In an era of hyper-partisan politics some politicians stand out. In a time when split ticket voting is going the way of the dinosaur certain caucuses defy expectations. Enter Blue Dogs, don’t exit to early.
Recruited by than DCCC Chairman Rahm Emanuel to run in moderate to conservative districts these Democrats preached conservative principles on gun rights, abortion and fiscal responsiblity. With the political environment being toxic for virtually every Republican in 2006 and 2008 victories mounted. The Democratic majority in the House was built on these numerous victories. Somebody should have told Nancy Pelosi and Barack Obama.
After the 2008 elections the Blue Dog Caucus numbered over 50 members strong. Some were freshman lawmakers from Republicans states like Congressman Walt Minnick from Idaho’s 1st Congressional District. Yet others have been in the Caucus since their first term like long-term Congressman Steve Israel of New York.
But in 2009 with no GOP president to check the dominant liberal wing of the Democratic party these Blue Dogs soon found themselves locked out of positions of power in the party. Worse, far from being sheltered as many needed to be (freshman lawmakers are less secure than long-term incumbents) Blue Dogs were forced to take a number of tough votes. Whether it was Healthcare Reform (twice), Cap and Trade, Financial Reform, or spending bills these Democrats soon were easy to paint as out of touch with their districts. Add in the troubled state of the economy and these Democrats seats were ripe for the plucking.
The first sign of trouble for the Caucus came when freshman lawmaker Parker Griffith officially switched parties in late 2009. Griffith cited issues with Democratic leadership on a whole host of issues including tough votes on Healthcare Reform and Cap and Trade. Things got worse for Blue Dogs in 2010 when they were forced to vote again on a modified Healthcare Reform law. From that point on Blue Dogs, along with the rest of their Caucus, found themselves tied to the president. Being tied to the president was the last thing many Blue Dogs already facing tough reelection campaigns could afford.
This led to what can only be called a massacre in the 2010 elections. A significant chunk of the 63 House seats Democrats lost in 2010 came from districts that had three traits, 1) had backed McCain in 08, 2) were represented by a Blue Dog, 3) were in the South. These districts in the pro-Democratic environments of 06 and 08 were tailor-made for Democratic victories. But in 2010 these districts would have been difficult to hold under the best of circumstances.
Since than the news for the Caucus has not gotten any better. Already reeling from losing two of their four leadership members in 2010, Representative Stephanie Herseth Sandlin (SD) and Representative Charlie Melancon, the Blue Dog Caucus has now lost all of its former leadership. Representative Heath Schuler (NC-11) recently called it quits and Representative Baron Hill (IN-9) is running for Senate.
Schuler was known as a rising star in the party and even had the respect of many liberal members of the Caucus. Schuler managed this despite running for Minority Leader against Nancy Pelosi to show disapproval of her handling of the 111th Congress.
While many freshman and two term Blue Dog lawmakers were eliminated in 2010 a small core of long-time Blue Dog Congressman remained. Or at least they did. Seven Blue Dog members have announced they are either running for higher office or retiring. Mike Ross (AR-4), Dan Boren (OK-2), Heath Schuler (NC-11) are the most prominent Blue Dogs to retire. Baron Hill is running for Senate after his district was redrawn to strongly favor the GOP. Jane Harman (CA-36) and Gabrielle Giffords (AZ-8) have already resigned.
And the playing field looks even more stacked against these being the only losses to the Blue Dog Caucus come 2013. Redistricting in North Carolina, Pennsylvania, Georgia and Utah deeply endangers Mike McIntyre (NC), Jason Altmire (PA), Jon Barrow (GA) and Jim Matheson (UT). Meanwhile Leonard Boswell (IA) sits in a prime swing seat. Representative Collin Peterson (MN) could also retire depending on redistricting. Mike Michaud (ME) could also see a tough race if the economy worsens.
These numbers make the future of the Blue Dog Caucus look grim. What was once a massive caucus in the Democratic party has been shrunk to basic impotence. Most of the GOP gains made this cycle will come from current or former Blue Dog districts, allowing the GOP to mitigate their losses elsewhere.
But at what cost? The Blue Dog Caucus was the moderate/conservative wing of the Democratic party best represented by Bill Clinton in the 1990s. But now with their numbers likely to shrink the Democratic Caucus in the House is surely going to be more liberal and more confrontational to the House GOP, possibly a GOP president and Senate as well. More gridlock in DC is sure to result.
And that is the sad irony in the Blue Dogs demise. Blue Dogs were heavily recruited in 06 and 08. They came to Washington to represent the interests of a forgotten conservative wing in the Democratic Party. Instead, they were locked out of the halls of power in their party, forced to take tough vote after tough vote on liberal causes, and never really allowed to practice their message. Now the Blue Dog Caucus is shrinking even more and after 2013 may number no more than half a dozen.
A rare breed indeed.