Blue Dog Democrats fight for relevance

Blue Dog Democrats will limp into the 113th Congress with their numbers cut in half — a diminished minority within a  minority party. 

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The once-influential coalition of conservative Democrats, which counted 54 members following the 2008 election, is now striving for relevance and ways to replenish its ranks. 

But even amid its troubles, the group rejects suggestions it has become a Democratic rump. On the contrary, members say it remains an important voice on Capitol Hill, at a time when both parties have tracked to the center, at least rhetorically, ahead of “fiscal cliff” negotiations.  

 "Regardless of the exact makeup of the next Congress, the Blue Dogs will continue to have an important and key role as consensus builders,” said Rep. Mike Ross (D-Ark.), the Blue Dogs’ co-chairman of communications. 

He is one of three leaders to retire at the end of the year.

In a best-case scenario, the Blue Dogs will include as many as 15 members in the next Congress, if Rep. Mike McIntyre (D-N.C.) wins a recount and if Rep.-elect Pete Gallego (D-Texas) joins their ranks. 

That’s roughly half as many lawmakers as the Blue Dogs had after the 2010 elections. 

The best news for the Blue Dogs in an otherwise tough election came from Rep. Joe Donnelly (D), who beat out Richard Mourdock in Indiana’s Senate race. 

In all, the coalition lost 13 members this year. But only four of those losses came from Republican’s in the general election.

Unlike the 2010 GOP wave  — where Republicans knocked off about 23 of the 54 members — a series of events converged early in the cycle that ensured even before Election Day the group would be nearly cut in half.

Twenty-seven members started off the 112th Congress. By Nov. 6, only 18 remained on the ballot after two abrupt resignations, three retirements, two primary defeats, a successful Senate campaign and the shooting of Rep. Gabrielle Giffords (D-Ariz.)

Cal Jillson, a professor at Southern Methodist University, said Republicans would have won many of those seats even if Blue Dogs remained on the ballot. He said that’s a sign the group is on the way out.  

“I think we are seeing the waning days of the Blue Dog Coalition,” Jillson said. “Their numbers might be buttressed marginally in future elections but they’ll continue to be challenged in primaries and picked off in general elections.”

Jillson said Blue Dogs will still be recruited in vulnerable Republican districts, but it is unlikely their numbers will rise substantially again as Democrats will focus on suburban areas to gain future majorities. 

Republicans narrowly won suburban areas 51-47 percent this year, according to exit polls.

“The districts the Democrats will most focus on will be those inner-ring suburban districts where you’ve got minority Democratic voters moving up out of urban areas into the inner-ring suburbs that are evolving from Republican to Democrat,” he said. “I think those are the richest pickings.”

One of those few winning Blue Dog recruits came from Texas’s 23rd district where Gallego picked off a Republican district. The Blue Dog PAC endorsed 10 new candidates. Gallego was the only winner.

Decennial redistricting left many Blue Dogs in competitive general election races and even led to two Blue Dogs being ousted in their primaries. 

In Pennsylvania, the process drew Rep. Jason Altmire (D-Penn.) into a member vs. member primary, which he ended up losing. 

His Pennsylvania colleague Rep. Tim Holden also lost his primary after a Democratic opponent attacked him from the left.

From the right, the National Republican Congressional Committee attempted to tie the coalition to President Obama and Nancy Pelosi. 

The members’ ties to Pelosi “paved the way for their own extinction,” said Andrea Bozek, deputy communications director for the NRCC.

Larry Sabato, director of the University of Virginia’s Center for Politics, said redistricting and ideological polarization have left little room for pickups by members of a conservative Democratic caucus.

“Democratic districts are going to nominate liberals for the most part, and Republican districts aren't going to back any Democrat — moderate or liberal,” he said. “We have two very distinct parties now, and certainly for the balance of this decade it isn't likely to change.”

In the 113th Congress, Republicans will hold more than a 30-seat majority in the House —with the Blue Dogs’ McIntyre  heading toward a recount in North Carolina’s 7th congressional district. 

In a more divided Congress, the coalition would be more effective. But for the most part, it will be sidelined for much of the next two years, Sabato said.  

“Maybe in very close votes, the Blue Dogs — if they stick together, which they don't often do — can affect the outcome,” Sabato said. 

“But there won't be that many close floor votes. And in the Democratic caucus, the Blue Dogs are a tiny minority within a minority.”