The Blue Dog Democrats, long one of the most pivotal factions on Capitol Hill, are quickly finding out that their bark is greater than their bite.
Even as politically calculated centrism makes a comeback in the White House, the dwindling ranks of the moderate-to-conservative coalition in the House are diminished and demoralized. At a time when their clout should be on the rise, the Blue Dogs offer a message that is as muddled as ever, their relationship with party leadership is strained, and their members are disproportionately at risk in 2012.
The Blue Dogs’ reputation—and numbers—took a beating during the 2010 midterms. Once a force within the House Democratic Caucus, the Blue Dogs have watched their influence wane, and the party’s liberal wing now badly outnumbers them.
Of the 54 House members in the Blue Dog Coalition last year, 28 of them lost in the midterms or retired—and Rep. Jane Harman, D-Calif., is resigning her seat to head the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars.
The remaining 25 Blue Dogs are a mishmash of genuinely conservative Democrats (whose numbers are also dwindling) and those who have benefited from the label to inoculate themselves from campaign criticism that they’re too beholden to their party’s interests. The 19 scattered votes against Rep. Nancy Pelosi of California to be the Democratic leader were as much a sign that the Blue Dogs felt they needed to distance themselves from her as it was a rebuke of the policies that her leadership advanced.
Former Rep. Earl Pomeroy of North Dakota felt the blowback as much as anyone in the coalition, losing his bid for a 10th term. Pomeroy didn’t join the Blue Dogs right away, but said he was drawn to the group when it “achieved intellectual honesty and legislative credibility by being the voices for fiscal responsibility.”
That hard-earned image was badly damaged these past two years, when many Blue Dogs backed the administration and their party leadership on the stimulus package and the new health care law.
“The significant yet difficult legislative topics the last session tackles certainly had its price on Blue Dog members,” Pomeroy said. “Several of the controversial steps in the last Congress to deal with the economy in the tank and a health care system hanging off the cliff were politically painful votes—and we paid a terrible price for those votes. Even the Blue Dogs voted on both sides of both of those key votes.”
Indeed, it’s increasingly difficult to find a unifying issue driving the Blue Dog Coalition, even as it publicly proclaims its commitment to lower government spending.
More than half of the remaining members—15 of 25—voted for the health care law. Just three voted to repeal the law last month. All but two remaining Blue Dogs supported the president’s stimulus bill. Last month, just half of the coalition voted for a symbolic Republican-sponsored bill that would reduce the federal budget to pre-stimulus 2008 levels.
The question now is what role the diminished ranks of Blue Dogs will play in the 112th Congress. With both parties becoming more ideologically homogeneous, it’s harder for moderates to stand out. It’s also hard to get much done on the governing front when your political survival is at stake—and that’s the new reality Blue Dogs face.
It was no coincidence that the National Republican Congressional Committee deliberately targeted Blue Dog Democrats in 2010, after years of giving many of their members a pass.
Not only did the Democrats’ lurch leftward give the NRCC a rare opportunity to contest conservative seats long out of reach, but the committee understood that if it won these seats, they would be in Republican hands for the long term.
For many years, the Blue Dog brand back home was so golden that most won reelection comfortably, even though these Democrats predominantly represented conservative districts.
Former Rep. Gene Taylor of Mississippi, despite holding a seat in a district that Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., carried with 67 percent of the vote in the 2008 presidential election, survived the worst of the down years for Democrats—until 2010. Longtime members who routinely won re-election even in Republican years, like former Reps. Allen Boyd of Florida, Jim Marshall of Georgia, and Pomeroy, fell short.
It won’t get any easier in 2012. Of their 25 remaining members, 18 Blue Dogs face potentially competitive reelection bids, according to the Cook Political Report’s latest ratings. Of the 43 potentially vulnerable Democrats on the list, 18 are Blue Dogs.
Redistricting, in particular, poses a serious threat to Blue Dogs, given that many hold marginal seats in states where Republicans unilaterally control the line-drawing.
In North Carolina, for instance, Democratic Reps. Mike McIntyre and Heath Shuler are at risk. In Georgia, Rep. John Barrow is the most threatened Democrat in the state, and Rep. Sanford Bishop might not be far behind.
Rep. Jim Cooper, D-Tenn., could see more conservative neighborhoods outside Nashville added to his district.
Outside of the South, Reps. Joe Donnelly of Indiana, Leonard Boswell of Iowa, Jason Altmire of Pennsylvania, and Jim Matheson of Utah are all at risk of running in districts that are less favorable to them.
Shuler, a member of the Blue Dog leadership, said on Morning Joe on Monday that “there has really been no communication whatsoever” between himself and Pelosi—a striking admission, given the seminal role that Blue Dogs have long played in caucus politics. But perhaps she’s just recognizing the new reality—that Blue Dogs might soon be an endangered species.
CORRECTION: The original version of the column listed former Texas Rep. Chet Edwards as a member of the Blue Dog Coalition. He was not a member.
This article appears in the Feb. 9, 2011, edition of National Journal Daily.