Moderate House Democrats Grow Their Ranks

The Blue Dogs grew in membership for the first time since the 2010 elections.

Freshman Democratic Rep. Stephanie Murphy of Florida, shown campaigning in October, has joined both the New Democrats and the Blue Dogs.
AP Photo/John Raoux
Ally Mutnick
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Ally Mutnick
Jan. 10, 2017, 8 p.m.

As House Demo­crats start their fourth con­sec­ut­ive Con­gress in the minor­ity, the mod­er­ate bloc of the caucus ap­pears to be sta­ging a comeback.

The party’s two cent­rist co­ali­tions, the Blue Dogs and New Demo­crats, are re­port­ing a boost in mem­ber­ship for the 115th Con­gress, with slightly few­er than half of the in­com­ing fresh­man Demo­crats join­ing their ranks.

Lead­ers of the groups are tout­ing the in­crease as a prom­ising sign for the party as it struggles to win back eco­nomy-minded voters in swing seats. And some mem­bers hope to lever­age their num­bers in­to a lar­ger stra­tegic role in pre­par­a­tions for the midterms.

“Our path to 218 is a New Dem, Blue Dog path. That’s be­ing real­ist­ic,” said Rep. Ron Kind of Wis­con­sin, chair emer­it­us of the New Demo­crats. “What we’re try­ing to really do here is build a co­ali­tion and a mes­sage that you can run on any­where in the coun­try, not just in the urb­an, sub­urb­an area.”

With six new re­cruits and three de­part­ing mem­bers, the Blue Dogs saw a mod­est in­crease from 14 to 17 mem­bers. The New Demo­crats, who star­ted the pre­vi­ous Con­gress with 52 mem­bers, are ex­pect­ing around 60 this year. Ten fresh­men in­creased the group’s mem­ber­ship to 54, but lead­ers said they are re­view­ing about half a dozen more ap­plic­ants.

Be­cause many mod­er­ate Demo­crats hold swing dis­tricts, the size of the co­ali­tions tends to grow and shrink with the Demo­crat­ic caucus as a whole. But the new num­bers are sig­ni­fic­ant for both groups—the New Demo­crats haven’t reached 60 mem­bers and the Blue Dogs haven’t seen net growth since the party’s House ranks were decim­ated in 2010.

The Blue Dogs took a par­tic­u­larly drastic hit that year, as South­ern Demo­crats lost en masse. At their apex com­ing out of the 2008 elec­tions, the Blue Dogs had 54 mem­bers and the New Demo­crats had 68.

Mem­bers of the co­ali­tions in­sist their mod­er­ate ap­proach has al­ways been the an­swer to grow­ing the caucus, and they say they are hope­ful for 2018. Blue Dog lead­ers said they’ve seen a “new em­phas­is” on col­lab­or­a­tion from the Demo­crat­ic Con­gres­sion­al Cam­paign Com­mit­tee and its chair­man, Rep. Ben Ray Lu­jan, as the next cycle be­gins.

“We’re go­ing to be more ag­gress­ive in look­ing for more can­did­ates early,” said Rep. Henry Cuel­lar of Texas, a Blue Dog co­chair. “We’re go­ing to co­ordin­ate that as much as we can with the DCCC.”

Lu­jan said in a state­ment that “par­ti­cip­a­tion and stra­tegic in­sight from the en­tire Demo­crat­ic Caucus is in­valu­able” as the DCCC re­cruits for an ex­pans­ive of­fens­ive play­ing field.

Blue Dog lead­ers have also spoken with House Demo­crat­ic Caucus Chair Joseph Crow­ley and will make a present­a­tion to House Demo­crats at their an­nu­al re­treat, said Rep. Jim Costa of Cali­for­nia, a Blue Dog co­chair.

In a brief in­ter­view, Crow­ley, a former chair of the New Demo­crat Co­ali­tion, in­dic­ated the lead­er­ship’s will­ing­ness to work with the mod­er­ate flank and to in­vest in win­ning areas of the coun­try where the party has been less suc­cess­ful in re­cent years.

“I do think that in or­der for us to be suc­cess­ful we need to go where few Demo­crats have gone be­fore, to take from a Star Trek term,” Crow­ley said. “But I think we have to real­ize that we are the big-tent party. We al­ways have been. We al­ways will be.”

On Cuel­lar and Costa’s 2018 tar­get list are rur­al dis­tricts they hope to win back by tout­ing the group’s fisc­al dis­cip­line.

DCCC chairs worked closely with Blue Dog lead­er­ship in 2006 and 2008 to elect con­ser­vat­ive South­ern Demo­crats such as Bobby Bright in Alabama and Trav­is Childers in Mis­sis­sippi, said Jon Vo­gel, a former DCCC ex­ec­ut­ive dir­ect­or. The part­ner­ship proved help­ful in re­cruit­ing Demo­crats to seek GOP-lean­ing seats.

“If you’re a more mod­er­ate Demo­crat look­ing at run­ning for Con­gress, you want to know that there’s a place for you in the House Demo­crat­ic Caucus,” Vo­gel said. “You want to know that there are ex­amples of people who have run and won with a pro­file like yours.”

Demo­crats net­ted just six seats in 2016, but two high-pro­file gains came from mod­er­ate can­did­ates who joined both groups, Reps. Stephanie Murphy of Flor­ida and Josh Got­theimer of New Jer­sey.

Got­theimer and three oth­er Blue Dogs were the only Demo­crats who voted last week to al­low Con­gress to re­peal a slew of re­cent reg­u­la­tions from Pres­id­ent Obama all at once.

“I said throughout my race: Some days Re­pub­lic­ans are go­ing to like me, some days Demo­crats are go­ing to like me,” Got­theimer said shortly after be­ing sworn in­to Con­gress.

Of the nine seats that flipped red-to-blue in 2016 (Re­pub­lic­ans flipped three Demo­crat­ic seats), five of them will be held by Demo­crats who joined at least one of the mod­er­ate co­ali­tions, in­clud­ing Reps. Charlie Crist and Val De­m­ings of Flor­ida.

A hand­ful of new co­ali­tion mem­bers said in in­ter­views that they joined be­cause of the op­por­tun­it­ies the groups provide to be bi­par­tis­an.

“I al­ways said I’ll work with any­one who has an open mind, a good idea, and a will­ing­ness to tackle our prob­lems to­geth­er,” said Rep. Brad Schneider of Illinois, who won back his swing seat last year after be­ing un­seated in 2014. “I think these groups help me do that.”

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