting Hoyer would increase if he could harness Members from Murtha’s camp, such as Democratic Reps. Mike Capuano (Mass.) and Mike Doyle (Pa.).

A source close to Van Hollen stopped short Wednesday of ruling out the possibility that the Maryland Democrat would run for Minority Leader but said Van Hollen was ‘focused on one thing ‘ and that’s doing everything possible to help Democrats on Tuesday.’

‘Anything unrelated to that effort will sort itself out in time,’ the source added.

Van Hollen, who holds the title of Assistant to the Speaker but not an elected leadership post, could draw support from grateful Democrats whom he helped elect this year. Hoyer and Van Hollen have both campaigned and raised money aggressively for Democrats this cycle.

Larson and Van Hollen could each have an incentive to challenge Hoyer for Minority Leader. Larson might be maneuvering to avoid being edged out of leadership by an ambitious junior Member, and Van Hollen may see Hoyer as a barrier to his entry to leadership, as both men represent Washington, D.C.’s Maryland suburbs.

Becerra, meanwhile, likely would have the backing of many members of the California delegation and the Congressional Hispanic Caucus.

No Members have announced plans to run for leadership posts in the minority, and it is unlikely anyone will until Tuesday’s election results are in.

Aides to Becerra and Hoyer and a source close to Crowley all refused to discuss hypothetical leadership races, saying only that the Members are focusing on helping Democrats win elections next week. A spokesman for Wasserman Schultz did not respond to a request for comment.

Hoyer has insisted publicly that Democrats will retain the majority and that he will keep the Majority Leader post in the 112th Congress.

One Democratic lobbyist noted that Hoyer has taken great pains to avoid looking like he is trying to upstage Pelosi or ‘that he has stepped over her smoldering carcass to get her job,’ lest he prompt a backlash from Pelosi’s allies.

Although she has refused to signal her intentions, the prevailing view is that Pelosi would leave leadership if Democrats lose the majority.

A senior House Democratic aide predicted that in Pelosi’s absence, the race for Minority Leader would be ‘more open than people would expect,’ adding, ‘I think anyone in the leadership would take a look at it.’

Majority Whip James Clyburn (D-S.C.), is considered unlikely to challenge Hoyer, sources said.

A former House Democratic leadership staffer noted that the lack of turnover in the uppermost ranks of Democratic leadership in recent years has left a stable of junior Members eager for an opening.

Hoyer has ‘an advantage, but I think it would be a competitive race,’ the former staffer said. ‘There’s no shortage of people willing to step up.’

Still, a Democratic lobbyist with ties to members of the fiscally conservative Blue Dog Coalition predicted that dispirited Democrats would rally around Hoyer, in part because of his record of building strong relationships across the aisle.

‘Being in the minority is going to be ‘if it happens ‘ a significant wake-up call for a lot of people who are left, and I think Steny is uniquely situated and qualified to fill that gap if the Speaker makes the decision to step down and not seek it,’ the lobbyist said.

Another senior Democratic House aide said Hoyer, who has been barnstorming the country vigorously for Democrats, talks to Members every day but has not had any conversations about leadership races. Instead, he has been asking Members about the political situation on the ground in their states, talking about developments in individual races and probing Members about what they need help with.

The idea that Pelosi and/or Hoyer would get swept aside after the elections by disenchanted Members is an ‘easy refrain,’ the aide said.

In the end, this aide said, ‘Members understand the outside forces that were in play’ this election cycle and would keep in mind that Pelosi and Hoyer raised a lot of money, advanced the Democratic agenda and ‘worked tirelessly on their behalf.’

Anna Palmer contributed to this report.

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