Big tent to get bigger if Democrats want to increase House majority

Democrats picked up two House seats in the last three weeks, but pro-abortion rights and pro-gun control groups are not celebrating just yet.

The pair of wins for socially conservative Democrats in Louisiana and Mississippi highlights a growing effort by the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee (DCCC) to recruit candidates who fit their districts ideologically rather than those who embrace the party’s policy platform.

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The strategy has proven successful thus far in expanding the Democratic majority and promises to continue with a batch of pragmatically recruited candidates.

But it also threatens to dilute the traditional views of a party already balancing a class full of centrist and conservative freshmen elected in districts that lean Republican.

DCCC Chairman Chris Van Hollen (Md.) said Democrats are realizing their longstanding claim to be a big-tent party and responding to the realities of the political map.

The former DCCC recruitment chairman has said he has strong candidates in 50 GOP-held districts, almost all of which voted for President Bush in 2004.

“What’s different now is that we are very aggressively recruiting candidates that can win these seats, and that means making sure that we’re not just doing it in word but also in deed,” Van Hollen said.

The concept isn’t new to Democrats. Conservatives like Reps. Heath Shuler (D-N.C.) and Brad Ellsworth (D-Ind.) and anti-abortion rights Sen. Bob Casey Jr. (D-Pa.) helped deliver the majority in 2006. But party leaders are building on that approach as they look to expand their majorities.

A national map that includes heavily Democratic urban districts surrounded by more-diluted but plentiful conservative-leaning districts has Democrats going further into red territory and more willing to compromise.

Democrats are touting strong anti-abortion rights and anti-gun control recruits in open seats in Alabama’s 2nd and Louisiana’s 4th districts. In the former, Montgomery Mayor Bobby Bright has promised to fight the Democratic Party on those two issues. In the latter, Caddo Parish District Attorney Paul Carmouche features a picture of a girl praying on the front of his website.

The party also has candidates espousing cultural conservative views in Idaho’s 1st district, Alabama’s 5th, West Virginia’s 2nd, and Ohio’s 1st and 16th districts. Several of those races are considered among Democrats’ best pickup opportunities.

The trend isn’t limited to social issues.

In three South Florida districts, Democrats hope to make competitive races with a trio of Hispanic Democrats who, like their GOP opponents, support the Cuba embargo. And the Democrats have high hopes for candidates with business backgrounds in Rep. Tom Feeney’s (R-Fla.) and Rep. Joe Knollenberg’s (R-Mich.) affluent districts.

While there was some outcry over recruits like Casey last cycle — former NARAL President Kate Michelman even threatened to run against him as an Independent — many advocacy groups have become more pragmatic about expanding the Democratic majority, even if it means certain Democrats won’t take their side of an issue.

Paul Helmke, the president of the nonpartisan Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence, said he understands not all Democrats will see eye-to-eye with his group, but it doesn’t mean he isn’t making progress.

“There have been three specials, and no one talks about Bill Foster in Illinois,” Helmke said, referring to the first Democratic special-election winner, who appears closer to his party on guns than are the other two.

“If Democrats feel they can win races by having someone who talks about gun rights and is not a threat to hunters, we’ve got no problem with that.”

A spokeswoman for NARAL pointed out that the Louisiana and Mississippi seats were already held by anti-abortion rights Republicans and that 33 of 41 House Democrats elected in 2006 were pro-abortion rights.

Even liberal bloggers, who are often critical of Democrats’ efforts on issues like the war in Iraq, appear to be embracing the big-tent concept. Even knowing that newly minted Reps. Don Cazayoux (D-La.) and Travis Childers (D-Miss.) are likely to bring their conservative views to Washington, the cyber-scribes have largely joined the rest of the party in welcoming the newest members.

When they get to Congress, though, Democrats from conservative districts have often found themselves in tough spots.

Republicans have made political theater out of motions to recommit on issues including illegal immigration and guns, forcing the Democrats to either buck their party or buck their constituents. And recently, many Republicans sat out a war-funding vote to highlight the chasm between Democratic leadership and some members for whom a “no” vote could have proven politically difficult back home.

The new class of Democrats is not opposed to taking on the party. Rep. Carolyn McCarthy (D-N.Y.) found that out this week, conceding that her bill to reinstate the federal assault weapons ban is unlikely to pass even next cycle.

Republicans have pointed out in the aftermath of their special-election losses that Democrats in those districts are basically running on GOP platforms — which they say suggests that constituents haven’t deserted Republican values.

“Given what the last two ran on, we could’ve welcomed them into the Republican Conference with open arms,” the chairman of the National Republican Congressional Committee, Rep. Tom Cole (Okla.), said last week. “You can get away with that in the short term. I don’t think you can build a stable, long-term majority that way.”

Van Hollen conceded that Cazayoux and Childers will vote their own way on some social issues, but emphasized they will stick with the party on others.

“They are traditional Democrats in the sense that they believe in economic opportunity and support the economic policy agenda of the Democratic Party in terms of shared prosperity,” Van Hollen said. “These are Democrats focused on bread-and-butter issues.”