Conservative Dems try to persevere amid low Obama poll numbers

Blue Dogs in Congress, already an endangered species following the last election, are bracing for another challenging campaign season.

Many of the conservative House Democrats who survived the biggest wave in more than 70 years are now facing political extinction from the redistricting process. 

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Redistricting, coupled with President Obama’s low approval ratings, has buoyed GOP hopes of picking up seats in the 2012 election.

Democrats claim they can recapture control of the lower chamber, but political analysts say that in order to do that, they must retain a large percentage of Blue Dog-held seats.

There are 25 members of the fiscally conservative Blue Dog Coalition in the House, down from 54 members before the 2010 elections.

Eight of those 25 members’ districts have become more conservative from redistricting, and another five could be put in less-Democratic districts, leaving the possibility that a majority of the Blue Dog Coalition could be running in districts that are even harder to hold next election.

“The moderates are the tennis ball being batted back and forth because they are the easiest ones to pick off in this broken system of redistricting — they’re the ones at risk,” lamented former Rep. John Tanner (Tenn.), a Blue Dog Coalition founder who once sponsored a bill to eliminate partisan gerrymandering of districts. Tanner did not seek reelection last year.

Blue Dogs are inherently more vulnerable, both in elections and in redistricting, because they usually represent toss-up or Republican-leaning areas. Republicans also control the legislatures in many of the states they hail from, having swept into power in numerous statehouses last election.

“[Blue Dogs] are likely to be targeted disproportionately because they tend to represent the swing districts — all you have to do is make a modest shift in the partisanship of the district to put them at risk,” said Emory University’s Alan Abramowitz, an expert on polarization in Congress. “These are the Democrats who are in swing districts, and it’s the swing districts that are the most susceptible to this line-drawing.”

Those who remain after the 2010 election have proven themselves effective campaigners who can win in challenging districts. 

Still, attempting to eliminate a member through redistricting doesn’t always work. For example, Blue Dog Rep. Tim Holden (Pa.) was a Republican target a decade ago but defied the odds and won tough reelection campaigns.

In North Carolina, Republicans were in charge of redistricting for the first time in the state’s history. They drew a map that reversed the Democratic gerrymander of a decade before and could net them four seats. 

Two of the North Carolina targets: Blue Dog Co-Chairman for Administration Heath Shuler and Mike McIntyre, both of whom will have to run in districts that are a bit more conservative than what they ran in last time.

Shuler, who has taken up Tanner’s cause of ending gerrymandering, said Republicans are intentionally targeting Blue Dogs in redistricting because they help expand the Democratic coalition.

“The biggest fear to a Republican is moderate Democrats who get Republicans to vote for us,” he told The Hill. “We’ve all proved that. They want to do everything they can to get rid of us because of our trickle-down effect” on down-ticket races.

Republican state legislators in Indiana and Georgia also targeted Blue Dogs, turning the districts of Reps. John Barrow (Ga.) and Joe Donnelly (Ind.) from swing seats to Republican-leaning ones. Donnelly decided to run for the Senate, making it even harder for Democrats to hold his seat. Barrow’s swing district will become about 10 points more Republican.

Not all Blue Dogs at risk from redistricting were intentionally singled out by Republican state legislators. A nonpartisan redistricting commission in Iowa put Reps. Leonard Boswell (D-Iowa) and Tom Latham (R-Iowa) into one toss-up district. 

California’s bipartisan redistricting commission, which made many seats more competitive, also put Rep. Jim Costa (D-Calif.) in a tougher district to hold. Some Democrats in the state say his close friend and fellow Blue Dog, Rep. Dennis Cardoza (D-Calif.), could retire and let Costa run for his seat. 

Other Blue Dogs who could be targets for Republican lawmakers or be adversely affected by nonpartisan redistricting maps include Reps. Jason Altmire (Pa.), Jim Cooper (Tenn.), Gabrielle Giffords (Ariz.), Jim Matheson (Utah) and Mike Michaud (Maine).

Rep. Mike Ross (D-Ark.) saw his Republican-leaning district become even more heavily conservative when Democrats in the statehouse decided to target neighboring Rep. Rick Crawford (R-Ark.). Ross, the Blue Dogs’ co-chairman for communications, announced in July that he would not seek reelection and is mulling a run for governor in 2014.

“If you look at the Congress, the entire agenda is being driven by the extremes of both parties,” Ross said. “And that’s being driven by gerrymandering throughout the years.”

While Ross insisted he wasn’t retiring because of redistricting, he said Republicans are “going to do all they can to draw difficult districts” for Blue Dogs.

Despite that, he and Shuler pointed out that Blue Dogs are used to running on tough terrain, and predicted that they will gain seats next election.

“We have a long and rich history of being drawn into tough districts and surviving,” Ross said.

Abramowitz predicted the opposite. 

“You’re unlikely to see many new Democratic representatives from those areas in 2012,” he said. “This is not going to be a good year for those kinds of Democrats, for sure. They lost a bunch of those last time, and they could lose a few more this time.”