Blue Dogs an Increasingly Rare Breed in Congress
The Blue Dogs' bark in Congress is sounding more and more like a whimper.
The once-powerful coalition of conservative Democrats suffered two more casualties on Tuesday as Rep. Jason Altmire, D-Pa., lost to fellow Democratic Rep. Mark Critz, and Rep. Tim Holden, D-Pa., was ousted by political newcomer Matt Cartwright.
Congressional elections are just underway in 2012 but the Blue Dog losses are already starting to pile up, as several senior members have opted to retire, others face more challenging districts and those who've confronted the voters -- Altmire and Holden -- have been involuntarily sent packing.
Only two short years ago, the Blue Dog Coalition numbered 54 as Democrats controlled the House. But they were decimated by the 2010 elections, as many of the GOP victories came at the expense of moderate Democrats who had previously held those swing districts.
By the swearing-in of the 112th Congress, the Blue Dogs' numbers had been cut in half. Now, they are flirting with slipping into the teens.
The losses of Altmire and Holden highlight the electoral predicament Blue Dogs are in: They are vulnerable to challenges from both ends of the political spectrum.
Holden, a ten-term congressman, had successfully fended off GOP challengers for years. But Pennsylvania mapmakers redrew his district to be more Democratic and he lost to a more liberal challenger. Similarly, labor unions propelled Critz past the more moderate Altmire, who voted against President Obama's health care law.
"Redistricting and a broken, polarized Congress have made it tough to be a moderate in Congress," said Arkansas Rep. Mike Ross, a Blue Dog leader, in a statement after the Pennsylvania results. "The Blue Dogs are in the middle, and we're used to being attacked from both sides."
The group's PAC has endorsed eight new candidates, but it is not just rank-and-file Blue Dogs that are departing this year - it's the group's leadership. Three of the four official leaders, Ross and Reps. Heath Shuler, D-N.C., and Dan Boren, D-Okla., have already opted to retire. And the fourth, Rep. John Barrow, D-Ga., is a top target of congressional Republicans. During the Masters golf tournament, which is in Barrow's district, House Republicans ran ads trying to link Barrow and Obama, buying golf-themed ads and billboards.
Republicans used redistricting to remap Blue Dogs across the country into less favorable terrain. In North Carolina, two Blue Dog congressmen, Larry Kissell and Mike McIntyre, are atop the GOP target list after being put into more GOP heavy seats. The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee has already reserved more than $2 million in television time to hold those seats. In Utah, the state's lone Democratic Rep. Jim Matheson must campaign in new terrain to keep his job.
One telling statistic about the atrophying coalition: If that trio of Blue Dogs lose, only four of the 34 House Democrats who voted against Obama's health care law would return to Congress in 2013.
It's a sign that the ever-shrinking coalition of moderate Democrats has implications well beyond who will control the lower chamber. It's about governance, as well. The Blue Dogs have been the go-to partners for Republicans for years in search of Democratic co-sponsors for legislation. They have been a critical part of building the broad coalitions that can sustain bills through the Senate, as well, where moderates, particularly in the GOP, have too become an endangered species.
"Congress needs more independent-minded members like Jason and Tim who are willing to reach across the aisle and find bipartisan solutions to our country's many challenges," Ross, the retiring Arkansas congressman, said.
But the institution isn't likely to get them -- at least not from the depleted ranks of Blue Dogs, at least not this year.