Centrist Dems may reign in House

If Democrats retain a slim hold on the House next year, a handful of the party’s most conservative members could find themselves in the catbird seat, wielding wide influence over the Democratic agenda.

In that scenario, the finicky Blue Dog Coalition would be thinned but not erased, leaving a smaller but more powerful group of dissident Democrats.

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The House of the 112th Congress would resemble the Senate of the last two years, where by virtue of the 60-seat requirement to overcome a filibuster, centrists like Sens. Ben Nelson (D-Neb.) and Joe Lieberman (I-Conn.) held veto power over items large and small.

Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), who would welcome a majority of any kind next year, has taken strong advantage of her 39-seat majority in the 111th Congress, often allowing — or feeling free to ignore — dozens of centrist and conservative members who routinely vote against major legislation. Under almost any plausible Election Day scenario, she won’t have that luxury in 2011.

It’s a scenario some Democrats have contemplated, including a few who warned national leaders against the far-reaching agenda they adopted in 2009.

“We would then be in a position where they would have to listen to us,” said one of those Democrats expected to remain, Rep. Gene Taylor (Miss.).

In interviews, Democratic strategists and nonpartisan political analysts pointed to several conservative Democrats who would be most likely to become the Nelsons or Liebermans of the House. Combining political independence with electoral strength, they broke ranks with Pelosi as much or more than any other member of the Democratic Caucus and yet are considered likely to survive all but the largest GOP tidal wave in November.

These members would also be the top candidates for a party switch if the House is up for grabs, and they could determine if Pelosi returns as Speaker at all — a few have said they would prefer someone other than her next year.

Here’s a look at the six safest, most conservative Democrats:

REP. DAN BOREN (OKLA.)
Despite hailing from a deep-red state that gave President Obama just 34 percent of the vote in 2008, Boren is virtually assured of reelection. His race is not listed as competitive by any of the major congressional forecasters. The explanation is partly his family name and connection to Oklahoma — his father served as governor and senator and now heads the University of Oklahoma. The other part is Boren’s voting record and the distance he has kept from Obama and Pelosi. (He declined to endorse Obama over John McCain in 2008.) National Journal ranked him the fifth most conservative Democrat, and Boren voted against the healthcare bill, cap-and-trade energy legislation and the financial regulatory overhaul.

REP. GENE TAYLOR (MISS.)
First elected in 1989, Taylor is a fixture in his Mississippi district and a perennial thorn in the side of Democratic Party leaders. In addition to bucking the leadership on just about every major vote, Taylor has in the past voted against Pelosi for Speaker and is publicly fishing around for another candidate after November. He told The Hill he would relish the opportunity to have more influence and steer the caucus toward the center. “That would be a scenario I would welcome,” he said. Taylor’s race was recently added to the list of marginally competitive campaigns by prognosticators Charlie Cook and Larry Sabato, but he remains heavily favored to win, having scored 75 percent of the vote in 2008.

REP. MIKE ROSS (ARK.)
With vote percentages of 100 percent, 75 percent and 86 percent in the last three elections, Ross has one of the biggest cushions of any conservative Democrat, despite representing a district that leans Republican. He’s also among the more vocal Blue Dogs, having served as co-chairman of the coalition in the 110th Congress and voting against the healthcare and cap-and-trade bills after acting as a de facto spokesman for Blue Dogs on the issues.

REP. MIKE MCINTYRE (N.C.)
McIntyre is right behind Boren as the sixth most conservative House Democrat, and he also voted against the trifecta of healthcare, cap-and-trade and Wall Street reform. He stands on solid footing in the Republican-leaning district he has represented since 1997; the 69 percent of the vote he received in 2008 provided his smallest margin of victory since his first election. McIntyre is in a closer race this year, but analysts project that if Democrats keep the House, he will surely be among the returning members.

TIE: REPS. JOHN BARROW (GA.) AND JIM MATHESON (UTAH)
A pair of conservative Democrats with Harvard degrees, Barrow and Matheson have compiled similar voting records in the House. Both opposed healthcare reform and cap-and-trade but supported the stimulus package and financial regulatory reform. Matheson hails from a somewhat more conservative district that strongly supported McCain in 2008. While they have each been reelected comfortably in recent years, Barrow and Matheson will face competitive elections but are not considered endangered in November, particularly if Democrats retain the House.

HONORABLE MENTIONS
• Rep. Walt Minnick (Idaho) — Top GOP target Minnick, who hails from a deep-red district, is running ahead of a Tea Party candidate who won the Republican nomination.
• Rep. Jason Altmire (Pa.) — Favored to win, Altmire “fashions himself as the moderate who can bring people together,” said one Democratic aide.
• Rep. Health Shuler (N.C.) — The former football star is well-positioned for reelection. He voted against healthcare reform and the stimulus package but for cap-and-trade. Shuler has also suggested he might run for Speaker himself.
• Rep. Bobby Bright (Ala.) — The House’s most conservative Democrat, a freshman, is looking strong despite a very competitive election. An ad he’s running has touted his record voting with Republicans.