Moderate Blue Dogs see new influence over Dem recruitment

Moderate Blue Dogs see new influence over Dem recruitment
© Francis Rivera

Moderate Democrats in the Blue Dog Coalition are endorsing a slate of candidates Thursday in Republican-leaning districts, as they look to put their mark on the party’s 2018 midterm push.

The group has been working hand-in-glove with the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee (DCCC) on recruiting candidates, a departure from previous years when moderates found themselves kicked to the curb by the House Democratic campaign arm.

As Democrats look at an expanded battlefield that includes 23 GOP-held House districts won by Hillary ClintonHillary Diane Rodham ClintonGrassley blasts Democrats over unwillingness to probe Clinton GOP lawmakers cite new allegations of political bias in FBI Top intel Dem: Trump Jr. refused to answer questions about Trump Tower discussions with father MORE in November, Blue Dogs believe their expanded seat at the Democratic campaigning table will help to broaden the party's appeal to include more moderate voters.

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The Blue Dogs’ first wave of endorsements includes eight candidates, all but one of them in districts President Trump won in 2016. The group is expected to announce dozens more endorsements throughout the upcoming cycle.

“These candidates are outstanding candidates ... their opponents are flawed or have extreme vulnerabilities because of extremist stances we don’t think match up with that particular district,” said Rep. Kurt Schrader (D-Ore.), a Blue Dog member who has helped to spearhead candidate recruitment.

“I’ll stack my candidates up against any of the Republicans in these districts.”

Former Rep. Brad AshfordJohn (Brad) Bradley AshfordModerate Blue Dogs see new influence over Dem recruitment Dem bill would withhold lawmaker pay if DHS shuts down Bill would cut lawmaker salaries MORE (D-Neb.) is included in the first round of endorsements. Ashford, a former Blue Dog who lost his seat in 2016, wants a rematch against Rep. Don Bacon (R) after losing to him by just 1 percentage point. 

Only one candidate, former House Intelligence Committee staffer turned federal prosecutor Jay Hulings, is from a district that Clinton won in November. Hulings is looking to unseat Rep. Will Hurd (R-Texas) in the Texas border district Clinton won by almost 4 points.

The remaining six candidates on the first slate are all running uphill battles in Republican-leaning districts, some in areas Trump won by a double-digit margin.

The list includes Anthony Brindisi (D), a New York State assemblyman looking to run against Rep. Claudia Tenney (R); Paul Davis, the former Democratic gubernatorial nominee in Kansas hoping to win an open seat; and Gretchen Driskell, a former Michigan state House member running for a rematch against Rep. Tim Walberg (R-Mich.).

The Blue Dogs are also endorsing Roger Dean Huffstetler (D-Va.), a Marine Corps veteran running against Rep. Tom Garrett (R-Va.); Brendan Kelly (D-Ill.), a state’s attorney and Navy veteran who wants to defeat Rep. Mike Bost (R-Ill.); and Dan McCready (D-N.C.), a Marine Corps veteran running to take on Rep. Robert Pittenger (R-N.C.).

Rep. Kyrsten Sinema (D-Ariz.), who is working with Schrader on Blue Dog recruitment, said she’s “delighted” by the relationship with the DCCC this cycle. Sinema and others said this is the relations between the two groups haven’t been this good since 2006, when DCCC head Rahm Emanuel made a concerted effort to recruit conservative Democrats in swing districts as part of an effort that eventually won the party a House majority.

Blue Dogs meet with the DCCC weekly to talk about recruitment and strategy, members and their staff have been interviewing prospective candidates over the past few months, and former Blue Dog staffers offered their support and effort to Blue Dog candidates.

Blue Dogs also expect to have more resources than normal to support their candidates — one aide told The Hill that they are seeing a “surge” in donations to their political action committee.

The initial endorsements suggests the crossover appeal approach the Blue Dogs are taking to candidate recruitment for Republican-leaning or swing districts.

Brindisi, for example, earned high marks from the National Rifle Association during his time in the state assembly. Davis has pledged not to vote for House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) to lead the party in the House, while Ashford was a Republican until he switched parties in 2014.

“Members focused on candidates who agree with the Blue Dog value set of being independently-minded and putting their constituents above Party,” said Kristen Hawn, a Democratic strategist working with the Blue Dogs.

But the candidates’ more moderate bent won’t save them from an onslaught of Republican attacks meant to tie the candidates to Democrats’ liberal policies. Rep. Bacon (R-Neb.), for example, repeatedly blasted Ashford as a Pelosi stooge in 2016, eventually defeating in their last match-up.

Blue Dog-style candidates already proved helpful last November, however, with three of the six Democrats who beat Republican incumbents joining the group once they took office. 

“The Blue Dogs have long been an important coalition within the Democratic Caucus, and they have been incredible partners,” DCCC spokesman Tyler Law told The Hill in a statement.

“I’m proud that House Democrats are unified around the goal of taking back the House and championing an agenda that puts hardworking Americans front and center.”

The willingness to embrace more moderate candidates doesn’t sit well with all members of the party. Some Blue Dogs have not agreed with the party’s pro-abortion rights stance, while Democratic leaders regularly spark outrage from liberals when they argue the party should not rely on an abortion-rights litmus test for its candidates.

Many progressives argue that the lesson of Sen. Bernie SandersBernard (Bernie) SandersSchumer: Franken should resign Franken resignation could upend Minnesota races Avalanche of Democratic senators say Franken should resign MORE’ (I-Vt.) presidential campaign is to embrace big, liberal ideas like single-payer health care and free college tuition. They reject the more moderate approach advocated by Blue Dogs, saying that compromise policies only end up alienating the party’s base.

But Schrader believes that once the primaries shake out, progressives will come around on the Blue Dogs.

“I’d like to think that the progressives will be fired up for any Democratic district, because no progressive policy gets done unless we are in the majority,” he said.

“None of [Massachusetts Democratic Sen.] Elizabeth WarrenElizabeth Ann WarrenOvernight Regulation: Net neutrality supporters predict tough court battle | Watchdog to investigate EPA chief's meeting with industry group | Ex-Volkswagen exec gets 7 years for emissions cheating Overnight Tech: Net neutrality supporters predict tough court fight | Warren backs bid to block AT&T, Time Warner merger | NC county refuses to pay ransom to hackers Avalanche of Democratic senators say Franken should resign MORE or Bernie Sanders’ stuff has even a remote chance of happening unless Democrats are in the majority. We may not end up with their particular brand, but we’re going to be a hell of a lot closer.”