Democrats' loss could be Hoyer's gain

It's not dawn yet, but Rep. Steny H. Hoyer is already greeting voters at a park-and-ride lot in Southern Maryland.

His seat in the House of Representatives is considered safe in Tuesday's election, but his status as its second-ranking member certainly isn't. If Democrats lose the House, as analysts predict, Hoyer will be out as majority leader.

He has been working hard to prevent such an outcome, and to increase his own victory margin as much as possible. He raised money at Washington events and campaigned for Democratic colleagues around the country. According to his staff, he made stops in 36 states on behalf of 85 House Democrats and generated $5.6 million for Democratic colleagues and challengers.

"Our position is that we're going to hold the House, and we'll see what's going to happen after the election," Hoyer said in an interview. "Being majority leader, and having the ability to schedule legislation and the ability to make policy is a great job. In the minority, you cannot make policy."

His efforts figure to earn him gratitude, and support, from many of the Democrats who survive the lash of an angry electorate Nov. 2.

If predictions of outsize Republican gains prove accurate, a Democratic succession contest could begin in earnest as early as next week, and Hoyer would be well-positioned to gain from his party's downfall. He might even end up as House speaker at some point, a turn of events that seemed all but impossible after longtime rival Nancy Pelosi bested him in a leadership contest a decade ago.

"No, no, no," Hoyer said to the suggestion that an electoral thrashing could work to his advantage.

And yet, that may be the case.

If Republicans take control, a Republican, expected to be Rep. John Boehner of Ohio, would replace Pelosi as speaker, the highest position in the House.

For months, Pelosi has been vilified from coast to coast as the face of one of the most unpopular Congresses in history. A measure of her drag on her party's 2010 prospects could be glimpsed in the latest CBS/New York Times poll, which found that American voters view her unfavorably by almost 3-to-1.

If the Baltimore-born liberal steps down from the leadership, as some in Washington expect, Hoyer could become the pre-eminent House Democrat, as minority leader. That would make him a good bet to ascend to the speaker's chair, if and when his party retakes the House.

Meantime, Hoyer is actively defending his Maryland seat, which he's held with an average of 70 percent of the vote over the past five elections. Any sign of weakness at home could become a factor in a leadership fight, and Hoyer has spent more on this re-election campaign than ever before.

Republican challenger Charles Lollar, a party activist who has never held public office, says it's time for voters to retire Hoyer, after more than four decades in elected office, the last 29 in Congress.

"We know we can beat him because, quite honestly, he's out of touch," said Lollar, an African-American who features his photo on campaign signs in an effort to win crossover votes in the Southern Maryland-based district that is more than one-third black.

Recently, some of Hoyer's campaign signs have been defaced with the slogan "Pelosi's lapdog," an echo of the Republican effort to demonize the House speaker promoted heavily by National Party Chairman Michael S. Steele, the former Maryland lieutenant governor, who will end his coast-to-coast "Fire Pelosi" bus tour in Severna Park today.

In Hoyer's case, though, the lapdog charge carries some irony.

He and Pelosi have known each other since the 1960s, when they worked as summer interns in a Maryland senator's office, but in later years they became adversaries.

In 2001, they faced off in a contest for Democratic whip, the third-ranking position in the party hierarchy. Pelosi won decisively, a pivotal step toward becoming the first woman ever to lead the House. She was the minority leader in 2006, when Democrats won the House back and promoted her to speaker.

That year, Pelosi worked aggressively behind the scenes in an effort to defeat Hoyer's bid for majority leader. But he won anyway, by a wide margin. Ever since, they've largely succeeded in keeping any differences from surfacing, and Hoyer has been respectful and supportive of her leadership.

Internal House elections — conducted by secret ballot — are the ultimate insider game and notoriously unpredictable. If Pelosi steps down, as leaders of defeated parties do sometimes, but not always, the conventional wisdom is that Democrats will elevate Hoyer.

Hoyer's age — he's 71 — and reputation as an old-fashioned pol could be liabilities, particularly if House Democrats decide their image needs freshening. His centrist leanings could work against him, too.

The midterm election is expected to thin the ranks of Democratic conservatives and moderates, giving more dominance to the liberals who remain.

"House liberals will say, 'We told you so. We should have stuck to our principles. We need to elect a true progressive to lead us and stick with those principles,'" said a Democratic official with knowledge of the party's inner workings, who agreed to discuss various scenarios on the condition that he not be identified.

In addition to Hoyer, others mentioned as possible leaders of House Democrats next year include Reps. John B. Larson of Connecticut, a Pelosi loyalist who chairs the Democratic caucus; Joseph Crowley of New York, 48, a Hoyer ally from the younger generation; Steve Israel of New York, 52, another Hoyer ally; Xavier Becerra of California, a Pelosi liberal and leading Latino; and Chris Van Hollen of Maryland, who chairs the party's House campaign committee and would be helped if Democratic losses turn out to be less than anticipated.

This week, Hoyer's political organization drew reporters' attention to a Capitol Hill newspaper report that Hoyer had passed Van Hollen as the top contributor to the House campaign committee in the 2010 campaign. A Hoyer aide said the only purpose was to point out the extent of Hoyer's efforts on behalf of fellow Democrats.

paul.west@baltsun.com

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