By Philip Rucker
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, November 19, 2010; A04
Sixteen months ago, at the height of the health-care reform debate, Blue Dogs were at the seat of power in Congress.
Day after day, four representatives of the gang of conservative Democrats sat around House Speaker Nancy Pelosi's polished conference table making their demands known.
They were opposed to the public option. They wanted less government intrusion. Pelosi offered chocolates and ice cream. Rahm Emanuel, then the White House chief of staff, was in the room, too. President Obama called again and again to demonstrate his interest in their views and his determination to get their critical votes.
Now, three of those four Blue Dog negotiators are political zombies, having lost their seats in the great shellacking of two weeks ago. The Blue Dog Coalition has been halved, from 54 members to 23. Their Republican opponents attacked them relentlessly for their ties to Pelosi, and many of the losers and the survivors opposed her successful bid to become minority leader in the new Congress.
"Nancy Pelosi was the face that defeated 60-plus members," Rep. Allen Boyd (Fla.), one of the founders of the Blue Dog Coalition and among those defeated, told reporters Wednesday. "At some point in time, you have to put your personal agenda and ambitions aside for the good of the country and certainly for the party.
"I don't know how we go into these districts like the one I represented - do represent now - and recruit good, moderate, energetic candidates if you have the exact same leadership team, headed by the same person."
Yet in a sign of how the air has been let out of their coalition, some of the most vocal critics of Pelosi's election as minority leader, such as Boyd, had no say in her fate because they lost their seats.
"I can't vote, but if I was going to vote, my first choice would be Ike Skelton," Rep. Gene Taylor (Miss.) said, referencing the veteran Missouri Democrat who also was defeated this month. "Unfortunately, he was not reelected."
Among the Blue Dogs still standing is Rep. Heath Shuler (N.C.), a former college football star quarterback and first-round draft by the Washington Redskins. Shuler launched a quixotic bid to overtake Pelosi as minority leader but fell short Wednesday by a secret vote, 150 to 43.
"It wasn't about winning the race," Shuler told reporters. "It was about having a voice within our caucus."
Rep. Jim Matheson (Utah), a Blue Dog who nominated Shuler for leader in the closed-door meeting of House Democrats, later told reporters that the coalition has "always been a bridge between different folks to try to make progress."
The Blue Dog Coalition, created after the Democratic drubbing of 1994 as a home for moderate and conservative Democrats, reached the zenith of its power over the past two years.
The election of moderate Democrats in many Republican-leaning districts in 2006 returned the House to Democratic control and enabled Pelosi to become the first female speaker. Since the Democrats expanded their majority in 2008, Blue Dogs were the heavily wooed majority-makers on health-care reform, the stimulus, the cap-and-trade energy bill and other key Pelosi initiatives.
Blue Dogs have always been at odds with more liberal House Democratic leaders over fundamental policy issues, and the leadership has long struggled to accommodate a huge range in ideologies.
Donald Fowler, a former Democratic National Committee chairman and South Carolina moderate, said Blue Dogs are often "treated like bastard cousins."
"They feel a little bit like they're left out and they're second-class citizens," Fowler said. "I think that's terribly unfortunate, and if anybody treats them that way they should be ashamed of themselves. Their mommas should've taught them better."
Election after election, Blue Dogs were able to explain away their votes back home and keep from being lumped together with the national party. They withstood various winds over the years but had never faced a storm of hurricane force like the this year's midterms.
Among the ranks of Blue Dogs were some of the party's more powerful veteran legislators - Skelton, Boyd and Rep. Earl Pomeroy (N.D.) - as well as once-rising stars, including Reps. Stephanie Herseth Sandlin (S.D.), Brad Ellsworth (Ind.) and Betsy Markey (Colo.).
None of them is returning in January. And the handful of freshmen joining the diminished Democratic Caucus are decidedly more liberal.
"I'm proud of Nancy Pelosi and the way she's handled legislation," said Rep.-elect Frederica Wilson (D-Fla.) , who strongly supports Pelosi. "I'm not a Blue Dog. I'm a real donkey."
Staff writer Felicia Sonmez contributed to this report.