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Is the Senate Where It’s At for Ambitious House Democrats?

Van Hollen is one of several House Democrats who will have to decide whether waiting for a caucus leadership post to open is the right move. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call File Photo)
Van Hollen is one of several House Democrats who will have to decide whether waiting for a caucus leadership post to open is the right move. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call File Photo)

The next generation of House Democratic leaders sees opportunity for advancement — in the Senate, that is.  

With Maryland Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski’s retirement announcement Monday , California Sen. Barbara Boxer doing the same in January and Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., likely to run for president, ambitious House Democrats could be tempted by open Senate seats in a presidential election year. Some of the Free State’s House stars —  Elijah E. Cummings, Donna Edwards, Chris Van Hollen and others — will likely weigh whether it’s worth waiting to move up in the House Democratic Caucus’ leadership ranks or attempting a jump to the other chamber.  

It’s the same calculus facing other Democrats, including caucus Chairman Xavier Becerra of California and Democratic National Committee Chairwoman Debbie Wasserman Schultz of Florida.  

“I think it speaks to how frustrating it is to be in the House right now with a Republican majority that can’t get anything done,” Rep. Tim Ryan told CQ Roll Call recently. The Ohio Democrat considered taking on GOP Sen. Rob Portman before he opted out of that race.  

“I think a lot of the younger members that have been around, like Debbie and like Xavier, experience that frustration,” he said. “I’m not surprised by it at all.”  

Van Hollen, the Budget Committee’s ranking member and a former assistant to the speaker under Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., starts out as the front-runner in Maryland, according to multiple members, aides and operatives.  

At the same time, those sources say, of all the members poised to someday succeed Pelosi as the House’s top Democrat, or her top lieutenants, Minority Whip Steny H. Hoyer or Assistant Democratic Leader James E. Clyburn of South Carolina, Van Hollen is among the best positioned.  

Van Hollen, who also ran the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee for two cycles, has spent his seven terms forming key alliances, raising money and acting as party messenger.  

Members would be inclined to reward him for his years of sweating it out in the trenches as he worked his way to the top, said a Democratic strategist who has worked on Maryland campaigns. “He has devoted more — other than Pelosi — over the course of the past six to eight years, to the House Democratic Caucus than just about everyone,” the strategist said.  

In 2006, Van Hollen opted against running for the Senate seat that was ultimately won by Democrat Benjamin L. Cardin, and since that time, the strategist said, “His affinity for the House has grown. … He’s put more and more into it.”  

There would be no guarantees for Van Hollen if he stayed in the House.  

If Pelosi, who turns 75 on March 26, decides to retire in 2016, Hoyer, who turns 76 on June 14, might make a bid to succeed her. Some members might challenge him, but Van Hollen won’t be among them, not wanting to undermine another Marylander.  

In that scenario, he could vie for the whip slot, but that would place two lawmakers from the same state in the upper echelons — an unlikely scenario.  

Van Hollen could also end up falling short of diversity concerns. He is a white male, like Hoyer and caucus Vice Chairman Joseph Crowley of New York. There is currently one woman (Pelosi), one African-American (Clyburn) and one Latino (Becerra) in elected House Democratic leadership.  

If Pelosi and Clyburn were to retire next year, Becerra could be a strong candidate in the line of succession. The Congressional Black Caucus would likely try to field a nominee too, and female lawmakers would want to be represented. Van Hollen could get pushed aside.  

He could also simply lose, unable to prevail in what will likely be a competitive field (the bench gets deeper as the party’s top leaders stick around).  

So maybe Van Hollen will run for Senate — except there’s no certain outcome in running for Senate, either.  

No matter whom they field, Democrats are strongly favored to hold Mikulski’s seat in 2016, despite Republicans’ surprising gubernatorial win last year. Democrats dominate the presidential contest. If Hillary Rodham Clinton is the party’s nominee or if former Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley is on the ticket, the Democratic candidate for Senate will have a huge edge.  

Becerra and Wasserman Schultz face longer odds if they run for the Senate. Florida and California are expensive, and neither would enter the race as the front-runner in a Democratic primary.  

In California, Attorney General Kamala Harris kicked off her campaign days after Boxer’s announcement. Any Democrat who makes the race would be playing catch-up.  

In Florida, Democrats are more focused on Rep. Patrick Murphy, a two-termer who represents a Republican-leaning district. Wasserman Schultz has a strong fundraising base, but her high profile is an opposition researcher’s dream.  

For Van Hollen, “either path forward has risks and nothing is a guarantee,” a House Democratic aide said Monday. “I don’t really know what he does. But I do know Senate seats don’t open up with much frequency.”  

Beyond a tweet praising Mikulski’s years of service, Van Hollen and his office would not comment for this story.  

Alexis Levinson and Emily Cahn contributed to this report.

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