She has taken the reins of a coalition that was founded in the wake of the 1994 shellacking of Democrats, which swept them out of power and left behind a much more coastal, liberal caucus. So a few dozen remaining centrist Democrats sought refuge in their own caucus, with a focus on fiscal discipline. They were predominantly older white men from the South who boasted A-ratings from the National Rifle Association and hewed right on issues such as abortion and gay rights.
In Murphy, today’s Blue Dogs have chosen a refugee as their next-generation leader — she was born in Vietnam, and her family fled by boat in 1979 and was rescued at sea by the U.S. Navy. A relative political novice, she was compelled to run after the 2016 massacre at a gay nightclub in Orlando.
“I’d love for the world to stop using ‘conservative Democrat’ to define Blue Dogs. Because I am pro-choice, I am unabashedly pro-LGBTQ, I am pro-gun safety,” she said.
Murphy personifies that shift both in the Blue Dogs and the broader Democratic Party. They just added seven members from the incoming class of 2019, only one of whom hails from a state in the Confederacy.
Blue Dog membership will hit at least 24 next year, and more are being recruited. This will make them a force to be reckoned with in the next two years, as Democratic leaders will have fewer than 20 votes to spare to pass legislation if Republicans stand united against them.
Murphy serves with Reps. Tom O’Halleran (D-Ariz.) and J. Luis Correa (D-Calif.) as co-chairs of the coalition, but her post is considered the top chair.
These Blue Dogs may not come from Alabama and Mississippi anymore, but they still represent swing districts and are reluctant to support sweeping legislation such as single-payer universal health insurance.
These Blue Dogs want to focus on the campaign pledges that swept Democrats back to power in the House, such as stabilizing health costs and advancing an infrastructure plan.
“You look at the makeup of the Blue Dogs today, many of the new members have the same sort of unconventional political narrative where they serve this country, believe in public service and decided to run because they wanted to take a pragmatic approach to getting stuff done,” Murphy said.
Those are people like Mikie Sherrill (D-N.J.) and Abigail Spanberger (D-Va.), newly elected representatives who come from suburban districts that narrowly supported President Trump two years ago but had long been held by GOP incumbents. Sherrill served as a Navy helicopter pilot and then as a federal prosecutor. Spanberger worked as an operations officer for the CIA.
Both joined Murphy’s Blue Dogs.
These Democrats are resisting the push to use the new majority to advance the most ambitious liberal agenda as a marker for what the party’s presidential candidates would embrace in 2020 — because with Trump in the White House and Republicans running the Senate, those proposals would only expose swing-district Democrats to tough votes.
“The reality of divided government, though, is that it’s gonna be an incremental something that gets done,” Murphy said. “I think we should try to save our powder for a time when we actually are taking more than just a symbolic vote.”
That sentiment will spark sharp debates inside the entire Democratic caucus, where the liberal wing has been infused with a group of younger newcomers who have captured the activist base’s attention through social media and their aggressive legislative proposals.
Yet the nature of this debate is instructive to understand how far left Democrats have moved on issues in less than a decade.
In 2010, when they boasted more than 50 members, Blue Dogs largely opposed the Affordable Care Act as too expensive and too unpopular in their largely rural districts. Today, Blue Dogs are some of the strongest defenders of the health-care law, arguing that it should be fortified, as other Democrats push for costlier options to achieve universal coverage.
In 2010, another Stephanie served as the Blue Dog chair — Stephanie Herseth Sandlin (D-S.D.), who won the NRA’s endorsement despite running in one of the highest-profile races of that midterm. She opposed same-sex marriage and voted against the ACA.
She lost that race narrowly, and Democrats have barely competed there since. The coalition lost more than half its membership from 2010, and GOP-dominated redistricting two years later left their ranks in the teens for most of this decade.
In 2016, Democrats struggled to find someone to run against Rep. John L. Mica (R-Fla.). Murphy had never run for office but had begun to get involved with local Democrats and helped the recruiting effort.
She was raised in Northern Virginia and received a master’s degree from Georgetown University’s Foreign Service program and served as an analyst at the Defense Department before settling in the Orlando suburbs with her husband. After the Pulse nightclub shooting, Murphy jumped into the race, juggling campaigning and her teaching job at a local college.
She skewered Mica for taking NRA donations in the days after the mass shooting and ran against the powerful gun rights organization. She narrowly won but quickly turned into a political powerhouse, winning reelection last month by more than 15 percentage points.
Now she is taking charge of an organization that was pretty much founded by the good old boys and is presenting a completely different vision for the group.
It is no longer conservative, or even centrist, but instead, this coalition is morphing into a group of suburban and rural lawmakers from across the nation who adopt a nonpartisan, get-things-done ethos that allows them to move back and forth across the ideological spectrum.
“People are looking for somebody who’s willing to just put them first and be less about party politics and just be about getting stuff done, because they need health-care changes that lowers their cost today. They can’t wait for the utopian solution,” Murphy said.