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.”